Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Bleak House by Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens

Bleak House
by Charles Dickens
published serially 1852-1853

    I don't think you can spend too much time on Charles Dickens.  There is a good argument that he is the second best English language Author of all time (1: Shakespeare.)  There is also a good argument that his Novels represent the high point of the Novel as an Art Form, unsurpassed by all that is to follow.

  Within his major works, David Copperfield and Bleak House stand out.  David Copperfield because it was the Authors "favorite" and contained a mass of semi-biographical material, Bleak House because it is his Artistic masterpiece, his Super Bowl season, as it were, where he sweeps all before him with a command of the form and content of his art.

  If you compare the relative popularity of David Copperfield, Bleak House, Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend, you can see some trends in Audience size that cut cross all the works from the date of publication until 2000. (1) First, all of Dickens major works were popular upon publication.  There is a steady rise in the size of the Audience between the mid 19th century and the early 20th century. There was a noticeable dip between 1910 and 1920.  After 1920 there is a more recognizable wave form, with Audience size always rising up until today. (2) Historically, David Copperfield has been the most popular Dickens titles, but all the books except Our Mutual Friend are moving jointly within a close band of popularity.(3)

  However what is interesting about the Audience reception of David Copperfield and Bleak House is the lack of appreciation, by critics, of Bleak House (and David Copperfield) as a "serious" work of Art. (4)  Today, Bleak House is widely regarded as the most interesting of Dickens books by critics & scholars, but a real breakthrough wasn't achieved until the 1950s and 60s, when a huge marketplace in books analyzing Charles Dickens arose.(5)

  Dickens wasn't fully "approved" for canonical status until the mid 20th century, but he demonstrated his staying power by maintaining popular appeal that entire time. The BBC has made Bleak House into a mini series on three separate occasions: 1959, 1985 and 2005.
Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock

        Bleak House is, "structured with a daring double narrative and centered on institutional satire, it is technically his most ambitious novel."  The two narrators are an omniscient third party narrator and Esther Summerson, the "hero" of Bleak House.  Esther is the unacknowledged daughter of the imperious Lady Dedlock (played by X-Files star Gillian Anderson in the 2005 adaptation by the BBC.)   The machinations and sub plots consume 800 pages plus in paperback, but there isn't a dull moment along the way.  No wonder it has remained so popular with readers and critics alike.

       The story is centered around the Chancery suit of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, a contest over a will that is on the verge of consuming the resources of the entire estate being litigated in Chancery Court.  Chancery Court was a special kind of Court they had in England that decided questions "in Equity," as supposed to questions that were settled at law- a will vs. a murder.  Chancery Court had a bad rap, and Dickens mercilessly destroys Chancery Court as an institution during the course of Bleak House.

Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham in Great Expectations.

   This darkness gives Bleak House a modern edge that his earlier novels, including David Copperfield, lack. The wicked portrayal of "man-child" Harold Skimpole is still relevant to the bro/lad culture of today, and Skimpole is but one of fifty richly drawn characters.

Other Posts About Charles Dickens On This Blog

Book Review:  Great Expectations by Charles Dickens11/20/14
Book Review: Dickens and His Readers: Aspects of Novel Criticism Since 1836 by George H. Ford. 3/25/13
Book Review: Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens, 3/17/13.
Book Review:  Dickens Worlds by Humphrey House, 3/8/13
Book Review: Bleak House by Charles Dickens, 9/21/12
Book Review: David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, 8/23/12
Book Review: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, 7/17/12.
Book Review: The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickelby by Charles Dickens, 6/19/12.
Book Review: Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, 6/7/12.

