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My Favourite Planet > Blogs > Edwin Drood's Column > November 2010
back Edwin Drood's Column
30 November 2010
Never the Twain shall meet
In which Edwin survives the battle of Waterloo, a wade through the sewers and some
of the dullest “speechifying” this side of the Iliad and still has a fantastic read.

Sooner or later you get around to them, the classics. Sooner or later it is time to read everything by Austen, Dickens, Hardy, Elliot and Steinbeck, then go to work on Tristram Shandy, Tom Jones, Vanity Fair, War and Peace, Les Misérables, Crime and punishment, Anna Karenina, Doctor Zhivago, Madame Bovary, The tin drum, 100 years of solitude, The Great Gatsby, Lord of the rings (really? - well, yes, because it’s a very big, multi-faceted book, or books, featuring over-arching themes of honour and sacrifice, jealousy and treachery, all the panoply of good and evil, major and minor plotlines, covering the essential bases, plus it packs an epic punch and is about small people with hairy feet), The Invisible Man, Gone with the wind, Huckleberry Finn, Catch 22, On the road, Lolita, The sound and the fury, Ulysses, The Odyssey, The Mabinigion, Gormenghast, Le morte d’Arthur, Canterbury tales, Watership down ...
Let “kid’s lit” join the pantheon
Watership down? Well, yes, you see it’s big, it’s multi-faceted, it’s got the over-arching themes of honour and sacrifice, jealousy and treachery, all the panoply of good and evil, major and minor plotlines, it covers the essential bases, packs an epic punch and it’s about rabbits. And if I can have the rabbit book, then why not all the other great children’s literature: Pooh, Alice, The Borrowers, The midnight folk, Momo, The Otterbury incident, all the Earthsea books, A wrinkle in time, the Greene Knowe books, Stig of the dump, the Narnia books, Tom’s midnight garden, His dark materials trilogy, Minnow on the Say, Thomas the tank engine, The railway children ... in fact, everything by E. Nesbit, TH White, RL Stevenson, Erich Kästner, Alan Garner. I could go on and on and on. Anyone and everyone, old and young, can have a library of classics now, and a truly serious one, in these days of iPads and Kindles.

Mark Twain once said that a classic is a book everybody praises but nobody reads. In his day that might have been largely true, since half of what was considered classic was pretty boring much of the time (Pope, Bunyan, Beowulf, Virgil and the like) but since then, so many very readable books, both recent and established, have become classics: page-turners like Gone with the Wind or Bonfire of the vanities, brilliant cabinets of mirrored confusion like The Magus, socio-political satires by Orwell and everything by Aldous Huxley or Evelyn Waugh, not to mention the weird and the wonderful (Poe, Joyce, O’Brian, Banks, Eggers), that reading them has become synonymous with delight and entertainment of the highest order rather than the dull chore it used to be back in Tom Brown’s day.
Two old gents in rocking chairs
This year the world is celebrating Twain and Tolstoy. I’d love to get those two old men together, the one in his wrinkled alpaca suit, the other in his patriarchal robe, on the veranda of either an Ante Bellum mansion or a dacha somewhere in the summer birch forests south of Moscow. What would the spiritualist and moralizer have to say to the atheist curmudgeon? What would the journalist and humorist have to say to the man who exiled himself from the world of all that is light-hearted and contemporary to die in poverty and self-denial? What would the mystic say to the practical engineer? What would the Mississippi Gent turned Connecticut Yankee say to the man from the great heartland? Between them they characterize all that is most typical of their respective nations, which might very well be the reason why they never met and, if they had, would have found little to say to one another. Yet both were sticklers for the truth. Both were gadflies of the state. Both were friends to the common people and enemies, at least nominally, of all that is pompous, excessive, flippant and self-aggrandizing.

