“Humiliation,” round 2

So, La Bella and I are plowing through the BBC’s new TV adaptation of Little Dorrit. It’s fascinating, in large part because: 1) the acting is so strong that the acting styles can veer from naturalistic (Arthur Clennam) to melodramatic (Tattycoram) to ridiculously hyperbolic (Mr. Flintwinch) to broadly comic (Pet Gowan), without flying apart tonally; 2 the direction is so consciously unstagy and knowingly (maybe too knowingly) cinematic, with its emphasis on odd angles and constant camera movement, rapid focal shifts that emphasize the background and then the foreground and back again, close-ups so tight and colors so over-vibrant that they disorient you, and compositions that are almost abstract before they resolve back into narrative purpose; and 3) an overall writing vision that’s so strong that the BBC calls this an adaptation by Andrew Davies (the screenwriter) rather than its three directors—this, even though it’s so consciously directed to be modern and against the mechanics of the theater.

(#3, of course, is common for British TV series, and maybe for American shows, too. Dennis Potter is known as a TV auteur even though he was mostly a writer, but the same’s true of Joss Whedon and David Simon. Why is this the case?)

Anyway, watching Little Dorrit has got me thinking about “Humiliation,” the parlor game invented by David Lodge in his hilarious novel Changing Places. Back in 2005, I described the rules in terms of my relationship to Jane Austen:

It goes like this: each person in the group names a book that s/he hasn’t read, but which s/he assumes everyone else in the group has read, and scores a point for every person who answers in the affirmative. At the end of several rounds, the person with the most points wins. Basically, you win by humiliating yourself intellectually. It’s funnier than it sounds—a professor at the party loses his chance for tenure by proclaiming loudly and almost proudly that he’s never read Hamlet.

I’ve since rectified the Jane Austen but I’ve got an even-bigger gap to admit to. I have a B.A. in English from a well-regarded liberal arts college. I read a book a week, maybe more. I have cultured friends who lead me to invigorating literature all the time. I read millions of words every year.

And not one of them was written by Charles Dickens.

And, yes, that means I’ve never read A Christmas Carol.

I’m tired of this lapse. Hell, I’m tired of a lot of my lapses, but I can do something about this one. So, your job, dear friends, is to direct me. In the comments box, please describe—in 200 words or less—the Dickens novel with which I should begin my education, and why. What should I expect? (A friend has suggested that, because I love Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series, I’ll find lots to admire in Dickens’s vivid characters who are drawn through dialogue, interlocking stories winding themselves around a geographically small city, and fortunate, freakish coincidences.) What shouldn’t I expect? Let me know; help the cause. I thank you in advance.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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4 Responses to “Humiliation,” round 2

  1. LL says:

    I loved that adaptation of Little Dorrit (a novel I haven’t read, by the way). I’ve always liked Matthew Macfayden a lot, and Tom Courtney was phenomenal as Mr. Dorrit.
    I’ll admit I tend to find Dickens a wee bit pompous, particularly his later works. He also never quite left his Newdigate novel roots behind, and so his plots twists seem more and more artificial as serial fiction progresses away from the Newdigate formal and more into domestic fiction. I’m currently stuck in the middle of Our Mutual Friend, and I’m not quite sure if I’ll ever make it out. But his description of London as a yellow fog filled, wheezing behemouth and my concern that Mr. Boffin might turn out badly keeps me reading. There’s a guy who I went to graduate school with who avers that Dickens and Gaskell simply peddle schlock that pandered to the masses, but I happen to think texts that appeal to a broad audience are more revealing. (I also think this dude is annoyingly elitist, which is evidenced by his dissertation being on Swineburn (shudder). He’s the reason I hate Bakhtin, but I digress).
    I’d suggest starting with Oliver Twist actually. It’s perhaps my favorite Dickens, and it’s relatively short. You’ll shiver over Sikes, and feel real empathy for Fagin. (I loved Timothy Spall’s interpretation of Fagin in the recent ITV production aired by Masterpiece theatre).

  2. Patti says:

    I’ve only read A Tale of Two Cities (great) and Bleak House (awesome). Bleak House is by far my favorite book and I would suggest it to anyone looking to read Dickens.
    Oliver Twist would probably be a great read. I have Great Expectations out from the library but haven’t started it yet… we shall see if I get to it.

  3. mernitman says:

    As a fellow Andrew Davies DORRIT lover, I’d say the original is worth a read just to see what Davies did with it (in some cases, he improved the plotting), but no, don’t start there. I’d recommend either TALE OF TWO CITIES or GREAT EXPECTATIONS, since they’re both relatively short and really, really great. But if you can stand the longeurs of a longer book, I agree with Patti: BLEAK HOUSE is killer good.

  4. Elizabeth says:

    I hope it’s not to late to put down my vote for Tale of Two Cities. The character arcs are clean and specific. The language is ornate but not overly heavy. It’s a damn good story, and there is something so operatic about the combination of the mundane (the women knitting (and I maen mundane only in this context, because as a knitter I say knitting is anything but)) with the mighty (the innocent on the way to the gallows). Let me know if anyone calls for Great Expectations – I started it once and faltered.

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