Posts Tagged 'charles dickens'

A discerning elimination.

the novels of dashiell hammett

We’ll begin with Sam Spade sneakily entering a room in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon.

He put his hand on the knob and turned it with care that permitted neither rattle nor click. He turned the knob until it would turn no farther: the door was locked. Holding the knob still, he changed hands, taking it now in his left hand. With his right hand he brought his keys out of his pocket, carefully, so they could not jingle against one another. He separated the office-key from the others and, smothering the others together in his palm, inserted the office-key in the lock. The insertion was soundless. He balanced himself on the balls of his feet, filled his lungs, clicked the door open, and went in.

In Rex Stout’s The League of Frightened Men, the reclusive criminological genius Nero Wolfe answers a criticism from his assistant that he has neglected to follow certain promising leads in their current case:

“In the labyrinth of any problem that confronts us, we must select the most promising paths; if we attempt to follow all at once we shall arrive nowhere. In any art – and I am an artist or nothing – one of the deepest secrets of excellence is a discerning elimination. Of course that is a truism.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Yes. Take the art of writing. I am, let us say, describing the actions of my hero rushing to greet his beloved, who has just entered the forest. He sprang up from the log on which he had been sitting, with his left foot forward; as he did so, one leg of his trousers fell properly into place but the other remained hitched up at the knee. He began running towards her, first his right foot, then his left, then his right again, then left, right, left, right, left, right…As you see, some of that can surely be left out – indeed must be, if he is to accomplish his welcoming embrace in the same chapter. So the artist must leave out vastly more than he puts in, and one of his chief cares is to leave out nothing vital to his work.”

Wolfe is obviously correct, at least insofar as his observation applies to the art of writing. (How it applies to the art of detection, I couldn’t say.) But I would extend it by adding that the amount of detail the artist elects to put in or leave out is a question of style.

rex stout the league of frightened men

I’m not sure if the theorists of literature have devised a name for this element of a writer’s style, so let’s call it granularity. The fine-grained writer will include more details of his characters’ actions, of their inner thoughts, of their surroundings, while the coarse-grained writer will include fewer. The parodic extreme of the fine-grained technique would be Wolfe’s narration of the hero’s tortured progress toward his lover in the forest: “First his right foot, then his left, then his right again…”

(…Which, as shown by that excerpt from The Maltese Falcon, is not that much of a parody.)

Its polar opposite, the quintessence of coarse-grainedness, would be a bare plot outline: “She meets him in the forest. They make love. Afterward…”

This isn’t to say that the fine-grained style is more precise, let alone better. A fine-grained but clumsy writer will include every detail of a character’s action but the one that matters; a talented coarse-grained writer will include that detail and no others, and the reader will be perfectly satisfied.

The famous quip about Henry James, that he “chewed more than he bit off”, could be applied to most fine-grained writing. But while James may too often have tried to stretch a stare, a blush, and a fluttered eyelid into a four-course meal, he was no more fine-grained than hard-boiled, hard-drinking Dashiell Hammett. Fine-grained writers are alike only in their high estimation of their readers’ level of wakefulness. One may be fine-grained on matters of psychology, another on sociology, another on technology. The one who transcribes every flicker of a character’s flow of consciousness won’t say a word about that character’s appearance, while the one who’ll specify which hand the hero uses to pluck his keys from his pocket will expect you to deduce said hero’s emotions from actions alone.

Assuming a work of finite length, the more fine-grained the writer’s treatment of any aspect of the story – internal or external, personal or historical, metaphysical or concrete – the more coarse-grained must be the treatment of all the others. The trick is to choose the degree of magnification, adjusting to the length of readers’ attention spans and to the overall size of the story you want to tell.