But there are two other men I’d like to bring together, though for a very different reason. I would not ask Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo to sit together on a veranda and reminisce. I’d sit them down at a work station and ask the former, please, pretty please, to edit, even rewrite, the latter. Don’t get me wrong, Victor Hugo is a great author: very French, in the finest sense of the word. He is loyal, patriotic, idealist and a fine story-teller, but he does go on a bit, a lot more than a bit, in fact. Having just finished all three volumes of Les Misérables in the original I know what I’m talking about. Good idea to make a musical of it. Bet it works a lot better than the books. Keep it under two hours, have everyone singing and waving flags and you’re sure to get all those bums off their seats by the last refrain. But as a work of literature, it needs a good editor and a rewrite. And as an editor, it needs Charles Dickens (a writer, by the way, for whom I feel a strange and inexplicable affinity).
What they left out of the musical
Taken page for page, book for book, Hugo’s vast edifice can never match the sheer drive, the dark menace, the enormity and weight, the hurtling, horrible destiny, the utter ‘un-put-down-able-ness’ of Dombey and Son (to choose a major work of Dickens that deals with many, if not all of the themes found in “Les Miz”). Despite some absolutely stunning writing and some terrific set-pieces, our Victor keeps getting bogged down in unnecessary, turgid detail, just where he should keep us turning those pages. The result is that we do, indeed, turn them, but by the dozen, until we find the next mention of something or someone that interests us.

To take a couple of examples: the author gives us six chapters on the Battle of Waterloo just to set a scene in which a plunderer of the dead and wounded saves a cavalry colonel, after having robbed him, by dragging him from his grave under hundreds of mangled bodies. In another sequence he literally makes his readers wade through a thirty page history of the Paris sewers (very interesting, of course, but ...) in order to establish the brilliant scene in which Jean Valjean carries the wounded Marius away from the massacre at the barricade to home and safety through several miles of effluent. A two or three paragraph excursion would have drawn us the sketch we needed.

Victor Hugo’s characters, even those who are going to be given the shortest shrift of a bullet through the throat in a page or two and are of no particular importance to the plot, are allowed to hold forth at great length on the history of the Athenian State, French political philosophy, German poetry, wine, or the relative merits of various types of horse-drawn artillery. Even those who talk very little (Valjean, our “hero” is a man of few words, thank God) are given the unfortunate benefit of having their every change of thought and humour, their every moment of melancholy or mirth scanned and set down in the most eloquent of terms, while the more loquacious protagonists (and there are quite a few too many of them) are allowed to reminisce for pages at a time on the profile of a woman they once saw at the opera, or a plate of oysters, or how to carry off a wedding according to the best principles of royalist Vieux France as opposed to the codes of second empire bourgeoisie.

People soliloquise before committing a crime, climbing a wall, buying a loaf of bread or calling a cab. The author cannot even let a vignette of his beloved Paris: a lamplighter, an urchin, a tinker, an actress, a petty criminal, a lonely policeman – pass us by without giving a complete history of the type from Henri III to Louis Napoleon. He’s the 19th century’s version of Wikipedia, all wrapped up in a single man. No wonder they exiled him to Guernsey. The Charles Dickens re-write of Les Misérables would be everything that A Tale of two cities was, plus a basketload more. It would be a marriage made in the seventh heaven of literature. It would still be a big book, still distinctly French, but 850 pages, not 1850. People would re-read it rather than find themselves saying: “Amazing stuff, Victor, really amazing, but never again. Sorry, I’d rather watch the laundry than sit through another page of Monsieur Gillenormand, however funny he sometimes manages to be.”

Dickens would never just knock his more interesting characters on the head and forget them, nor let them wander out of the narrative without any kind of real follow-up, neither would he create such a wonderful villain as Thenardier without giving him his comeuppance or at the least, a scene in which he is confronted by the rich and beautiful baroness that his former child victim has now become. Dickens would never let such a character as Inspector Javert go without him casting the shadow of his long arm and obsessive rectitude right down to the last chapter. Dickens would never have dealt either as heroically as cruelly or, finally, as wastefully with his Artful Dodger as Hugo does with the wonderful Gavroche and, when all is said and done, Dickens would tie up all his loose ends: let us see Marius and Cosette’s daughter hold her “Grandpa’s” hand, let the waifs from the Jardin de Luxembourg at least find some shelter, or maybe a home at last with Cosette, their ‘almost half-sister’, and Marius, their ‘almost cousin’.

And finally, even Dickens, with his famed inability to write realistic “good” female leads, would surely not have turned lively little Cosette from a fascinating, tough and competent kid into a totally airheaded, ultra-blond, submissive bimbo in the space of a few chapters and a year or two of convent education ... or was this effect of adolescence really just as prevalent in the mid 19th century as it is now? Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose: sad really.

© Edwin Drood, November 2010
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