Italo Calvino on Charles Dickens

Italo Calvino on Charles Dickens’s last novel Our Mutual Friend. Essay from Why Read the Classics?:

The Thames at nightfall, dark and muddy, with the tide rising up the piers of the bridges: against this backdrop, which this year’s news stories have brought to our attention in the most lugubrious light, a boat approaches, almost touching the floating logs, barges and rubbish. At its prow stands a man staring with vulture-like eyes at the current as though looking for something; at the oars, half-hidden by the hood of her cheap cloak, is a girl with an angelic face. What are they looking for? We soon learn that the man recovers the corpses of suicides or murder victims who have been flung into the river: the waters of the Thames seem to contain every day a rich catch for this particular fisherman. As soon as he sees a corpse floating on the water’s surface, the man removes the gold coins from his pockets, and then drags him with a rope to a riverside police station, where he will receive a reward. The angelic girl, the daughter of the boatman, tries not to look at this macabre booty: she is terrified, but continues to row.

The openings of Dickens’ novels are often memorable, but none is better than the first chapter of Our Mutual Friend, the second last novel he wrote, and the last one he completed. Carried along on the corpse-fisher’s boat, we seem to enter the dark side of the world.

In the second chapter everything changes. We are now surrounded by characters out of a comedy of manners, attending a dinner-party at the house of parvenus where everyone pretends to be old friends but in fact they barely know each other. However, before the chapter ends the guests’ conversation suddenly turns to the mystery of a man who drowned just as he was about to inherit a vast fortune, and this takes us back to the suspense of the opening chapter.

The huge inheritance is that of the late king of rubbish, an extremely greedy old man whose house still stands in the London suburbs next to a field dotted with huge piles of rubbish. We continue to move in that sinister world of detritus to which the opening chapter had introduced us by way of the river. All the other scenes in the novel, tables set out sparkling with silver, sleeked ambitions, tangles of interest and speculation, are nothing but thin screens covering the desolate substance of this apocalyptic world.

The custodian of the Golden Dustman’s fortune is his former labourer. Boffin, one of Dickens’ great comic characters, particularly for the pompous air with which he preens himself, whereas the only experience he has ever had has been one of abject poverty and limitless ignorance. (He is a likeable character, all the same: he and his wife possess both human warmth and kind intentions. Subsequently, in the course of the novel, he becomes greedy and selfish, but in the end he is once more shown to have a heart of gold.) Suddenly finding himself rich, the illiterate Boffin can give free rein to his repressed enthusiasm for culture, buying the eight volumes of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (a title which he can barely make out, so that instead of Roman he reads Rooshan and thinks it is about the Russian Empire). Accordingly he employs a beggar with a wooden leg. Silas Wegg, as his ‘man of letters’, to read to him in the evening. After Gibbon, Boffin, who is now obsessed by the fear of losing his riches, searches the bookshops for lives of famous misers, and has these read to him by his trusted ‘man of letters’.

The irrepressible Boffin and the shady Silas Wegg form an extraordinary twosome, and they are joined by Mr Venus, by trade an embalmer and someone who makes human skeletons using bones which he has found lying around: Wegg asks him to make him a leg out of real bones to replace his wooden one. In this wasteland milieu, inhabited by clown-like and ghostly characters, Dickens’ world becomes before our eyes the world of Samuel Beckett: in the black humour of Dickens’ late works we can discern a definite foretaste of Beckett.

Of course the darkness in Dickens always contrasts with the light, even though nowadays it is the ‘darker’ aspects that stand out more in our reading of him. The light usually radiates from young girls who are all the more virtuous and kind-hearted the more steeped they are in a kind of black hell. This emphasis on virtue is the hardest thing to take for modern readers of Dickens. Of course, Dickens as a man had no more direct access to virtue than we have, but the Victorian mentality found in his novels not only the faithful exemplification of its ideals but almost the founding images of its own mythology. And even though we maintain that for us the real Dickens is to be found only in his personifications of evil and in his grotesque caricatures, it would still be impossible to ignore his angelic victims and consoling presences: without the one kind of character the other would not exist. We have to regard both as structural elements which relate to each other, like supporting walls and beams of the same solid building.

Even amongst the ‘goodies’ Dickens can create unusual, unconventional figures, like the bizarre trio in this novel comprising a dwarf girl, full of sarcasm and wisdom, Lizzie who is angelic both in her face and in her heart, and a Jew with his beard and gaberdine. Wise little Jenny Wren, who makes dolls’ clothes, who can only move on crutches, and who transforms all the negative elements in her life into flights of fancy which are never cloying, is one of Dickens’ most captivating and humorous characters. And Riah the Jew, employed by a sordid racketeer, Lammle (who terrorises and insults him and at the same time uses his name to act as money-lender, while continuing to pretend to be a respectable and fairminded person), tries to counteract the evil which he is forced to carry out by secredy lavishing his gifts on one and all, like the charitable spirit he is. This provides a perfect illustration of anti-Semitism, the mechanism through which a hypocritical society feels the need to create an image of the Jew on which to offload its own vices. This Riah is such a mild-mannered man that he could almost be thought a coward except that when he is at the nadir of his misfortunes he manages to create a space in which he can be free and seek revenge, along with the other two outcasts, especially following the active advice of the dolls’ dressmaker (she too is angelic, but capable of inflicting on the odious Lammle a diabolical punishment).

