Monday, January 16, 2006

Charles Dickens, Barnaby Rudge

It feels like it has taken me almost a year to read this book. In truth, it's taken me since late-September to get through this thing, for various reasons. But part of the blame must rest with the book itself which, for as much as I love Dickens's work, is rough going.

In a nutshell, Dickens's fifth novel is the story behind the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots of 1780, a sprawling week-long uprising that devastated portions of London and its neighboring countryside and led to a conflagration that destroyed most of the then newly built Newgate Prison. While it's considered a historical novel in the same way A Tale of Two Cities is "historical," Dickens focuses on mostly a variety of fictional characters who populate the tale, making this a work of historical fiction.

To be honest, the first half of the book is woefully dull and unhumorous, completely unlike any other Boz novel in that regard, and you read three hundred pages and it feels like a thousand because, try as you might, there are few characters you can grasp onto and enjoy -- even in their villainy. But the second half of the novel? It moves like gangbusters, and suddenly the reader is thrust into the heat of the riots, some humorous exchanges take place, a public execution is described beautifully (Dickens waxes poetic when it comes to blood and gore!), and you begin to care about the characters (as well as see how all that initial 300-page meanering falls into place!).

One Dickens scholar described this novel as akin to the "problem plays" of Shakespeare, which I can see. The character of Barnaby himself is an "idiot" (much like Faulkner's Benjy Compson) who occupies very little narrative space, all things considered. And while there are scattered examples of the stylistic flourishes Dickens will perfect in subsequent novels, the overall writing lacks that certain "flair" of excitement he invests in his other works. I suspect this is partly due to the circumstances under which this particular novel was written (i.e., it was planned a few years earlier to be his second novel, but became the reason for a battle with his publishers that, once settled, probably left Dickens with a bitter taste in his mouth anyways).

I recommend this book, but only to the die-hard Dickensians.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

William Shakespeare, The Two Noble Kinsmen and Geoffrey Chaucer, "The Knight's Tale" (from The Canterbury Tales)

Here is this year's selection for the "Obscure Shakespeare Play Reading Group," which will promptly meet tomorrow afternoon at the Irish Times to discuss the work.

The Two Noble Kinsmen -- which is Shakespeare's final play and a collaborative effort with his contemporary playwright, John Fletcher -- is a Jacobean retelling of Chaucer's "The Knight's Tale": Arcite and Palamon, the eponymous kinsmen and subjects of Thebean monarch Creon, are wounded in battle when Theseus, the Duke of Athens, battles Thebean forces to honor the dead to whom Creon refuses proper burial. Taken prisoner but mercifully nursed back to health, the two kinsmen cast eyes upon the lovely Emilia from afar and immediately voice their love for her, which results in a rift between the two and subsequent animosity. They fight (nobly, I might add) and, by play's conclusion, one gets the girl (though not who you might think) and one gets mourned. A gross over-simplification of the plot, admittedly, but that's it in a nutshell.

Like last year's selection of Coriolanus, this is in my opinion an incredibly underrated Shakespeare play. Part of the problem here, I suspect, is that this is one work that critics and scholars generally agree was a collaboration, and that is perhaps off-putting for the Shakespeare "purists" (of which I proudly assert that I, too, am). Nevertheless, it's a surprisingly well-paced and unified work of literature despite the fact that it is a collaboration between two authors of such differing ages and talents. I also get the impression that this play makes the most sense to a reader when s/he has read all the other plays and The Two Noble Kinsmen is the last to read, because so much of the play harkens back to previous plays and motifs within them: the Jailer's Daughter's madness over unrequited love reminded me of Ophelia in Hamlet; Emilia's contemplation of the two kinsmen via their "pictures" recalls Hamlet's bedroom discussion with Gertrude over the "counterfeit presentiment of two brothers" (Act III, Scene vi); the Schoolmaster's play-within-a-play is reminiscent of, among others, Hamlet and A Midsummer Night's Dream; the list goes on and on, and while reading the play I noticed momentary glimpses of characters and situations and scenes from Coriolanus, Twelfth Night, Love's Labor's Lost, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Titus Andronicus, and even Macbeth. Fittingly, this is a play often placed at the conclusion of Shakespeare anthologies (I also occasionally read from The Riverside Shakespeare).

I had never read Chaucer's "The Knight's Tale" (or, if I did back in high school, I didn't remember it), but in this case I read it after having read the Shakespeare play to sort of fill in gaps for whatever I found confusing, or to help me get a sense of what Shakespeare (and Fletcher) added to the storyline. Who would have thought I could use Chaucer as Cliff's Notes?! Ha!!

I enjoyed the play, and look forward to discussing it with Al, Mike, and Ben tomorrow.

Happy New Year, dear reader!