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The Artful Dickens: The Tricks and Ploys of the Great Novelist

von John Mullan

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Dickens lovers, rejoice. This is a delicious wallow in everything we love about CD: names, idiolect, comedy / tragedy / poignancy, with the added pleasure of a literary guide looking hard at just how he pulled it all off in how he chose, ordered, and played with words, and sharing the secrets with us. I've read nearly all of Dickens multiple times, and Mullan managed to startle me with his observations. For example: I'm used to the writers' workshops, writing coaches, and literary advisors commanding us to "Use active verbs!" Yes, well, let's look at the opening page of Bleak House, the famous London fog. 384 words, and not a single finite verb. Really?! I pulled my copy off the shelf... yep. CD is not "describing London, he is plunging us into it." I had actually noticed the switching back and forth between present and past tenses in the same novel, but Mullan points out that not only had that never been done before Dickens, but that readers and critics at the time *didn't even notice it.* He was that good.

Chapters detail CD's use of curious comparative phrases ("as if...") to throw a new angle on a character or situation. Dickens relied a lot on the sense of smell for description (Alice McDermot in her recent What About the Baby? complains writers rarely do this - she should read this chapter!). The chapter on Dickens's famous character-names goes on too long, perhaps becoming too much of a prosy list (from which he omits any mention of my cat's name, Smike); similarly, the chapter on Speaking is rambling and covers territory we fans probably know well already. He is at his best when he shows us Dickens "breaking the rules": re-using cliches, changing tenses, inventing new (and yet perfect!) words, and simply playing with sentences, expressions, conventions, and expectations that result in somersaulting imagery, laughter, tension, comedy, horror, and tears. Readers who already know Dickens well will likely get the most out of all of it, recognizing our favorites, enlightened in new ways to familiar parts. Best of all, Mullan equipped this reader with some heightened awareness of techniques that I can apply to anything else I read, not just Dickens.

For readers less familiar with Dickens, Mullan's surefooted scamper across multiple massive novels, plots, and people may be a bit dizzying, and often jumps from one to another without apparent order. It may be confusing to sort out the Pickwicks, Podsnaps, and Pecksniffs, Grangers and Gradgrinds, Carker and Quilp - like being at a really big party where you only know a few people. But it's still a great party. Thanks to John Mullan for inviting us. ( )
  JulieStielstra | Oct 24, 2021 |
This book is a nonfiction book about Charlies Dickens, and his novels. It's about why Dickens' books were and are so loved, and how creative and clever he was as a writer, even though critics often have a lot of negatives to say about his novels. The book is made up of thirteen different essays, each one focused on a different topic. The book is predominantly engaging, although occasionally a little dry. It's a lot more academic than I had expected from reading the blurb. There's a close analysis of his books, lots of quotes, comparisons to other novelists of the time, and quotes from his drafts and notes that show his writing process. It also includes his own words about his writing, from a collection of his letters. At times, it's like seeing into his mind even though he's been dead for so long. It's really quite fascinating. The book is extensively referenced, as well.

The book has some tantalising insights into Dickens' mind and how he worked and wrote. It shows how he developed as a writer over the course of his career, from his very first novel to his final unfinished work. He was creative and inventive, constantly improving his methods and exploring new techniques. This book opened my eyes to some of the more fantastical elements of his works. There are also discussions on his clever use of cliches, his innovative uses of language, and how he chose the names for his incredibly memorable characters.

I have read a fair number of Dickens' novels. I found the parts of this book that talked about books I had already read the most interesting, but also, reading about books I haven't yet read made me excited to read them. This is not really a book to dip in and out of for trivia, more something to absorb and think about. It's probably most interesting to people who are big Dickens fans, or who are interested in literature. ( )
  crimsonraider | Apr 1, 2021 |
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