Dick­ens shines af­ter dark

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Rear View - IMRE SALUSIN­SZKY

AFEW weeks ago my two chil­dren and I reached a mile­stone: we fin­ished read­ing David Cop­per­field . Or, rather, I fin­ished read­ing David Cop­per­field aloud to them, a task that took nearly 18 months. In the Mod­ern Li­brary edi­tion we used, Charles Dick­ens’s novel oc­cu­pies 821 pages. That im­plies we av­er­aged about 1.6 pages a night. In re­al­ity, we of­ten in­ter­rupted our read­ing, some­times for a cou­ple of weeks. This meant we were ex­pe­ri­enc­ing vast chunks of the story in real time, when it would take us a few weeks’ worth of bed­times to read about a few weeks’ worth of David’s event­ful life. But, of course, the novel, which cov­ers about 40 years’ worth of events, even­tu­ally over­took us.

I cer­tainly didn’t re­alise, in set­ting out, that the project would take us so long. And I didn’t re­alise how much I would learn: about my kids, about David Cop­per­field and about my­self.

The first ques­tion that prob­a­bly oc­curs to you, es­pe­cially if you are a par­ent, is whether I had to blud­geon my chil­dren into lis­ten­ing qui­etly to 821 pages worth of dense Vic­to­rian re­al­ism.

Yes and no. There would of­ten be a good deal of grum­bling on the evenings when I an­nounced that we were go­ing to have about five pages, or 20 min­utes, of DC be­fore bed. Part of the rea­son for the in­sub­or­di­na­tion was that my daugh­ter passed from child­hood into ado­les­cence in the course of our long read­ing. As that hap­pened, there were times I feared we weren’t go­ing to make it to page 200, never mind 821.

Among the things that par­tic­u­larly seemed to ir­ri­tate my daugh­ter as she made the pas­sage from 12 to 14 — and as David Cop­per­field made the pas­sage from beloved child to de­spised stepchild, to for­lorn or­phan, to fa­mous au­thor — was my use of the ab­bre­vi­a­tion DC. But de­spite nu­mer­ous stand- offs, we made it through to the end of Dick­ens. Per­haps Dick­ens helped us make it through ado­les­cence.

As for the story, my daugh­ter was im­pa­tient with the crim­i­nal and le­gal sub­plots, es­pe­cially those in­volv­ing the stage vil­lain Uriah Heep, de­spite the rather af­fect­ing ac­cent and fa­cial man­ner­ism I de­vel­oped for him. But even if she wouldn’t ad­mit it, she was cap­ti­vated by the ro­man­tic ma­te­rial, as David meets and mar­ries his ‘‘ child- bride’’, Dora, then grav­i­tates to­wards his ‘‘ sis­ter- bride’’, Agnes, fol­low­ing Dora’s death.

My nine- year- old son’s is­sues were not with the ac­tiv­ity of read­ing David Cop­per­field but rather with the ar­range­ment of our bod­ies on the dou­ble bed. If it was his turn to be in the mid­dle, he was quiet and at­ten­tive; on his nights on the outer, he was dis­rup­tive: a re­minder that sib­ling ri­valry can af­fect a sec­ond child more than a first, even though it is the sec­ond child who has in­truded on the first’s ter­rain.

What was most no­table about his re­ac­tion, how­ever, was that for a boy who has shown a stronger in­ter­est in motorsport and video games than in read­ing, his abil­ity to re­call the book’s hun­dreds of char­ac­ters and episodes was stun­ning. In­deed, by the time we came to our sec­ond au­tumn in the book, his sis­ter and I were able to play a game called ‘‘ dead or alive?’’ with him: ‘‘ Mr Barkis?’’ ‘‘ Dead.’’ ‘‘ Miss Murd­stone?’’ ‘‘ Alive.’’ ‘‘ Ham?’’ ‘‘ Dead.’’ ‘‘ Lit­tle Emily?’’ ‘‘ Miss­ing.’’ And so on. Part of what made the process of watch­ing David Cop­per­field en­ter my kids’ minds and mem­o­ries so in­ter­est­ing is what our slow read­ing taught me about the book it­self: that, al­though it is far from Dick­ens’s best novel, it ranks as one of the most pro­found stud­ies of me­mory and the in­ter­weav­ing of me­mory and imag­i­na­tion.

If I had known in the past that me­mory was Dick­ens’s theme in David Cop­per­field , I had forgotten it dur­ing the 40 or so years since my last read­ing. Again and again, David as nar­ra­tor comes back to what he re­mem­bers, and to how and why. It is through the win­dow of me­mory that the book ranks along­side Great Ex­pec­ta­tions as a psy­cho­log­i­cal study. For ex­am­ple, there is David’s me­mory of the last time he sees his poor young mother, be­fore she and her new­born are driven to an early death by the Murd­stones. She is stand­ing at the gate, wav­ing to him as he re­turns to his board­ing school: I was in the car­rier’s cart when I heard her call­ing to me. I looked out, and she stood at the gar­den- gate alone, hold­ing her baby up in her arms for me to see. It was cold still weather; and not a hair of her head, nor a fold of her dress, was stirred, as she looked in­tently at me, hold­ing up her child. So I lost her. So I saw her af­ter­wards, in my sleep at school — a silent pres­ence near my bed — look­ing at me with the same in­tent face — hold­ing up her baby in her arms. Later, David learns from his old nurse about the de­tails of his mother’s and baby brother’s death. His re­sponse, and the wil­ful re­vi­sion of me­mory it in­volves, brings the psy­cho­log­i­cal drama of the ear­lier re­mem­bered scene to life. From the mo­ment of my know­ing of the death of my mother, the idea of her as she had been of late had van­ished from me. I re­mem­bered her, from that in­stant, only as the young mother of my ear­li­est im­pres­sions, who had been used to wind her bright curls round and round her fin­ger, and to dance with me at twi­light in the par­lour . . . It may be curious, but it is true. In her death she winged her way back to her calm un­trou­bled youth, and can­celled all the rest.

The mother who lay in the grave, was the mother of my in­fancy; the lit­tle crea­ture in her arms, was my­self, as I had once been, hushed for ever on her bo­som. It’s hard to say how the ex­pe­ri­ence of read­ing a work of clas­sic Vic­to­rian re­al­ism, so slowly, in early life will stay with my chil­dren. But I was struck when, just the other day, my daugh­ter re­ferred to an­other girl as her ‘‘ con­fi­den­tial friend’’: the stan­dard Vic­to­rian phrase Dick­ens uses to de­scribe the aw­ful Miss Murd­stone’s of­fi­cial po­si­tion in Dora’s life.

How­ever, I firmly be­lieve the ex­pe­ri­ence has shown my kids some­thing it may oth­er­wise have taken them years to un­der­stand: that a story made of words, in the hands of a writer of ge­nius, can turn into a world.

re­view@ theaus­tralian. com. au

Il­lus­tra­tion: Jon Kudelka

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