This space for good is represented in physical terms by a terrace on the roof of a seedy pawnshop, in the middle of the squalor of the City, where Riah provides the two girls with material for dolls’ dresses, beads, books, flowers and fruit, whilst ‘the encompassing wilderness of dowager old chimneys twirled their cowls and fluttered their smoke, rather as if they were bridling, and fanning themselves, and looking on in a state of airy surprise’.

In Our Mutual Friend there is room for an urban romance and a comedy of manners, but also for complex and even tragic characters such as Bradley Headstone, a former labourer who as soon as he becomes a schoolmaster is overtaken by an obsession for social climbing and status which becomes a form of diabolical possession. We follow him first as he falls in love with Lizzie, then as his jealousy becomes a fanatical obsession, and we watch his meticulous planning and execution of a crime, before subsequendy seeing him condemned to go over all its details in his mind, even when he is teaching his pupils: ‘As he paused with his piece of chalk at the blackboard before writing on it, he was thinking of the spot, and whether the water was not deeper and the fall straighter, a little higher up, or a little lower down. He had half a mind to draw a line or two upon the board, and show himself what he meant.’

Our Mutual Friend was written in 1864—65, Crime and Punishment in 1865—66. Dostoevsky was an admirer of Dickens, but could not have read this novel. Pietro Citati says, in his excellent essay on Dickens (in his Il Migliore dei Mondi Impossibili, Rizzoli): ‘The strange providence which governs literature decreed that in the very years when Dostoevsky was writing Crime and Punishment, Dickens was unconsciously trying to rival his distant pupil, in writing the episode of Bradley Headstone’s crime. … If Dostoevsky had read this part, he would surely have found sublime this last passage about the drawing on the blackboard.’

Citati’s title The Best of All Impossible Worlds was taken from the twentieth-century writer who most admired Dickens, G. K. Chesterton. He wrote a whole book on Dickens as well as the introductions to many of his novels for the ‘Everyman’s Library’ series. In the introduction to Our Mutual Friend Chesterton starts by quibbling about the tide: ‘Our common friend’ means something in English (as does ‘il nostro comune amico’ in Italian); but ‘our mutual friend’, ‘our reciprocal friend’, what on earth can that mean? One could answer Chesterton by pointing out that the expression appears for the first time in the mouth of Boffin, whose English is always faulty, and that, even though the title’s connection with the substance of the novel is not very obvious, nevertheless the theme of friendship, true or false, vaunted or concealed, twisted or tried and tested, is there on every page. But after condemning the title’s linguistic impropriety. Chesterton announces that he likes the title precisely because of it. Dickens had never had a regular education and had never been a sophisticated man of letters; but it is for this very reason that Chesterton likes him, or rather likes him when he is himself, not when he tries to be something different. Chesterton’s predilection for Our Mutual Friend is also for a Dickens who has returned to his origins, after various efforts to improve himself and to display his aristocratic tastes.

Although Chesterton has been the strongest champion of Dickens’ literary stature in the twentieth century, I feel that his essay on Our Mutual Friend betrays an element of condescension, as the refined writer looks down on the popular novelist.

As far as I am concerned, Our Mutual Friend is an unqualified masterpiece, both in its plot and in the way it is written. As examples of writing, I will mention not only the rapid similes which crisply define a character or situation (‘with an immense obtuse drab oblong face, like a face in a tablespoon’), but also the descriptive cityscapes which are worthy of a place in any anthology of urban landscapes: ‘A grey, dusty, withered evening in London city has not a hopeful aspect. The closed warehouses and offices have an air of death about them, and the national dread of colour has an air of mourning. The towers and steeples of the many house-encompassed churches, dark and dingy as the sky that seems descending on them, are no relief to the general gloom; a sundial on a church wall has the look, in its useless black shade, of having failed in its business enterprise, and stopped payment for ever; melancholy waifs and strays of housekeepers and porters sweep melancholy waifs and strays of papers and pins into the kennels, and other more melancholy waifs and strays explore them, searching and stooping and poking for anything to sell.’

These last quotations [in Calvino's original Italian essay] were taken from the Italian translation in Einaudi’s ‘Struzzi’ series, but my first quote above, about the chimneys, came from the version by Filippo Donini in Garzanti’s ‘I Grandi Libri’ series. Donini’s translation seems to reflect the book’s spirit more accurately in some of the more subde passages, even though it is more old-fashioned in other respects, such as the Italianisation of first names. In that quotation it was a question of rendering the gap between the humble pleasures of the terrace and the chimneys of the City, which were seen as haughty ‘nobili dame’ (dowagers): in Dickens no descriptive detail is ever otiose, rather it is always an integral part of the dynamics of the story.

One other reason why this novel is considered a masterpiece is its highly complex portrait of society and of its class conflict. On this point there is agreement between the two introductions to the Italian translations: both in Piergiorgio Bellocchio’s perceptive and intelligent preface to the Garzanti edition, and in Arnold Kettle’s introduction to the Einaudi version, which concentrates entirely on this class aspect. Kettle s polemic is directed against George Orwell who in a famous ‘class’ analysis of Dickens’ novels proved that for Dickens the target was not so much the evils of society as the evils of human nature.

[1982]

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