Phiz illustration for Dombey and Son
Q. What are your favorite Dickenses?
A. I do not like A Tale of Two Cities because it is the one Dickens novel, aside from A Christmas Carol, that everyone’s read, and I resolved as a young boy to sneer at the popular taste, haughtily confining myself to Nicholas Nickleby (boring) and all the Tarzan and John Carter of Mars books by Edgar Rice Burroughs. So I openly detested Oliver Twist (though I secretly enjoyed it). I openly liked Great Expectations (also A Tale of Two Cities, to be honest, but incognito) and David Copperfield, which is the model for anyone who has no life but feels compelled to write an autobiography. From “I am born…” it just pulls you along relentlessly. But of that genre, Moby Dick is unequalled.
I forced myself to like, nay, love Pickwick Papers because my father shouted at me that it is a comic masterpiece that only a dolt won’t be in stitches over. (God, I have led a very tense life.)
My favorites are Bleak House because it is unrelievedly bleak (It seemed like it was written by Wilkie Collins) and masterfully so. I remember the bleakness, which I was very much into. You had to read this novel, about the victim-clients of Jarndyce & Jarndyce, the solicitors in charge of an endlessly embattled estate, if you took law at Harvard because exam questions would be framed in the context of its plot (like The Spoils of Poynton by Henry James, whose plot details you should have mastered or you wouldn’t be able to tease out the Corporation Law question).
Then there is the greatest sad novel ever written, Dombey & Son, which is about Dombey whose entrepreneurial ambitions must be dashed ironically on the feeble rock of a too-sensitive and febrile son and heir, so endearing that… Well, I have forgotten the story, but this one I recall not in my mind but in my chest. The book felt from start to finish like my heart was being gently but relentlessly pulled, stretched out of my chest until it popped out at the end and I cried without achieving any sense of completion in my grief.
Twenty years later Alexander Solzhenitsyn just happened to mention that he thought Dombey & Son the greatest novel ever written, an opinion shared by no one else but me, lucky him. Dombey’s son, Paul I think, is somewhat like Hanno Buddenbrook, the sole feeble heir of the Hanseatic business house in Thomas Mann, but about Hanno you couldn’t care less. He was tiresomely tired and would eventually die, as did Dombey’s son.
Teddy Boy Locsin tells you what the Dickens to read, our column today in the Philippine Star.