That’s why they are called clas­sics

The monumental achieve­ments of the 19th- cen­tury nov­el­ists will never be equalled, writes Peter Craven

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

WHEN I was a young man it bored me that any­one would ex­pect me to read a 19th- cen­tury novel. If there was any way I could cir­cum­vent Charles Dick­ens or Thomas Hardy or Jane Austen, I would. It wasn’t that I didn’t re­alise, at some level, that th­ese works were great, but the glow they had was like the glow of child­hood: lost, em­bar­rass­ing, over­ex­posed.

Well, young fools are great fools. I should have borne in mind the won­der­ful re­mark of New York critic Lionel Trilling, speak­ing of his early ex­pe­ri­ence of ( those very dif­fer­ent works) the mas­ter­pieces of modernism, I bored them’’. Some­times, af­ter all, it’s lit­er­a­ture that re­jects us be­cause it de­cides we’re not up to it.

In any case the 19th- cen­tury novel is so far from be­ing bor­ing that if child­hood has any­thing to do with the ques­tion, it’s not that the nov­els of the Vic­to­ri­ans ( and such pre­de­ces­sors as Austen) rep­re­sent the things of child­hood’’, to use St Paul’s phrase, but that they rep­re­sent the lost child­hood of the world, the golden age when there seemed to be an ex­act fit be­tween word and thing and ( more par­tic­u­larly and more strictly) where beauty of ar­tic­u­la­tion, sheer style, were in step with the abil­ity to tell a story that gripped the mind as the most riv­et­ing yarn in the world.

Why, af­ter all, does ev­ery young girl with green hair and metal in her face find Pride and Prej­u­dice just as com­pelling as her grand­mother does? It’s partly the fact that the ro­mance of Darcy and El­iz­a­beth Ben­net is ex­e­cuted with a bril­liant pace and com­mand of tempo: the book is the Pla­tonic idea of what lies be­hind Mills & Boon and the plot is so su­perbly turned that it ( and the other Austens) have an ab­so­lutely peren­nial pop­u­lar­ity that can al­low a large num­ber of read­ers to take up res­i­dence in the man­sion that con­sti­tutes Austen’s house of fiction. ( It’s not un­com­mon for fans to reread all her books ev­ery year.)

Yes, but the depth of the ap­peal goes be­yond yarn telling and stereo­type. Pride and Prej­u­dice or Emma may ac­ti­vate some of the same archetypes as Mills & Boon ro­mances, but they have at the same time a wholly dif­fer­ent sense of re­al­ity.

When we read Austen we un­der­stand why Ed­mund Wil­son could call her the most Mozartian of writ­ers be­cause, as with Mozart, we feel that the truest thing in the world is be­ing ex­pressed through what might oth­er­wise be a tri­fling en­ter­tain­ment.

The Vic­to­ri­ans were no mean hands at en­ter­tain­ment but think of how they trans­fig­ure their pop­ulism. The great­est de­tec­tive story ever writ­ten ( be­cause it is a work of art) is Wilkie Collins’s The Moon­stone , and you can make com­pa­ra­ble claims, apropos the thriller, in the case of The Wo­man in White . But look at what Collins’s friend Dick­ens made of the novel of dark and blighted pasts and tan­gled con­tem­po­rary shad­ows in a book such as Bleak House .

You may want to qual­ify your sense of Dick­ens by say­ing that he’s a sen­ti­men­tal­ist or a car­toon­ist, but even if you think the charges stick it must help a bit that he is, af­ter Shake­speare, the great­est mas­ter of English di­a­logue ever.

And think of the dev­as­tat­ing cri­tique of the fog of the law and the des­o­la­tion it brings that Bleak House ef­fects.

Ev­ery­one who watched the re­cent BBC drama­ti­sa­tion by Andrew Davies with Charles Dance at his most an­gu­lar and sin­is­ter as the lawyer Mr Tulk­inghorn, and Gil­lian An­der­son as Lady Ded­lock, would have got the strong­est glimpse of what the novel gives with abun­dance: a densely imag­ined world, wildly stylised but with the re­al­ity of a vivid dream that re­ca­pit­u­lates at ev­ery point both the world we know and a world that can only be con­jured fan­tas­ti­cally.

One of the odd fea­tures of our own J. K. Rowl­ing- read­ing world is that we still walk ( the Harry Pot­ter names are a give- away) in the foot­steps of a gi­ant such as Dick­ens. And the strange thing is that if you make the ef­fort ( and, yes, it can be a dif­fi­cult plea­sure, like love or work) then the re­wards are rav­ish­ing.

The great glory of the 19th- cen­tury nov­els is that they have the im­me­di­acy and the mo­men- tum of great film or television once you crack the code of their lan­guage. And it’s a world presided over not by hacks but by John Fords and Al­fred Hitch­cocks and Or­son Welles- like ge­niuses who were free of the stu­dios and could make their mas­ter­pieces. Or — if you want a more pre­cise par­al­lel to the con­sciously artis­tic nov­els of Flaubert and Tur­genev, Con­rad and James — to the films of Vis­conti or Bergman or Scors­ese.

That’s the thing about the 19th cen­tury that shines back at us. There will never be bet­ter nov­els than Anna Karen­ina or Madame Bo­vary or Por­trait of a Lady or Crime and Pun­ish­ment .

Re­mem­ber what the 19th cen­tury achieves when it goes up a notch ( if that’s pos­si­ble) from Dick­ens. Re­mem­ber Fy­o­dor Dos­to­evsky, who was bla­tantly in­flu­enced by him. Think of the cat- and- mouse game be­tween the de­tec­tive Por­firy and the highly sym­pa­thetic ( in­deed Ham­let- like) young mur­derer Raskol­nikov. Or the mo­ment when he says to Sonya, the pros­ti­tute who is one of the purest char­ac­ters in lit­er­a­ture, I killed my­self, not the old wo­man.’’

Awe is an ap­pro­pri­ate re­sponse to the daz­zling and sin­is­ter and wildly black comic evo­ca­tion of ter­ror­ism in The Pos­sessed and to Stavro­gin, with his mask- like face em­brac­ing a dark­ness in which he scarcely be­lieves.

Then there’s The Brothers Kara­ma­zov and the mo­ment when the monk Zosima bows to the ground in the pres­ence of the tur­bu­lent man Dim­itri be­cause he will suf­fer so much.

Think of the way the whole of Kara­ma­zov is con­structed like a de­tec­tive story that is

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