Saturday, July 22, 2017

Criticism, as She is Done

Criticism, whether of literature or music or visual arts (though I never know what they are talking about) can be a delightful thing. All the really good criticism I have ever read has been based on personal taste informed by a thorough knowledge of the artwork. In music I take particular delight in the criticism of Charles Rosen. His books on Classical style might seem to be primarily analysis, but to my mind they are simply informed criticism. Richard Taruskin's writings, on the other hand, downplay the element of criticism in favor of historical context and more power to them.

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:
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.
Yep! Mamet reserves his particular praise for Anthony Trollope, whom I greatly loved as I read all of his Palliser novels many years ago.
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 can hardly wait to make a start on the Barchester novels. Mamet has a delightful denouement to his essay:
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!


Marc said...

'Oppressive and factitious affection' indeed-- who of readers or in the English literature faculties suffers this, these days? Am not able to leap the paywall alas but I imagine that I could answer each of Mamet's criticisms (yes, Dickens is sometimes not successful at his attempts at dialect-- and his present reputation as a novelist rests upon these? yes, some characters are more complete than others-- in this he is different than which novelist? 'turgid prose'? coming from a screenwriter whose idea of a lengthy sentence of dialogue comprises seven words I may doubt that we share a common understanding of what 'turgid' means et cetera)-- but having made that point I will freely admit that I only regularly re-read two of his novels, ahem. One can appreciate both Dickens and Trollope!

(Do you recall, offhand, addressing the distinction(s), such as it or they may be, between 'sonic art' and 'music'? John Adams's new opera Girls of the Golden West has occasioned a post with its comments here where the subject comes up.)

Bryan Townsend said...

Marc, I think that if you just Google the headline, it might take you to the article, bypassing the paywall.

Thanks for the John Adams tip.

(One of the things I really enjoyed about the essay was the nasty, vicious and very funny criticism!)

Anonymous said...

I agree that Dickens (and Hemingway) are overrated, but it's a bit rich for Mamet to pass judgment, a man so insecure about his own talent he slapped $25K fines on any theater staging discussions of his work. A small man who once had a gift for quick exchanges but hasn't done anything in 20 years, unless on counts as "work" besmirching the good name of Bertrand Russell by calling him a useful idiot for the Soviets. But, hey, who cares about facts and history when you're a New York celebrity?

JBB said...

When it comes to Trollope and Dickens, I am firmly in the both/and camp, at least in regards to their best works, but I found the Mamet article hilarious.

If you're just starting the Barchester stories, I recommend beginning with Barchester Towers and then reading The Warden. It's chronologically out of order, but you'll actually care about the first couple of chapters of The Warden that way.

Maury said...

Given that the general public knows neither Dickens nor Trollope, this is a catfight where the cats are dead. What does the public know about this? One thing: A Christmas Carol. It is unlikely that a majority of the public could link Dickens name to it unless they read the fine print on the ancient DVD cover gathering dust in the attic.

There is a lesson here probably. The literary works that seem to survive almost unbidden are those with an element of fantasy to them particularly with a memorable character or two. Slice of life dates quickly.

It is only through the use of drama (plays, movies) and / or music that such slices of life survive although even so there is pressure to revise and update. So we listen to Mozart operas, often scenically updated, not the plays they were based on. Or people went to see Oliver! who wouldn't read the book.