Charles Dickens is dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker and the chief mourner. Old Dickens is as dead as a door-nail.
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.
Mind! I don't mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of iron-mongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the country's done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Dickens is as dead as a door-nail.
And in this repurposing of the opening lines of "A Christmas Carol," we find nearly everything necessary to explain why Dickens, who died in 1870, remains so irrepressibly alive to us.
Of this, too, there is no doubt whatever. The man is unstoppable. His works endure wherever books — including, yes, e-books — are sold, their currency refreshed at regular intervals by book clubs (including that of Oprah Winfrey, who once goosed sales of "Great Expectations" and "A Tale of Two Cities") and adaptations for the stage, film and television.
These include Broadway's "Nicholas Nickleby" and the Goodman Theatre's annual "A Christmas Carol," as well as small- and big-screen versions of almost all his novels, the recent excellent "Masterpiece Classic" interpretations of "Bleak House" and "Little Dorrit" among them.
Director Mike Newell's take on "Great Expectations," starring Ralph Fiennes as Magwitch and Helena Bonham Carter as the spectral Miss Havisham, opened in limited release Nov. 9. Fiennes also stars as Dickens himself in the upcoming "The Invisible Woman," about the middle-aged author's affair with the scandalously young actress Nelly Ternan.
But the influence of The Inimitable, as Dickens sometimes referred to himself with characteristic immodesty (though not, as it happens, strict accuracy), extends well beyond his stories. It spilled fulsomely onto the pages of many of his friends, including Wilkie Collins ("The Woman in White"), Edward Bulwer-Lytton ("The Last Days of Pompeii") and Elizabeth Gaskell ("Cranford"), among others.
Today, Dickens' legacy is still legible in the work of contemporary novelists on both sides of the Atlantic. Interviewing authors for Printers Row Journal and other publications, I've been struck by how frequently and prominently Dickens figures in discussions of their literary lineage. Many contemporary novelists encountered Dickens at an early age, stumbling upon complete sets of his novels such as the cheap but sturdy Cleartype Edition of 1936, which claims pride of place on my own bookshelves. Writers as different as Martin Amis and Chicago's Scott Turow have spoken to me of the tidal pull of Dickens on their imaginations; so, more recently, have Elizabeth Gilbert and Donna Tartt, whose current best-sellers ("The Signature of All Things" and "The Goldfinch," respectively) display their Dickensian affinities like badges of honor.
"He's my role model in all things writing, and in this book in particular," Gilbert said in these pages. "The thing I love about Dickens, and was trying to emulate, is the omniscient, omnipotent narrator, and the great confidence of the narrator, which marks 19th-century novelists in general and Dickens in particular. Dickens often has these very exuberant narrators, who convey the sense that 'Not only do I know what I'm doing, and we're going to go on an adventure — it's going to be a terrific adventure.'"
"The Signature of All Things" is decidedly un-Dickensian in at least one respect; it deals frankly and even explicitly with sex, something the prudish Dickens would never have done, even if Victorian mores had allowed such a thing. But echoes of his avuncular, confiding voice are audible throughout. "How her father came to be in possession of such great wealth is a story worth telling here while we wait for the girl to grow up and catch our interest again," Gilbert's narrator says of the child who will become her heroine, Alma Whittaker.
In her more formally composed, one might even say Dickensian way, Tartt was even more effusive. "There are many reasons to love Dickens, but I particularly love him because he's such a magnificently capacious and versatile writer — gripping storyteller, gorgeous stylist, with such a vibrant command of metaphor and character," she wrote in an email interview. "As a novelist, in terms of technique, there's nothing he doesn't do well. He's got great intelligence but also has great heart. He's unruly, predictable, chaotic, exciting. And in that sense he's inexhaustibly new and inspiring, like Shakespeare. His worlds are big and all-encompassing; he always has something new and surprising to tell us."
Tartt's authorial voice in "The Goldfinch" is not much beholden to her literary patriarch, but there are whiffs of his characters' distinctive locutions. Consider, for example, the droll speech patterns of Mr. Barbour, the absently solicitous, somewhat dotty Manhattanite whose family takes in the story's young hero, Theo Decker, after the boy's mother dies in a terrorist bombing at a museum.
His pale gaze darted around the room, and then returned to me. "Perhaps it's incorrect of me, but in the circumstances I wouldn't see the harm in pouring you what my father used to call a minor nip. If you should want such a thing. Which of course you don't," he added hastily, noting my confusion. "Quite unsuitable. Never mind."