By these means, a story of any size can be shrunken or enlarged to fill any number of pages. Nicholson Baker’s intensely fine-grained 1988 debut The Mezzanine describes an office worker returning from lunch, crossing his building’s atrium, and heading up the escalator to the mezzanine floor, reflecting on the mundane events of his morning. Many a science-fiction work has narrated the rise and fall of a galactic civilization in fewer words.

nicholson baker the mezzanine

You might quibble with my use of the word “size”; you might say that The Mezzanine‘s visit to the CVS for a new pair of shoelaces is no bigger or smaller, literarily speaking, than Frodo and Sam’s march to Mordor. To me it’s obvious that stories do come in different sizes – that Ulysses’ wanderings around the Mediterranean are bigger than Leopold Bloom’s wanderings around Dublin in Ulysses, that To Kill A Mockingbird is bigger than Catcher in the Rye. A “normal-sized” story would involve two or three main characters, take place in an area no smaller than a neighbourhood but no larger than a city, encompass a timespan of between a few days and a few weeks, and have an outcome affecting people besides the characters themselves…but not too many people.

These parameters, you’ll notice, are distantly descended from Aristotle’s three unities, but unlike Aristotle I don’t mean to suggest that stories adhering to these rules are somehow superior. They are, I think, easier to write. To successfully tell a very small or very large story requires special skill as an author; for large stories, Nero Wolfe’s discerning elimination – knowing what to leave out – and for small stories, what I’m calling magnification – the enchanted lens that allows a Nicholson Baker to expand a broken shoelace or a stop at the men’s room to chapter size without losing his readers.

The master of magnification is that proverbial padder of word counts, Charles Dickens. In an old post on Sentimental Education I compared Flaubert unfavourably with Dickens:

[When Flaubert’s hero] fights a duel with a flighty aristocrat, or attends a ludicrous meeting of a radical political club, or serves an evening on duty with the National Guard, one wishes for a bit of Dickens’ comic expansiveness, his eagerness to digress, his concern to endow every character, no matter how minor, with a quirk or a verbal tic or, at the very least, a funny name. The fleas that harass Frédéric while he huddles in the guardhouse would have been good for a couple paragraphs in Dickens; Flaubert mentions them and moves on.

But whether you’re eliminating or magnifying, the key is to do it discerningly. Henry Fielding in Tom Jones compares a good writer to a tourist,

who always proportions his stay at any place to the beauties, elegancies, and curiosities which it affords. […] The woods, the rivers, the lawns of Devon and of Dorset, attract the eye of the ingenious traveller and retard his pace, which delay he afterward compensates by swiftly scouring over the gloomy heath of Bagshot or that pleasant plain which extends itself westward from Stockbridge, where no other object than one single tree only in sixteen miles presents itself to the view[.]

Inappropriately fine-grained writing, then, we might visualize as a slow, rattling buggy-ride across the naked prairie, with an overfamiliar driver directing our attention to every shrub and hillock as it passes.

Fielding is in my view guilty of the opposite impropriety, whipping his horses too briskly through the final chapters of Tom Jones, crammed as they are with revelations and reconciliations which the reader would enjoy the luxury of examining at greater length.

Take the reaction of Squire Western upon learning that the penniless bastard Jones, whom he has been damning and blackguarding through the preceding 800 pages, is to be reinstated as Squire Allworthy’s heir. Western’s profane rants against those who would undermine his sacred right to tyrannize his daughter are some of the novel’s most hilarious passages; we chuckle as we wonder how he will step down from his habitual perch of enraged dignity. But Fielding only informs us that

No sooner, then, was Western informed of Mr. Allworthy’s intention to make Jones his heir than he joined heartily with the uncle in every commendation of the nephew, and became as eager for [his daughter’s] marriage with Jones as he had before been to couple her to Blifil.

One sentence! This is the same Fielding who expended four entire chapters on the life story of a random hermit Jones encountered on a hilltop outside Gloucester. Discerningly, my good man, discerningly.


Update, July 28, 2020: Added cover images and linked to Bibliography page.

Equality and homogeneity.

I picked up a used copy of G.K. Chesterton’s 1906 biography-cum-critical-appreciation Charles Dickens on a visit to the UK five years ago, but to avoid spoilers I held off tackling it until I’d read all of Dickens’s novels at least once. I finally polished off The Mystery of Edwin Drood last month, freeing me to read the Chesterton book.

