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NabokovOnBleakHouse

The edition of Charles Dickens's Bleak House that I'm currently reading includes excerpts from Vladimir Nabokov's Lectures on Literature that discuss the classic novel. One insightful, poetic Nabokovian observation appears after he showcases examples of Dickensian "bursts of vivid imagery":

Some readers may suppose that such things as these evocations are trifles not worth stopping at; but literature consists of such trifles. Literature consists, in fact, not of general ideas but of particular revelations, not of schools of thought but of individuals of genius. Literature is not about something: it is the thing itself, the quiddity. Without the masterpiece, literature does not exist. The passage describing the harbor at Deal occurs at a point when Esther travels to the town in order to see Richard, whose attitude towards life, the strain of freakishness in his otherwise noble nature, and the dark destiny that hangs over him, trouble her and make her want to help him. Over her shoulder Dickens shows us the harbor. There are many vessels there, a multitude of boats that appear with a kind of quiet magic as the fog begins to rise. Among them, as mentioned, there is a large Indiaman, that is, a merchant ship just home from India: "when the sun shone through the clouds, making silvery pools in the dark sea. . . ." Let us pause: can we visualize that? Of course we can, and we do so with a greater thrill of recognition because in comparison to the conventional blue sea of literary tradition these silvery pools in the dark sea offer something that Dickens noted for the very first time, with the innocent and sensuous eye of the true artist, saw and immediately put into words. Or more exactly, without the words there would have been no vision; and if one follows the soft, swishing, slightly blurred sound of the sibilants in the description, one will find that the image had to have a voice too in order to live. And then Dickens goes on to indicate the way "these ships brightened, and shadowed, and changed" — and I think it is quite impossible to choose and combine any better words than he did here to render the delicate quality of shadow and silver sheen in that delightful sea view. And for those who would think that all magic is just play — pretty play — but something that can be deleted without impairing the story, let me point out that this is the story: the ship from India there, in that unique setting, is bringing, has brought, young Dr. Woodcourt back to Esther, and in fact they will meet in a moment. So that the shadowy silver view, with those tremendous pools of light and that bustle of shimmering boats, acquires in retrospect a flutter of marvelous excitement, a glorious note of welcome, a kind of distant ovation. And this is how Dickens meant his book to be appreciated.


TopicLiterature - TopicPoetry - Datetag20070626


(correlates: Emily Dickinson, AlphabeticSelfdescription, UnintendedConsequences, ...)