I am writing this post because I just ran across a beautiful example of literary criticism from David Mamet in the Wall Street Journal. The title is Charles Dickens Makes Me Want to Throw Up:
Yep! Mamet reserves his particular praise for Anthony Trollope, whom I greatly loved as I read all of his Palliser novels many years ago.Dickens’s characters are cardboard cutouts, even in their names: Inspector Bucket, the Brothers Cheeryble, Jerry Cruncher. They are mechanicals. His prose is turgid and, less forgivable, tortured. Here’s his rendition, in “Dombey and Son,” of a sea-captain’s dialect: “It’s an almighty element. There’s wonders in the deep, my pretty. Think on it when the winds is roaring and the waves is rowling.”What a load of bosh. The public devotion to Dickens’s work is sententious and perhaps even self-congratulatory—like that affection of New York theatergoers between the wars for the lugubrious plays of Eugene O’Neill.I find Dickens’s gloomy view of London stinking of the lamp: that sputtering meager lamp which hardly brightens the overpowering darkness of the cold garret room, where, huddled in the corner, poverty has moored a guiltless ragamuffin, who, et cetera.
I can hardly wait to make a start on the Barchester novels. Mamet has a delightful denouement to his essay:I’ve read Anthony Trollope’s entire work several times, not because I am schooled, educated or right-thinking—I don’t believe I am more afflicted in these than most—but because I like to read. Trollope’s 47 novels, nonfiction and incidental work are a delight. His prose is clear, perfectly rhythmic, concise and, at turns, trenchant and profoundly funny.His plotting is stunning. How does one write a three-decker novel, which will appear in installments over a year and a half, and have the equation resolve magnificently—although making it up as one goes along? Compound this, if you will, with his work habits: Trollope rose every morning at 5:30 and wrote 2,500 words. If he completed one novel before meeting his daily goal, he began another. All while running various departments of the British General Post Office.
I loathed Henry James and counted myself boorish until I read the opinion of his best friend, Edith Wharton, who pronounced him unreadable. As per Marley’s Ghost, we each wear the chains we forged in life; if fortunate, the various spirits come to induce us to shed them. I’m not chutzpadik enough to think I rank among those shades, but if I have relieved one reader of the burden of a factitious and oppressive affection for Chuck Dickens I will rest evermore content.Amen. And let's raise our glasses in toast to a bit of literary criticism that is delightful, humorous, engaging and inspiring without once exhorting us on the basis of resentful, smug, identity politics!