One of its major themes is Dickens’s egalitarianism, his “democratic optimism”:

We shall consider Dickens in many other capacities, but let us put this one first. He was the voice in England of this humane intoxication and expansion, this encouraging of anybody to be anything.

Which strikes very comfortingly on the modern ear – but it quickly becomes apparent that Chesterton’s notion of equality is very different from the version now championed. At one point he offers this telling digression:

In one sense things can only be equal if they are entirely different. Thus, for instance, people talk with a quite astonishing gravity about the inequality or equality of the sexes; as if there could possibly be any inequality between a lock and a key. Wherever there is no element of variety, wherever all the items literally have an identical aim, there is at once and of necessity inequality. A woman is only inferior to man in the matter of being not so manly; she is inferior in nothing else. Man is inferior to woman in so far as he is not a woman; there is no other reason. … If everything is trying to be green, some things will be greener than others; but there is an immortal and indestructible equality between green and red.

That is to say, when everyone’s worth is measured by a single criterion – by IQ, by wealth, by physical strength – then equality is an impossible goal. It’s only when people are liberated to pursue their manifold, unpredictable, and often hilarious excellences that true equality – the equality of the human spirit – becomes visible.


In 2013 my father died. As his only child and heir I received a sizeable life insurance payout, the sum of various small amounts scattered among his various bank accounts, and a modest monthly pension which will carry on through 2020. This hardly added up to what a middle-class Canadian would describe as a fortune, but it was sufficient to free me, a single person with inexpensive tastes, from the necessity of paid employment for a while.

I used my freedom to write a novel.

…Or that’s the self-glamorizing way to put it. It would be as accurate to say I pissed away my dad’s life savings for three years, during which time I incidentally happened to produce a novel – which, even if I somehow get it published, is highly unlikely to earn back even a tiny fraction of what I pissed away, let alone the money I failed to earn by not working.

I didn’t get here through stupidity. I knew full well that a multi-year gap in the middle of my prime wage-earning years would blow my chances of ever owning a home, or raising a family, or being treated by anyone as a person of importance. It’s not that I don’t value any of those things, but you can see by my choices that I don’t value them that highly.

Meanwhile, given my level of laziness, I knew I was unlikely ever to write a novel while simultaneously working a full-time job. And writing this novel was important to me.

So I’m okay with my decision – for now. Check back with me when I’m a pensionless sixty-five year old starving in a ditch.


Assuming I’ve correctly estimated my expenditures, it appears that last year I scraped by at roughly the Low-Income Cut-Off, or LICO – the closest thing Canada has to an “official” poverty line – for a single person.

I don’t think of myself as living in near-poverty. My apartment is mostly bug-free. My budget allows me two bottles of liquor a month, sufficient for my current level of incipient alcoholism. A couple times a year I fly out to see relatives in Toronto, where I make a show of spending liberally so they don’t worry about me.

Of course it would be a very different thing if I’d been grinding out forty hours a week at Tim Hortons to bring home an equivalent income. A LICO-level standard of living is quite comfortable when combined with the freedom to sleep in as late as you like.

Comfortable for me, I mean. Your results may vary.


I have this thought experiment that strikes me as so obvious it’s probably not even worth writing down. And yet I haven’t seen it expressed this way anywhere, so maybe it’s not that obvious, who knows.

Suppose all the wealth in a country is redistributed equally among all its citizens. All debts are cancelled, all money and goods are apportioned equally, all the land is divided in such a way that everyone’s share is equally productive.

It’s a wealthy country. There’s more than enough for everyone to live comfortably. No-one has to work at Tim Hortons any more – though they’re welcome to, if they like.

If you leave this egalitarian paradise alone for a while, then check in at the end of, say, ten years to see how things are progressing, will everyone still be equally wealthy?

Perhaps you’ll find that a few wily and unscrupulous operators have fleeced their more trusting fellow citizens of all or most of their wealth. But that wasn’t really a fair test. Those who had been well-educated, well-connected, and well-off prior to the redistribution had an advantage over the previously disadvantaged and downtrodden.

