The Victorian Sage

"Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased"

Month: August, 2014

Re-reading A Tale of Two Cities

A Tale of Two Cities may be the best-selling novel of all time. Wikipedia’s list of best-selling novels gives it top spot, but the citation for its sales is a Telegraph article by novelist David Mitchell in which he makes a passing comment to that effect. Other sources agree, but I’ve come up with nothing authoritative. Still others say Don Quijote or Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. But the Tale is definitely up there. For the Dickensian, it’s an odd one. It is not very Dickensian, in some respects. It has little in the way of comedy, with only the grave-robber Jerry Cruncher playing a comic role, with his constant suspicions that his wife is “floppin'” against him. Even that has an uncomfortable edge of darkness in the suggestions of domestic abuse. Reading the book, I was reminded of George Orwell’s comment on Dickens:

He is all fragments, all details – rotten architecture, but wonderful gargoyles.

The Tale is pretty short and streamlined, so it has very few gargoyles. If Orwell is right, it’s lacking the very thing that makes Dickens special. Ironic, then, that it’s apparently his most read book.

But the great advantage the book has had is its historical setting. The French Revolution remains fascinating as an example of things falling apart, humanity going way out there, a civilized society giving way to wholesale butchery of its own citizens. It is, and certainly was in the 19th-century, something that needs to be made sense of. Even very recently, Jonathan Nolan, co-scriptwriter of The Dark Knight Rises (2012) cited this as the reason he tried to draw on the Tale for his script:

A Tale of Two Cities was, to me, one of the most harrowing portraits of a relatable, recognizable civilization that completely folded to pieces with the terrors in Paris in France in that period. It’s hard to imagine that things can go that badly wrong.

So the book can appeal to the many people to whom the idea of literature in its purest form is uninteresting. This isn’t just literature; it’s an interpretation of a great and cataclysmic historical event. It’s both dramatic and instructive. There’s a way into the story for the non-literary. Dickens and his contemporaries would have been more aware of this element than many academic readers of today. They had read their Carlyle, for starters:

[L]et any one bethink him how impressive the smallest historical fact may become, as contrasted with the grandest fictitious event; what an incalculable force lies for us in this Consideration: The Thing which I hold here imaged in my mind did actually occur; was, in very truth, an element of the All, whereof I too form part; had, therefore, and has, through all time, an authentic being; is not a dream, but a reality! (“Biography”, 1832)

What Carlyle wanted, and what he got, was novelists using the raw materials of society and of history to construct their works upon. Fiction is not a realm apart, but is, to a great extent, a way of making sense of the world and of humanity.

And Dickens certainly had a message about the French Revolution and how his readers were to make sense of it, albeit a fairly obvious one: it was a result of aristocratic greed, selfishness and negligence. It was payback. If the peasants had been better treated, it wouldn’t have happened.

It was too much the way of Monseigneur under his reverses as a refugee, and it was much too much the way of native British orthodoxy, to talk of this terrible Revolution as if it were the only harvest ever known under the skies that had not been sown—as if nothing had ever been done, or omitted to be done, that had led to it—as if observers of the wretched millions in France, and of the misused and perverted resources that should have made them prosperous, had not seen it inevitably coming, years before, and had not in plain words recorded what they saw. (Bk. II, Ch. 24)

This philosophy provides part of the architecture of the book: show the evils of the ancien regime, and then show the “harvest”. In the many reflections of such themes throughout the book, Dickens adopts a sternly portentous tone, contributing to the impression of humourlessness the book creates. It’s Dickens playing the role of the sage, incorporating his reading of Carlyle into his writing style. But it’s probably the seriousness of tone of this book that recommends it to latter-day readers like Jonathan Nolan. Indeed, the time may be ripe for a new adaptation of the Tale – incredibly, there doesn’t seem to have been a cinematic adaptation since the Dirk Bogarde one of 1958, according to an IMDb search. Maybe 2011-2012 would have been the time, with the Arab Spring, the European financial meltdown, and a generalized anger against political structures and politicians, for a Tale for our times.

Any new approach to the book would have to change a lot. Though Dickens’ humour is mostly absent, his other prominent characteristic of sentimentality is very much present. This centres mostly on the egregious Lucie Manette, one of the Dickensian dolls modern-day readers (me included) find insufferable. Despite the subject, there’s also a surprising smugness to Dickens’ portrayal of the English national character as it  is demonstrated by Jarvis Lorry and Mrs Pross. Lorry is the English man of business, associated with dullness, solidity and honesty. Pross represents the born servant, fit for little else but happy with her lot:

[Miss Pross was] one of those unselfish creatures—found only among women—who will, for pure love and admiration, bind themselves willing slaves, to youth when they have lost it, to beauty that they never had, to accomplishments that they were never fortunate enough to gain, to bright hopes that never shone upon their own sombre lives.

