Sunday, 29 January 2012

There's always one: Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens

For me, liking Pickwick Papers was far more of a challenge than simply reading it. I'm not, on the whole, put off my 'chunksters' and wasn't greatly concerned at the 804 page length. Well, not until I got about 100 pages in and realised that this was the most boring book I'd ever read and I still had seven eighths to go.

I had a break from it, and then I read this wonderful post by Edward - Dickens Literary Salon: Pickwick Papers
I have to admit that I fell in love with Pickwick from the very start. I wanted to be in the Pickwickian world of this novel. I’ve read comic novels before, that I’ve really enjoyed and laughed throughout. But Pickwick, for me, operated on another level, one of serene joy. If I wasn’t laughing, I was smiling (except, of course, for the Fleet Prison scenes). He does seem like some kind of superior being, like Chesterton’s pagan god wandering the countryside. Pickwick is the flip-side of the other titan comic character of English literature, Falstaff. Where Falstaff generates joy through debauchery and vice, Pickwick brings joy through benevolence and love. I wouldn’t mind meeting up with Falstaff for a night at the tavern, but it’s Pickwick with whom I want to wander the roads.
His enthusiasm inspired me, I wanted to find what he found, love what he loved, read it with pleasure as he had done. This is the kind of review I wanted to write.

But I can't, because I couldn't love it. Not even close. I didn't get it, I didn't find it amusing, I didn't wish I was reading it when I was doing something else. I didn't get that feeling from it the way I do from a book I love, that this is what a "proper" novel ought to be like. I didn't, as I say, get it and I couldn't let that go the way I could with, say, Finnegans Wake. Perhaps this is where I went wrong: looking for something, some kind of thread, anything really to hang on to. But I couldn't find anything. I may have spent too much time looking and not enough time just appreciating what was in front of me. I did try to love it, and I have been guilty in the past of not giving books a chance. I said on Twitter after the first chapter of Les Misérables that I hated it, but then Adam told me to keep going and he had loved it, so I did make more of an effort. Whether the book picked up or I did, I have to say I am loving it now and I'm grateful, either to Hugo or to Adam, I'm not sure which!

Anyway, as I say, there's always one. A writer cannot produce genius work after genius work, and I know a lot of Dickens fans gloss over Pickwick as a vaguely embarrassing "first shot". I should take comfort from that, but I am disappointed, as I was when I read Between The Acts by Virginia Woolf and I thought, "what on earth was that?". It's just one of those things. I'm not put off by it and am still enjoying my challenge (that said, I do want to focus on Trollope for the next few days because I am enjoying it so much - I think this will be the first "5 star" book for my Goodreads!). After that, well, I should pick Bleak House up again, however I'm tempted to say through no fault of Dickens I missed the boat a little with it (more because of my mood than anything) and I'll wait 'til spring before I pick it up again. I am very excited at what I have to choose from. I'm thinking either Dombey and Son, Little Dorrit, or The Old Curiosity Shop. It's so nice to still have so many to pick from! I'm not looking forward to reading Barnaby Rudge, so it won't be so nice when that's all I have left to pick from...


  1. This is kind of how I feel about Great Expectations. So many people love it, but the last time I read it, I just couldn't get it. I tried and tried and hated every minute of it.

    But, the more I think about it, the more I realize that there is usually one book by authors I don't love-even my favorites! :)

    I hope your next Dickens is better!

  2. I've never read anything by Dickens because a) we weren't forced to in school and b) I just know so many people who haven't enjoyed his novels. I would like to give him a try for myself one day, but I keep putting it off. Hopefully soon, but I don't think it will be the Pickwick Papers that I read first :)

  3. Allie - sure it will be - I'm not put off :) I loved Great Expectations, but I know what you mean about hating a book everyone seems to love.

    Lu - How did you get out of reading Dickens at school?! Do try one, but not Pickwick or you'll never pick up another Dickens again! :)

  4. It seems your experience with Pickwick has been the exact opposite of your experience with Trollope: not connecting with something you were hoping to love.

    I used to maintain Dickens was overrated, but after five 'exceptions' to the rule I was finally forced to concede he is, in fact, brilliant.

    I own Great Expectations. I read an abridged version in middle school, but I definitely wasn't ready for it. In fact, I believe it's what put me off Charlie in the first place. I'd like to experience it properly. Like you, I'm also looking forward to Dombey and The Old Curiosity Shop.

  5. Sigh. Dickens is overrated. Everyone might shoot me now, but seriously, I have that reaction with every one of his books that I try!

  6. I think I read Pickwick when I was 19, and thought it was hilarious. But different Dickens resonates with different people. I hate Great Expectations and Hard Times, but love Pickwick, Bleak House and parts of Our Mutual Friend. Which is kind of cool, because he tends to have something for everyone.

  7. Jane Smiley discusses this a bit in her bio on Dickens -- I'm going to pull it out tonight to see what she says -- if I recall correctly, this started out as a combination of commission and pet project, which is why it's so disjointed. Needless to say, I'm impress you stuck with it!

  8. Diana - Can't help but wonder if I would have loved 'He Knew He Was Right' as much if I hadn't had such a miserable time with Pickwick! Once I've finished it, I am looking forward to picking up Dickens again :)

    Becky - I'm like that with Tolstoy! :)

    Reading Rambo - I know someone who is finding Pickwick hilarious as well. But, as you say, there's a Dickens for everyone - and that's a nice way of looking at it :)

    Audra - It was bloody determination that made me stick with it :)



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