So let’s run the experiment again, only this time we’ll kidnap the young children of our failed socialist state and resettle them in a brand new, unspoiled country, where they’ll all be dressed identically, housed identically, fed identically, and educated to a common standard. When the kids reach eighteen the wealth of their new land will be shared out again, and this time, none of them will have any advantage over the others. Surely when we check back in at the end of ten years…

Huh, there’s still widespread inequality. It turns out the kids have different tastes, different interests. Some enjoy the simple life while others like to decorate their homes with fancy and expensive things. Some are content to hew wood and draw water while others prefer to sleep in late and write unsellable novels. Others enjoy manufacturing things that are useful and necessary, which they can exchange with their neighbours for a small share of their neighbours’ wealth. Still others have discovered that having extra wealth is in itself rather enjoyable, and they’re okay with spending their spare time doing not-very-enjoyable things – even working at Tim Hortons – for the chance of making a little more.

What can you do? Kidnap another generation of imperfectly equal babies, I guess. You’ll just have to brainwash the little suckers.


One of the implications of my thought experiment is that the more identical the citizens are in their tastes, interests, and priorities, the more enduring the equal distribution of wealth is likely to be. Which raises the question – did those countries that are celebrated for their egalitarianism get that way because they pursued egalitarian policies? Or are they naturally egalitarian because their citizens exhibit a high degree of homogeneity?

And what happens when homogeneous cultures attempt to assimilate large minorities with very different sets of tastes, interests, and priorities?

…But now we’re getting into the touchy subject of group differences, where you can easily get yourself blacklisted for saying the wrong thing. Better to stay away from specifics.

I’ll only suggest – delicately and humbly – that if you and I can have different preferences about how to spend our time and money, leading to differences in life outcomes, isn’t it probable that different groups, with different histories, different backgrounds, will tend to have different preferences that lead to different outcomes?

The modern version of egalitarianism proclaims that women and men, gays and straights, Jews and gentiles, all must be distributed in every profession, in every sphere of activity, at every level of prosperity, in proportion to their overall numbers. Only then will we all be equal.

But the price of that equality may be that women and men, gays and straights, Jews and gentiles – you and I – lose our distinctive identities.

My own old-fashioned view is that we’re equal already, in the Chestertonian sense – “the immortal and indestructible equality between green and red”. But to the modern progressive mind, that sounds like complacency. Greenness may be just one of many possible yardsticks for comparing people and groups, but it’s the one the modern world is built around. To tell the ungreen to be satisfied in their redness, or yellowness, or blueness, while we continue to adulate green above all, is bound to lead to resentment.

I’m not sure there’s a solution to this problem, or anyway one that doesn’t involve illiberal attempts to re-engineer human nature – precisely what I’m opposed to. So long as people have the freedom to pursue different paths we’ll tend to group ourselves around common values and interests. And so long as different groups exist, jealousy, suspicion, and hostility will arise between them. The best we can do is try and keep these feelings from breaking out into violence and persecution.

In any case, my complacent prediction is that human variety, and human conflict, will outlive all the clumsy attempts by the modern egalitarians to stamp them out.


Under weigh? Right away!

(Some observations on language in Charles Dickens’ American Notes.)

Shortly after landing at Boston, and installing himself at a “very excellent” hotel, the author encounters an unfamiliar turn of phrase:

“Dinner, if you please,” said I to the waiter.

“When?” said the waiter.

“As quick as possible,” said I.

“Right away?” said the waiter.

After a moment’s hesitation, I answered “No,” at hazard.

“Not right away?” cried the waiter, with an amount of surprise that made me start.

I looked at him doubtfully, and returned, “No; I would rather have it in this private room. I like it very much.”

At this, I really thought the waiter must have gone out of his mind: as I believe he would have done, but for the interposition of another man, who whispered in his ear, “Directly.”

“Well! and that’s a fact!” said the waiter, looking helplessly at me: “Right away.”