Her final struggle with Madame Defarge is a sort of stereotype death match, in which English self-denial, practicality, and honesty defeats French excitability and passion. Here again, Dickens reminds me of Carlyle, who had praised stupidity in Past and Present (Bk. III, Ch. 5) as being a predominantly English characteristic, and one allied with practicality and good sense. Dickens, like Carlyle, seems to be positing that for such people, national glory can and should be a substitute for any sort of commitment to oneself. For Dickens, Prossian self-denial is also dubiously linked with gender. She’s a little like the heroine of Flaubert’s “Un Coeur Simple” as a character, but the authorial ideology surrounding them is totally different, and Flaubert’s treatment of his protagonist is much more searching and less complacent.

So there’s quite a bit to cavil at in this book, as in most of Dickens. It has that wonderfully dramatic and iconic last scene, which can probably be pictured even by those who have never read the book, so deeply is it entrenched in cultural memory. As much as anything, it’s the iconography of the guillotine, awesome and terrible, that we think of when we think of the Tale, and that gives such resonance to the work. The intrinsic merits of the book, when divorced from its status as the pre-eminent fictional approach to a milestone in history, are not that great. But because that historical context is there, the Tale is still relevant to modern approaches to fictionalizing history, like The Dark Knight Rises. The book is a way in to all sorts of speculations about history and civilizational development. Like animals for certain Amazonian tribes, A Tale of Two Cities is “good to think”.

Elementary, Season 2

This is being written like a live blog, in a way, as I’m writing in my observations while watching season 2 of Elementary. Not watching them live, admittedly, but a much belated viewing of a complete series link. Not publishing them as I write them ,either, but as a single post when I get to the end of the current binge, which will take me past the half-way point of the series. So not much like a live blog, really. I like Elementary, maybe more than BBC Sherlock, which is kind of a minority position. Part of the reason Elementary got, particularly initially, a less enthusiastic press is because it is seen as a corporate cash-in on the success of its immediate precursor – reasonably enough, because CBS initially approached the BBC to ask if they could remake Sherlock for a US audience. They were refused, and so went ahead with an adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes characters and genre, anyway.

But it was never notably like Sherlock. Both were updated to contemporary times, admittedly (the first [and second] time that’s been done in a major SH adaptation in a long while). Obvious novelties to Elementary were the female (and Asian) Watson played by Lucy Liu, and the setting in New York – though Holmes is still English, just expatriated. 

Episode 1

But the first episode of season 2 sees it moving towards Sherlock territory. Literally, for one: Sherlock and Watson go to London. Figuratively, also. Mycroft makes an appearance, and the constant sniping between him and Sherlock recalls the dynamic in the BBC series. There are even a couple of quotes lifted from Sherlock: Mycroft’s first reaction on meeting Watson is “Sherlock doesn’t have friends”; and Lestrade shushes Watson at one point on the grounds that “he [Sherlock} is doing that thing”. The “doing that thing” verbal phrase is used repeatedly in Sherlock to draw attention to Sherlock’s cleverness and his otherness.

At the end of the episode, there’s a nice nod to canon, when Sherlock says that art in the blood takes the strangest forms, recalling the line from “The Greek Interpreter”, the story in which Mycroft is introduced. These nods are always appreciated by readers of the stories, and it’s something that Sherlock is master at, interspersing episodes with diverse lines and references from different stories, illustrating that they really know the stories, even though they never adapt the plots directly and fully, and use the source dialogue only in small portions. 

Episode 2

Elementary is back in NYC, which is good. Watson is getting good  at detection in her new position as apprentice. So the solving of cases is carried on by conversations between Holmes and Watson, which is maybe more TV-friendly than Holmes doing it alone, but it’s a jarring change from the Holmes of other versions: the superman with the mind others can’t understand, never mind replicate. The notion of the apprentice is, in such a case, difficult to integrate. And it can’t progress: Watson can never begin to be as smart as Holmes, so even though Elementary seems to be going this way, it can’t. It is another point of difference with Sherlock, though, because the latter really relies on the befuddled Watson trope.

Episode 3

Sherlock pontificates on love: he thought it was a delusion, then he met Irene Adler, then he recovered from his infatuation with her and is now “post-love”. This is another thing it has in common with Sherlock, and out of common with Conan Doyle’s writing. In Conan Doyle, Holmes just isn’t into romantic love, and that’s it! There’s no mystery, no need to analyze his choice, no search for a pathology of which this is the symptom. The contemporary adaptations just can’t see it like this, though, and there’s an endless circling round Sherlock Holmes and love – fidelity to source keeps them from quite going there, but contemporary mores keep them from ignoring it.

