Saturday, 17 January 2009

Oliver Twist

I finally finished reading Oliver Twist to my son. I'm not sure whether the literary merits outweighed the problems I have with the book. In fact I'm sure they don't. The fact is, Oliver Twist is not a very good book. It has some fantastic moments - it is written by Dickens, so that goes without saying - but it also overwrought and overwritten, and often just plain silly.

I had never appreciated before what a folk tale Oliver Twist is. The boy Oliver is like some poor orphan from a Grimm's fairy story, setting off into the dark forest (except that London stands in for the forest). And there he falls prey to an evil goblin. . .

Fagin is not a character, he is a caricature; a collection of attributes. He is ugly, big-nosed and a miser, constantly wringing his hands and clutching at clothes, collecting children about him and corrupting them in ways that are only hinted at in the book. Fagin could step unchanged into a Nazi recruitment poster.

I have yet to read Peter Ackroyd's biography of Dickens, but I do have it on my shelves. I searched the index for any discussion of antisemitism but could not find any references. I do know that it was mentioned at the time and he received complaints and may have altered the text in response. But there does seem to be some idea that because Dickens was a decent sort, he could not also have been antisemitic. Here is how he introduces Fagin to us, standing like a demon in hell, toasting fork in hand:

In a frying-pan, which was on the fire, and which was secured to the mantel-shelf by a string, some sausages were cooking; and standing over them, with a toasting-fork in his hand, was a very old shrivelled Jew, whose villainous-looking and repulsive face was obscured by a quantity of matted red hair.

And what about:

The mud lay thick upon the stones, and a black mist hung over the streets; the rain fell sluggishly down, and everything felt cold and clammy to the touch. It seemed just the night when it befitted such a being as the Jew to be abroad. As he glided stealthily along, creeping beneath the shelter of the walls and doorways, the hideous old man seemed like some loathsome reptile, engendered in the slime and darkness through which he moved: crawling forth, by night, in search of some rich offal for a meal.

Pages go by where Dickens never refers to Fagin by name but only as 'the Jew' or 'the old Jew' or the 'crafty Jew'. Dickens may well have defended himself by saying that he was creating a vile character who happened to be Jewish, but Fagin is defined by his Jewishness. It is hard to believe that Dickens did not feel that some part of Fagin's depravity was bound up in the man's Jewishness. Fagin is an extraordinary creation, but one that does Dickens little credit.

In a recent BBC adaptation, they tried to make Fagin more sympathetic (but Dickens has no sympathy for him) and even tried to make him the victim of antisemitism at his trial (when he is himself the product of antisemitism as a character). He was played by Timothy Spall - a man who could not be more physically distant from the shrivelled gargoyle Dickens created.

The Dickens of Oliver Twist is nothing like the Dickens of David Copperfield or the writer of The Signalman. It was an early book and he got better - much better - as a writer. Young Dickens was clearly not above Carry On style humour either. The character Charlie Bates alone is called Master. Master Bates. Geddit? Take this paragraph for example:

The three boys sallied out; the Dodger with his coat-sleeves tucked up, and his hat cocked, as usual; Master Bates sauntering along with his hands in his pockets; and Oliver between them, wondering where they were going, and what branch of manufacture he would be instructed in, first.

With his hands in his pockets. Hilarious. Of course there are flashes of brilliance - particularly in his descriptions of London seedier side:

Crazy wooden galleries common to the backs of half-a-dozen houses, with holes from which to look upon the slime beneath; windows, broken and patched, with poles thrust out, on which to dry the linen that is never there; rooms so small, so filthy, so confined, that the air would seem too tainted even for the dirt and squalor which they shelter; wooden chambers thrusting themselves out above the mud, and threatening to fall into it- as some have done; dirt-besmeared walls and decaying foundations; every repulsive lineament of poverty, every loathsome indication of filth, rot, and garbage; all these ornament the banks of Folly Ditch.

Sykes is the one character that rings absolutely true. Sykes seems to be spot on: a brilliantly realised creation. Sykes swaggers off the page. I feel like I've crossed the street to avoid Sykes, heard his growling voice in the pub, felt his dog sniffing round my leg. He is terrifyingly real and horribly modern.

The same adaptation I mentioned above also tried to make it seem as though Sykes hanged himself because of his remorse at killing Nancy - a change that actually outdoes Dickens for sentimentality. Dickens is a lot harder on Sykes by making him haunted by Nancy's eyes, accidentally hanging himself while trying to escape a baying mob in arguably the best section of the entire book.

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