The expression right away is now so ubiquitous that it’s practically un-Googlable, like the or and. TheFreeDictionary asserts that,

This idiom uses right as an intensifier and away in the sense of “at once,” the latter usage dating from the 1500s and surviving only in such phrases as this one and fire away. It was first recorded in 1818.

No citation is given for the 1818 appearance. I assumed, from Dickens’ confusion, that right away originated in the States and took a while to spread overseas. But the correspondents of the journal Notes and Queries – “devoted principally to English language and literature, lexicography, history, and scholarly antiquarianism” – in 1880 investigated the phrase in response to an enquiry by an English reader named “Hermentrude”:

This expression is so familiar to me that until this moment I was not aware there was anything peculiar about it. If Hermentrude lived in these parts she might hear it every hour of the day. “Now, then, children, run off right away to school”; “She has been crying right away”; “It rained right away till tea-time”; “He has been working right away.” Even now I do not see much wrong about it. I should say it means not so much immediately as earnestly, directly. I think many of these forms of expression are very old.
— R.R., Boston, Lincolnshire

This is good North Lincolnshire. “It’s taken root and it’ll grow right away”; “I’m mending [recovering] right away, thank you.” It does not mean immediately. The young lady behind the counter meant that the boy was going straight past and along the road.
— J.T.F., Winterton, Brigg

This expression is a very common one in Liverpool, and always means immediately. I have never heard it used in the sense of a long distance, which Hermentrude seems to think the correct meaning.
— J.Y.W. MacAllister

This expression has for generations been used all over the south-west of Ireland in the way in which the Yorkshire shop girl applied it. “Right away” in Munster = immediately.
— Mary Agnes Hickson

Although there seems to be some vagueness about its precise meaning, these testimonies suggest that the phrase originated in Ireland or the north of England and spread via emigration to the United States, where Dickens mistook it for an Americanism and introduced it to the wider British reading public.


Note this weird spelling in Dickens’ description of a voyage by steamer on the Potomac River:

I wake, of course, when we get under weigh, for there is a good deal of noise.

Of course, I leaped to the assumption that Dickens, being nearer the wellspring of “pure” English, must have known what he was talking about, and that our word underway had derived from this extinct sailor’s term. But like right away, this is another example of a phrase that doubled back on itself: under weigh, it turns out, evolved from underway via the convolutions of folk etymology.

From Michael Quinion’s terrific website World Wide Words (the Notes and Queries of our time):

What happened was that the Dutch, who were European masters of the sea in the seventeenth century, gave us – among many other nautical expressions – the term onderweg, meaning “on the way”. This became naturalised as under way and is first recorded in English around 1740, specifically as a maritime term (its broader meanings didn’t appear until the following century). Some over-clever individuals connected with the sea almost immediately linked it erroneously with the phrase to weigh anchor. […]

It’s easy to find a myriad of examples of under weigh from the best English authors in the following two centuries, such as William Makepeace Thackeray, Captain Marryat, Washington Irving, Thomas Carlyle, Herman Melville, Lord Byron, and Charles Dickens […]

It was still common as recently as the 1930s … but weigh has dropped off almost to nothing now. This paralleled another change, starting around the same time, in which the two words began to be combined into a single adverb, underway (though many style manuals still recommend it be written as two words). It may be that the influence of other words ending in -way, especially anyway, encouraged the shift in spelling back to the original and in the process killed off a persistent misunderstanding.


My favourite scene in Flaubert’s Sentimental Education

…is the final chapter, where our hero, Frédéric, and his lifelong best friend / occasional enemy Deslauriers, middle-aged and disillusioned now, sit in Frédéric’s parlour recollecting their youthful misadventures.