(1) Google Ngram David CopperfieldBleak HouseGreat Expectations and Our Mutual Friend
(2) Ibid.
(3) Ibid.
(4) Contemporary reviews of Dickens books, "illustrate a widespread assumption about the inferiority of the Novel [as an Art form.]" p. 154, Victorian Noon: English Literature in 1850 by Carl Dawson, published by The Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore 1979.)
(5) "The book's critical fortunes remained low with, for example, both George Gissing and G.K. Chesterton unimpressed, until Humphry House (1941) celebrated its vision of Victorain soceity, Lionel Stevenson identified Bleak House as the first of Dickens "dark" novels (1943), and John Butt and Kathleen Tillotson (1957) documented the topicality of the books concerns.  Since then Bleak House has attracted more critical attention than any other of Dickens works."  Oxford Reader's Companion to Dickens edited by Paul Schlicke, published by Oxford University Press (London 1999)

Thursday, September 20, 2012

On the Eve (Накану́не) by Ivan Turgenev

Ivan Turgenev

On the Eve (Накану́не)
 by Ivan Turgenev
published in 1860

  A common progression for classic 18th and19th century Novelists is a prior career writing literature besides Novels.  For example, Sir Walter Scott was well known for his verse.  Numerous Authors wrote plays before they wrote Novels.  Ivan Turgenev is another good example.  Turgenev was writing plays in the 1840s, short stories in the 1850s and Novels in the 1860s.

 If you look at his popularity among an English language Audience, it is clear that interest in Turgenev did not really pick up until the 20th century began.  If you look at what was happening in terms of criticism of Turgenev, it's easy to point to the publication of the 13 volume complete works of Ivan Turgenev in English, with a foreward by Henry James- published between 1903 and 1904. (1)  Henry James was ringing the bell for critical recognition of Turgenev as a "classic" Novelist as early as the 1890s.

 I think, obviously, you have to read an Ivan Turgenev Novel from the perspective of "Modern" rather then Victorian literature. The hero/anti-hero Insarov is a Bulgarian patriot who is obsessed with liberating Bulgaria from the Turks. He falls in love with Elena, who is a female protagonist who ranks with the subject of Madame Bovary for early-modernist portrayals of young women.

  Turgenev left Russia after the publication of his main work, Fathers and Sons in 1862.  Eventually he made his way to Paris, where Henry James describes meeting him for the first time:

       I  found reason to meet him, in Paris, where he was then living, in 1875. I shall never forget the impression he made upon me at that first interview. I found him adorable; I could scarcely believe that he would prove--that any man could prove--on nearer acquaintance so delightful as that. Nearer acquaintance only confirmed my hope, and he remained the most approachable, the most practicable, the least unsafe man of genius it has been my fortune to meet. He was so simple, so natural, so modest, so destitute of personal pretension and of what is called the consciousness of powers, that one almost doubted at moments whether he were a man of genius after all. Everything good and fruitful lay near to him; he was interested in everything; and he was absolutely without that eagerness of self-reference which sometimes accompanies great, and even small, reputations. He had not a particle of vanity; nothing whatever of the air of having a part to play or a reputation to keep up. His humour exercised itself as freely upon himself as upon other subjects, and he told stories at his own expense with a sweetness of hilarity which made his peculiarities really sacred in the eyes of a friend. I remember vividly the smile and tone of voice with which he once repeated to me a figurative epithet which Gustave Flaubert (of whom he was extremely fond) had applied to him--an epithet intended to characterise a certain expansive softness, a comprehensive indecision, which pervaded his nature, just as it pervades so many of the characters he has painted. (Ivan Turgenev by Henry James)

   Considering the role that Henry James played in terms both of criticism and original works in the history of Modern Literature, that is a significant endorsement that was being pitched to the Audience for literature in the early 20th century

.   It was also a push that distinctly came from the United States and France rather then England. Turgenev died in 1883- so the increase in Audience size for Turgenev in the 20th century was already happening before his death.

   It's almost more appropriate to read Turgenev with other books published in the first decade of the 20th century to get a good idea of how the largest Audience perceived his work.  The transition from Victorian to Modern was ongoing between 1850 to the 20th century, so you get works of both types during this period- Dickens was active up until his death in 1870.

  Understanding the birth of "Modernism" is just about the most important event for an Artist or critic to understand.  How Modernism impacted the Audience, how it impacted different Artistic disciplines, how it impacted specific Artists  who were the first to be called Modernists in their respective Artistic discipline.

