Saturday, June 9, 2012

A hero of my life


Charles Dickens, the world's greatest novelist (in my highly subjective opinion), died on this day in 1870. He was 58.

Dickens captured my imagination and my compulsive attention when I was a kid of 12 or so. One summer I lay on the couch day after day, reading his books one after the other.

"There is perhaps no person living who can remember reading David Copperfield for the first time," wrote Virginia Woolf, but I can, vividly. It was the work of Dickens' that I first essayed, and I was a goner after the opening pages, when David talks about the father he never knew, buried in the churchyard close by their house, and "the indefinable compassion I used to feel for (him) lying out alone there in the dark night."

(My own father had died a couple of years before.)

I re-read Dickens through high school, and in college I had a Dickens seminar, during which our professor would expound, noteless, for three hours at a stretch, twice weekly, about the man and his work. It was a thrilling experience -- here was someone even more in love with Dickens than I was. He particularly loved Copperfield , probably because Dickens himself loved the novel above all his others. ("I have my favourite child, and his name is David Copperfield," Dickens wrote.)

What Woolf meant was that reading this particular novel of Dickens is one of those timeless experiences:

"Like Robinson Crusoe and Grimm's Fairy Tales...Pickwick and David Copperfield are not books, but stories communicated by word of mouth in those tender years when fact and fiction merge, and thus belong to those myths and memories of life...

"We remodel our psychological geography when we read Dickens...What we remember is the ardour, the excitement, the humour; the oddity of people's characters; the smell and soot and savor of London; the incredible coincidences which hook the most remote lives together; the city, the law courts; this man's limp, that man's nose; some scene under and archway or on the high road; and above all some gigantic and dominating figure...stuffed and swollen with life."

Contrary to his wish to be buried in Rochester Cathedral, Dickens was laid to rest in the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey. The inscription on his tomb reads:

"He was a sympathiser to the poor, the suffering, and the oppressed; and by his death, one of England's greatest writers is lost to the world."

"Dickens did not merely believe in the brotherhood of man in the weak modern way," wrote G. K. Chesterton; "he was the brotherhood of man, and knew it was a brotherhood in sin as well as in aspiration."