My second-favourite scene comes midway through the novel. Frédéric, after a lot of fumbling, misdirected effort, and scrupulous hesitations, has finally taken a lover – the beautiful and impetuous Rosanette, former mistress to various wealthy older men including his friend Arnoux. Frédéric carefully avoids wondering where Rosanette gets her money and who she sees when he’s not around. One morning, emerging from Rosanette’s flat after spending the night, he meets someone coming up the stairs:

Where was he going? Frédéric waited. The man kept on climbing, with his head slightly bowed. He looked up. It was Arnoux. The situation was obvious. They both blushed at the same time, feeling the same embarrassment.

Arnoux was the first to find a way out.

“She’s getting better, isn’t she?” he said, as if Rosanette were ill and he had come to ask how she was.

Frédéric took advantage of this opening.

“Yes, indeed! At least, that’s what her maid told me,” he replied, in order to give the impression that he had not been admitted.

Then they stood there, face to face, both irresolute, watching one another. Which of the two was going to stay? Once again, Arnoux solved the problem.

“Oh, well, I’ll come back another time! Where were you going? I’ll come along with you.”

And the two friends wander out into the Paris streets, each fully aware of what the other is up to with their shared mistress, but unwilling to make a scene about it.

Flaubert wrote Sentimental Education between 1864 and ’69. It’s helpful to be reminded that, in the world outside Queen Victoria’s England, popular novelists could openly discuss extramarital sex, childbirth, and illegitimacy without the evasions and circumlocutions necessary to their British counterparts. One strains to imagine Pip or David Copperfield knocking up his mistress as Frédéric does Rosanette; and even if such a plot twist were introduced, imagine Dickens revealing it in the middle of a vicious lover’s spat like this:

“That was a nice thing you did just now, and no mistake!”

She planted herself proudly in front of him.

“Well, and what of it? Where’s the harm in it?”

“What! You were spying on me, weren’t you?”

“Is that my fault? Why should you go and amuse yourself with respectable women?”

“That’s beside the point. I won’t have you insulting them.”

“How did I insult her?”

He could not think of a reply; and with a spiteful edge to his voice, he said:

“But that other time, at the Champ de Mars…”

“Oh, I’m sick and tired of your old flames!”

“You bitch!”

He raised his fist.

“Don’t kill me! I’m pregnant!”

Aside from the fact that they were near-contemporaries, the comparison with Dickens isn’t really apt: Flaubert is very unlike him in his unfancy style, his uncolourful dialogue, and his unschmaltzy temperament. The lack of schmaltz is appreciated; when Flaubert kills off an infant boy, he dispatches the kid in a few matter-of-fact lines, rather than making us sit through a protracted deathbed tear-soaking like those for which Dickens is justly reviled. But when Frédéric fights a duel with a flighty aristocrat, or attends a ludicruous meeting of a radical political club, or serves an evening on duty with the National Guard, one wishes for a bit of Dickens’ comic expansiveness, his eagerness to digress, his concern to endow every character, no matter how minor, with a quirk or a verbal tic or, at the very least, a funny name. The fleas that harass Frédéric while he huddles in the guardhouse would have been good for a couple paragraphs in Dickens; Flaubert mentions them and moves on. The setpieces in Flaubert, though fascinating, tend to rush by in a page or two, and too quickly we find ourselves back in some sitting-room or boudoir or café where our characters are obsessing over their hapless love affairs or, depressingly, their finances.

So I’ll take Dickens, thanks. But that final chapter – in which Frédéric and Deslauriers recall a particularly humiliating hijink from their schoolboy days and agree that it was “the best time of their lives” – really is beautiful.


Charles Dickens, G.K. Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh, and Graham Greene in the Archive.

This is a landing page for archived posts about:

Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene

“Arbuckle Avenue” concerns a row of seedy hotels that used to stand across from London’s Paddington Station, mentioned in Waugh’s When the Going Was Good and Greene’s The End of the Affair. A commenter helps explain the origin of the name.

Charkes Dickens, G.K. Chesterton, and Evelyn Waugh

“Dickens – Chesterton – Waugh” discusses a passage in Brideshead Revisited that seems to have been inspired by / lifted from the Chesterton essay “Simmons and the Social Tie”. Chesterton’s critique of David Copperfield is also mentioned.

Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

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