 In Literature, a lot of that definition happened retrospectively.  When a specific Artist draws retrospective interest for previously published works of Art, that is an example of a Critical Audience leading the general Audience for that Artist.  

 This is the reverse of the normal process of Artist/Audience reception, where the most valuable criterion for a work of Art is its recentness and critical attention is determined by the size of the Audience for a specific Artist.


(1) Encyclopedia of Literary Translation Into English, Volume 2: M-Z,  Oliver Classe, editor. Published by Fitzroy Dearborn of London, pg. 1431.

Richard Wagner - Ride of the Valkyries

Ride of the Valkyries
opening of Act III of Der Walkure, #2/4 in Der Ring des Niebelungen
by Richard Wagner
written 1856
performed as part of the Ring Cycle in 1870
performed separately in 1877

 A process that happens to hit songs is that they acquire "secondary meaning." Secondary meaning is a concept that is well developed in trademark law, where it describes when a piece of intellectual property becomes associated closely enough with a generic term to justify protection, even though the trademark itself is descriptive.

  When a song achieves "hit status,"  it begins to be taken out its original context and placed into a new context that may become more significant to the Audience then the original context of the work.

Richard Wagner

 The common example of this is the use of pop songs in commercials and films, where the right placement can secure a new Audience for a specific older song for decades- think of Stand by Me in the film, Stand By Me or, the usage of Ride of the Valkyries by Francis Ford Coppola in Apocalypse Now:

  That Youtube video of Ride of the Valkyries in Apocalypse Now has 2.6 million views.  Richard Wagner has 3.5 million plays on Last FM... period.  Six of his fifteen most popular tracks are versions of Ride of the Valkyries

  It's fair to say that even given Richard Wagner as a still relevant dude within the world of Opera- I've seen productions of his works advertised in San Diego and Barcelona within the last six months alone- it's also fair to say that the Audience for Opera is dwarfed by the Audience for Film, and that as I write this, it's likely that more people know about Ride of the Valkyries from that one movie then know about the movie from their love of Opera. (I'd put that particular number at zero.)

  With Ride of the Valkyries, we're talking about a song that was embedded in popular culture right from the get-go- initially perplexed by requests to hear Ride of the Valkyries separate from the Ring Cycle itself, he resisted until he gave in and conducted a performance... in London- in 1877.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Marble Faun (1860) by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Emma Stone, doing her take on Nathaniel Hawthorne's hit, The Scarlet Letter.

The Marble Faun Or, The Romance of Monte Beni
by Nathaniel Hawthorne
p. 1860

 It is with real regret that I move beyond the 1850s.  Probably the most crucial period for literature up to this point.  I haven't even looked at some of the biggest hits: Walden by Henry David Thoreau and Bleak House by Charles Dickens to just name two missing titles, and here we are at 1860 with Nathaniel Hawthorne's travel memoir/Sir Walter Scott style gothic influenced Romance, Marble Faun.

  Hawthorne's description of The Marble Faun as a "Romance" is telling in a way that requires some explaining.  The issue here is the creation of the novel as an institution, and whether there might be an alternative understanding of the so-called "Rise of The Novel" and the genesis of that rise.

Demi Moore plays Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne

  The alternative beginning for the Novel is the Romance: The Romance preceded the Novel by several centuries, and it described a literary genre that ranged from written songs, poems, short stories to longer stories. (1) Romance literature existed in several "native" languages centuries before the Novel, including all of the languages that played a role in the development of the Novel as an art-form.

  Sir Walter Scott- the author most often written out of the narrative of the Rise of the Novel, is also the Author most responsible for exploiting Romantic literature (by placing his Novels in the past) but also for recognizing a distinction between Romantic and "Victorian" Novels.