Is it unfair to describe Mr. Barbour as a cousin, once or twice removed, of Mr. Dick Babley, the delightfully deranged companion of Aunt Betsey Trotwood, who lacks sufficient strength of character to keep the donkeys off Miss Trotwood's lawn in "David Copperfield" but is in most other respects awfully good company? I can't think so.
Theo's friend Boris is a Slavic rascal who speaks in nothing like Victorian English, but there's something about his cheerful gregariousness, especially in times of great stress, that may remind close readers of any number of Dickens' loquacious thugs; think of Fagin in "Oliver Twist," Quilp in "The Old Curiosity Shop" or Steerforth in "David Copperfield."The semi-orphaned Theo himself is descended from a platoon of Dickensian heroes: Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, David Copperfield and, especially, Pip of "Great Expectations." Like Pip's, Theo's destiny is to wander, absent a strong parental influence, through an urban landscape booby-trapped with moral, ethical and legal pitfalls around every corner. Like Pip, he enjoys the financial support of benefactors whose largesse breeds a self-indulgence that in turn leads him to make bad decisions, including those involving a certain beautiful young woman — whose name, in one of Tartt's sly nods in Dickens' direction, is Pippa.
The American author who owes the most to Dickens, and who has acknowledged that debt in various settings, is John Irving. From his early best-seller "The World According to Garp" (1978) to his most recent novel, "In One Person" (2012), Irving has constructed a body of work that, like Dickens', features vivid characters and suspenseful, often labyrinthine plots. Orphans, or near-orphans, are often given starring roles, although the supporting characters are often more interesting and memorable. We may recall surprisingly little about the heroes of "Martin Chuzzlewit," "Nicholas Nickleby" or "Our Mutual Friend," but who can forget the drunken nurse Mrs. Gamp in "Chuzzlewit," the showman Vincent Crummles in "Nickleby," or the nouveau-riche dustman Noddy Boffin in "Friend"?
Irving lacks Dickens' arguably excessive commitment to social criticism in his fiction. "Sometimes he bangs the drum more than he writes the book," Irving told National Public Radio in 2004. But he wholeheartedly adopts, and adapts for his contemporary purposes, Dickens' generosity of spirit, his embrace of melodrama and coincidence, his flair for comedy and his enthusiasm for giving villains the comeuppances they so richly deserve.
In one of the most perversely enjoyable passages in all of Irving's work, Ruth Cole, the heroine of "A Widow for One Year" (1998), takes a coldly ferocious vengeance on Scott Saunders, a sexy but arrogant lawyer who, after she defeats him at squash, rapes and punches her. In response, she beats him all but senseless with his own squash racquet while reciting the "humiliating litany" of their game scores: "Fifteen-eight, fifteen-six, fifteen-nine, fifteen-five, fifteen-one!"
This juxtaposition of macabre humor with physical danger, including bouts of violence and death, is also typical of Dickens. As early as "Oliver Twist," Dickens was killing off some of his most beloved characters, as in the hulking Bill Sikes' fatal bludgeoning of the prostitute Nancy, sandwiched between scenes of high comedy. This could be said to have influenced detective fiction (including its cinematic offspring, film noir), graphic novels and a host of other genres.
Which brings us back to that opening passage of "A Christmas Carol" and the wicked pleasure it takes in the contemplation of the demise of old Joseph Marley, the not-so-dearly departed former partner of the tale's famous protagonist, Ebenezer Scrooge. Here are all the hallmarks that have made Dickens perhaps the best-read and most beloved novelist in history: the narrative confidence; the cheerful humor in the face of ultimate doom (that hilariously much-parsed door-nail); and less obviously, though no less importantly, a vision of the individual as interconnected to the larger human community ("the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker and the chief mourner") even in death.
In Dickens' world, we are all part of a vast system in which we are helplessly, sometimes hopelessly embroiled. Each of Dickens' novels is a portrait not just of a set of characters but of the world that created them, affectionately or pitilessly, and in which they move, returning those feelings in kind.
Perhaps his brand of social realism is not much respected nowadays in certain corners of the academy or, for that matter, in contemporary politics, where its reformist and communitarian messages might be unwelcome. But from his tomb in Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey, Dickens persists in speaking to us — telling us tales and jokes, making us laugh and cry, reminding us how we should behave toward one another. And we, his chief mourners, are listening still.
Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance writer and photographer. Twitter: @KevinNance1.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun