Sunday, 4 October 2015

The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens (1836-7)

Originally Written in 2008

If you wanted to pick up a new book, should you pick Pickwick? The answer is a resounding yes. The Pickwick Papers is usually counted as Dickens' first work (if we disallow his early short fiction in Sketches by Boz), and is stuffed to the gills with his familiar comic skill. It also has a lighter, more carefree tone and a more loosely structured form than many of the novels he had yet to write (there probably aren't many Dickens books one would call tightly written, but even so, this is more episodic and meandering than most).

And yet despite its lack of discipline the story is hilarity from beginning to end and back again. The novel follows the dangerously funny exploits of four members of the Pickwick club: Samuel Pickwick, its founder; Tracy Tupman, Augustus Snodgrass and Nathaniel Winkle. I mean, even their names are comically grotesque. So much for the 'heroes'; the villain of the piece - if you could call him that, but unlike future Dickens efforts there isn't really a villain here - is one Mr Alfred Jingle, who basically functions as a slightly less odious Uriah Heep with a peculiar staccato speech.

Along their daring adventures through towns with as amusing names as Muggleton, Dingley Dell and Eatonswill, the four 'Pickwickians', as members of the club are known, encounter the tricky and troublesome Jingle, experience numerous cases of mistaken identity, go through various welcoming and eccentric inns and listen to a lot of round-the-fire anecdotes told by other characters.

Dickens' comic streak may have made the population of 1837 roar with laughter, but the jokes are often every bit as funny today and will no doubt be appreciated by the population of 2037 every bit as much. In this story he sets out to write a completely comic novel, and even by the time we reach his next effort - the infamous Oliver Twist - his style and subject have deepened and darkened somewhat, and we're in a grimy London of urchins, orphans, thieves and abusive relationships. It's true that it's a testament to Dickens that he never quite wrote the same book twice, twisting genres into different shapes as he went along, but there's something rather wonderful that when he begins he begins by simply sitting down and trying to make everybody laugh.

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