  So it is telling that here, in 1860- half a century after Sir Walter Scott and contemporary with Alexandre Dumas- another revivalist Romance writer from a country other than England-  Hawthorne is penning a self described "Romance."  If you look at the popularity of Hawthorne's major worksScarlet Letter, The Marble Faun and The Blithedale Romance, it runs one-two-three in that order with Scarlet Letter way out in front. Two of the three works contain the description of the work as a "Romance," which suggests that Hawthorne did not see himself as a Novelist in  any sort of modern sense.

  The Marble Faun is also notable because of the level of market related "sales pressure" the publisher exerted on the Author- The Marble Faun runs two volumes and contains reams of what we would today consider "travel journalism."  Interesting from our current post-modern perspective, but certainly jarring for a period when Authors were just beginning to discover the "Serious" Novel.

 The characters in The Marble Faun are recognizable as the backpacking student culture of today- outcast and alienated would-be Artists being supported from home- hanging out in Rome and getting wrapped up in quasi-supernatural mysteries. The mish-mash nature of a fairly straight forward Gothic Romance being combined with excellent factual description of the major tourist sites of Rome- The Trevi Fountain, The Forum, etc. is bound to lead to awkwardness.


(1) Homer Obed Brown, Institutions of the English Novel: From Defoe to Scott, University of Pennsylvania Press, published 1997.

Guillaume Dufay: Chansons

Guillaume Dufay: Chansons

Guillaume Dufay: Chansons
Guillaume Dufay has Chansons for days.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Adam Bede by George Eliot

young George Eliot

Adam Bede
by George Eliot
published 1859

   Adam Bede was George Eliot's first published novel. George Eliot was actually Mary Ann Evans.  Adam Bede was published under a pen name even thought Mary Ann Evans was married to a leading literary critic and was well known for her own critical writing when Adam Bede was published.

  If you compare the relative popularity of four leading female Novelists: Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot in a Ngram- George Eliot is the number one author over Jane Austen until the mid 1990s, with Eliot being particularly dominant between the mid 1860s and the 1930s, when the second Jane Austen revival brought her within striking distance of George Eliot in terms of popularity.

On the Ngram, you can actually see Eliot eclipsing Charlotte Bronte and sky-rocketing past her, while Bronte and Austen jostle for second place until 1940, when Jane Austen leave Bronte in the dust.

 Eliot has been recognized as the first "Modern" Novelist for close to a century. (1)

  This recognition places her in a more important category then title that are labeled "Early Victorian Novels" or "18th Century Literature." The modern novel is of more interest to today's Audience, because it is what they call in the pr business, "relate-able."

 I would argue that George Eliot had four 'hits,'  all of which appear on the 1001 Books To Read Before You Die (2006 ed.) list:  Adam Bede (1859), The Mill on the Floss(1860), Silas Mariner (1863) & Middlemarch(1871).  Today, Middlemarch is the most popular of the four.  Silas Mariner is arguably the title to be dropped from the 1001 Books Before You Die update, if you look at it in terms of popularity.  Middlemarch's status as the most popular is undoubtedly due to the popularity of Middlemarch as a proto-Modernist text from the mid-late 19th century.  Middlemarch has been in vogue since the late 1950s and early 1960s, which is a key sign that popularity of a specific text relates to its appreciation among the academic market.

 If you super impose the relative popularity of George Eliot herself to the specific titles she wrote, you see that the Author dwarfs the Works.

  Looking at the Author including Ngram, it is easy to see that she reached a peak of popularity in the 1880s,  but suffered a noticeable drop  in popularity in the mid 1930s.   I almost want to observe that it was caused by the Great Depression and a relative lack of interest about Literature during that time period.  George Eliot reached her peak in popularity at the same time as Jane Austen finally reached her top level of popularity: the mid 1960s.

 The people who were 'in school' back then are now decision makers at the major outposts of the cultural industrial complex, as well bearing the fruit of successive generations that have been taught by people who were 'in school' when Jane Austen and George Eliot reached a peak Popularity.