Episode 6

Attention turns to Captain Gregson’s home life, when his wife, from whom he is undergoing a “temporary separation”, is accosted by a masked man in their house. Again, this turn towards fleshing out recurring characters, giving them a past and a life of their own, is very different from Conan Doyle’s approach. When CD was stuck for a plot, he recycled his old stories (“The Three Garribeds”) or used various of his recurring tropes, but he never went in for mining his characters’ depths. It intrigues me that this approach proves impossible for contemporary versions. It may, indeed, point to a whole different way of viewing personhood in these times. Is this all Freud’s influence? – that the persona/ego is now wholly distinct from the real self. This rather takes away from the original appeal of Holmes, which is that he is wholly and always himself – that is what makes him so admirable, such a role model and aspirational figure. Unattainable, perhaps, but a valuable presence in the cultural canon.

Episode 8

This one is interesting, doing something neither CD nor most adapters have really done: confronted the economics of being Holmes. In this case, Sherlock is a trust fund kid, still living in the old man’s block of apartments in his late 30s. This is probably the most realistic approach, and chimes in with the original idea of the detective in literature, predating CD:

‘Do you then propose, dear boy, that we should turn detectives?’ inquired Challoner.

‘Do I propose it?  No, sir,’ cried Somerset.  ‘It is reason, destiny, the plain face of the world, that commands and imposes it.  Here all our merits tell; our manners, habit of the world, powers of conversation, vast stores of unconnected knowledge, all that we are and have builds up the character of the complete detective.  It is, in short, the only profession for a gentleman. (R.L. Stevenson, The Dynamiter)

The detective is above all things a man of leisure, a man of means, who doesn’t need to earn a living, so can demand of life the type of work which is the most intrinsically engaging. He has escaped the cash nexus, as Carlyle says, the irony being that to do so one must have plenty of funds.

Also being brought up again in episode 8 is the pull of London. This isn’t something I’ve thought about much, geocriticism being not really my area, but it’s definitely an issue in Elementary. In this episode, Sherlock says New York is “American London”, so he doesn’t need the original London, but it’s interesting that such a justification is even needed, and the possibility of a return to London is mooted and remains at episode end. Some of CD’s most famous Holmes stories take place outside of London: Hound, obviously, “The Speckled Band”, “The Copper Beeches” and many others. But Elementary seems to very rarely leave the urban, and is haunted by London as the one truly canonical setting for a Holmes story.

 Episode 9

Watson is growing increasingly competent, and not just that, but increasingly assertive. She dictates the terms of the investigation to Holmes in this episode, and he accepts it. I’m finding it hard to wholly endorse this egalitarian dynamic. On another note, there are echoes of Sherlock again (“His Last Vow”), in that Holmes comes across a criminal so devious and so elusive that he has to go over to the dark side: in this case, he decides to frame him. But he doesn’t have to in the end.

More blarney about whether Sherlock has “changed” since meeting Watson: she says yes, he says no. Things get a bit tense.

Episode 12

Well, well, well, if it isn’t Moriarty. Back again. It’s odd to think that Moriarty was only in one Holmes story in the original canon. One, out of 56 stories and 4 novels. And as a blatant contrivance to suit Doyle’s purpose of killing off Holmes, at that. All the stuff about Moriarty being a spider at the centre of the web of London criminality was just invented for this story, and doesn’t appear in any of the others. (Though he is reintroduced for the late novel The Valley of Fear, where he is only talked about and never appears). Despite his marginality to the canon, adaptations always make him central, expanding on the spider-in-the-web claims and building them into overarching plots. I find Moriarty an unnecessary addition to Holmes stories. The idea that the evil Holmes fights is embodied in one single person is the sort of non-analytical reductionism that detracts from the purely rational conception of the character – everything can be read by Holmes, but needs to be read on its own account, as a unique set of circumstances. Bringing in Moriarty is too easy, and fundamentally melodramatic.

So, halfway through the series, I cease my binge, to be picked up at a later date. Elementary remains above the norm, in my opinion. The plots stretch credulity a bit, but they don’t have the really thoughtless dumbness of some Sherlock episodes; it also keeps the mystery element foregrounded a lot better than Sherlock – sure, it’s far more conscious of character exposition than Doyle, but it does it least keep a strong detecting framework to every episode, thus retaining the centrality of work to SH’s being, which to me is important in all good Holmes adaptations. Holmes needs to be about the work, that’s what marks him out. I like Lucy Liu’s Watson, too, though I would like to see a bit more differentiation in her methodology/competence as a detective compared to Sherlock’s. I like the imbalance in their relationship, the opposites-attract element, and don’t want to see it turning into a run-of-the-mill working partnership.

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