  The publication of Adam Bede must have been an exciting, well received event, judging from the way Eliot's popularity sky rocketed after it was published.  The critical perspective that, "George Eliot is an innovator, not only because her approach to her subject is intellectual, but also because her intellect took in a great deal of new territory."  The fact that this approach was so popular with the Audience for Novels till the present day suggests- for the first time in the history of the Novel as a distinct Art Form, suggests that an Audience for "serious" Art was well developed in 1859 as it was in 1934, and as well as it continues to exist today.


(1)  "It is one of her principal claims to fame that she is the first modern novelist.  That first period of the English novel that begins with Henry Fielding ends with Anthony Trollope; the second: the period of Henry James...begins with George Eliot."  Early Victorian Novelists by David Cecil, pg. 213 (1934).

Barcelona & The Charms of a Gothic Quarter

Gothic Quarter Barcelona CREDIT

  The trip advisor listing for the Barri Gotic or Gothic Quarter in Barcelona is ranked as the #4 attraction in Barcelona in their ranking system, with a total of 2079 Reviews and a four and a half star average.  Attractions Number one, two & three are Church of the Sacred Family, Palace of Catlan Music & Casa Batllo- all three of those are designated world heritage sights, by the way.

 The Gothic Quarter/Barri Gotic in Barcelona definetly exists- it is easy to see on a map of Barcelona:

View Larger Map

   It's the area in Barcelona that isn't laid out on Diagonal/Horizontal street grid, and when you leave the areas that diverge from that pattern of urban settlement, you are "in" the Gothic Quarter.  The Gothic Quarter is so named because of the Architecture.  If you want to understand "Gothic Architecture" and why it is the #4 attraction in Barcelona, John Ruskin and The Stones of Venice is the place to start because Ruskin really laid the ground work for modern art criticism, and The Stones of Venice is his biggest hit about Gothic Architecture in Venice.
Barri Gotic: Example of Gothic Architecture

  The Gothic Revival that Ruskin epitomized was actually a century old by the time Stones of Venice was published in the early 1850s, but he certainly outclassed architecture critics of his time.  Ruskin listed six characteristics of Gothic architecture:

1. Savageness.
2. Changefulness.
3. Naturalism.
4. Grotesquenes.
5. Rigidity.
6. Redundance.

   The Gothic Revival was itself part of a larger celebration of a Medieval Times that encompassed non-Gothic Revival art like the books of Sir Walter Scott.

 Today Gothic Architecture is generally considered to include, a fusion of several main elements: diagonal ribs, pointed arches and flying buttresses. (!)

   A 2006 ranking of annual tourist visitors had Barcelona in the solid 10 spot between Seoul and Dublin and in the neighborhood of both Rome and Toronto.  I would say approximately 100% of the tourists who visit Barcelona go to the Gothic Quarter.  San Diego is 88 on the same chart, Vegas is in the 40s, etc.

  So why is the Gothic Quarter in Barcelona so popular?  I think it's because it successfully transmits a hygienic  version of a fantastic world, similar to the experience that you have at a theme park like Disneyland.  Through out my treks through the Barcelona's Gothic Quarter I kept wondering what Disneyland could do with a location like the Gothic Quarter. It's not like the Gothic Quarter is any way less touristy then a place like San Francisco's fisherman's wharf, but man, is it popular!  There are like five million people a year tromping through the Gothic Quarter.

 Don't get me wrong- I believe Barcelona's Gothic Quarter is a spectacular attraction, but I would attribute much of the appeal to the different street lay out- narrower, with fewer opportunities for cars and modern hygiene standards (The garbage disposal system in central Barcelona races around at 3 AM whisking away the formidable trash generated by 5 million tourists a year.)

  And despite the repeated advisals we got from everyoe re: pickpockets- I got my cell phone stolen out of the Marques De Riscal Hotel in Elciego- Barcelona was so safe and bright and shiny that it reminded me of a police state.   During our visit we witnessed one actual street blocking protest, and two days after we left there was a rally of 1.5 million for Catalan Independence- so it seemed like a lively place outside of tourism. Real energy, and the Gothic Quarter, for better or worse, is the beating heart of the city in ways that are different from its tourist attraction status.


(1) Richmond Museum in England. (11/27/11)

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