Monday, January 19, 2009

A Tale of Two Cities

The problem with writing about a work that has been canonized by every single person to ever pick up a pencil (8th graders being forced to read the book in question by their cruel taskmaster/teacher excepted) is, of course, the obvious one: What can I possibly say about this book that Vladimir Nabokov has not? In the case of the novel in question, probably nothing. Therefore, if you are overly familiar with Nabokov's feelings on Dickens, you should probably skip to a post about the weather or the optimal length of dreadlocks w/r/t acceleration at each position in baseball, and the corresponding amounts players should tip their barber (or whatever). Unless you desire to read the same thing multiple times, only more poorly articulated the second time around (Though I wish to note that I am far ahead of Nabokov in the ever-important field of Bleak House analysis, as I am willing to state that which he never dared: Don't bother reading Bleak House. Seriously. It's an overstuffed, underformed mess). If this is the case, feel free to read along with the other functionally illiterate person or two who is still going here. Anway, with whatever I wrote as the first sentence (finally) being back in mind, my current intention is to keep this brief. That probably will not happen. Let's have a paragraph break.

A Tale of Two Cities has been covered everywhere from Princeton University to the fine television program Wishbone™, all of which seem to have the idea that it is one of the finest piece of writing ever produced in the English language. And they are correct. Dicken's prose and storytelling are at their absolute apex here, and the book is poignant and fully-formed, packed with interesting characters and a plot that moves along as quickly as the ever-present footsteps signalling the beginning of the French Revolution. The only caveat worth mentioning is that this is a work of Victorian english, meaning it is overly wordy and descriptive by default (Though still less digressive than this blog post. Also Tom Jones). However, none of the novel is extraneous. As opposed to some of his other works (God I hated Bleak House (Though nothing is worse than the titular character in Oliver Twist)), in ATOTC he ties every one of these seemingly unnecessary sidenotes back around into a plot that picks up just as much steam as the historical element it revolves around as the pages turn. It begins with one of the absolute iconic opening sentences in literature, and closes with one also matched by few works (Hello A Farewell To Arms!). If anyone knows of another work that achieves both these things, I would love to read it.

Despite this praise, the novel is not flawless. Dickens is often a moralist to a fault, and his continual slamming of the Revolutionary methods and aims draws thin as the book moves on. This, as most of his works, was written as a serial novel, and it is possible to pick out the various cliffhangers he ended various sections on as you read it (Perhaps this does not bother you personally, but I am a reader who comes off feeling slightly used if a writer feels it is necessary to resort to cliffhangers to keep me reading). These are small faults compared to the last seven paragraphs. In these, Dickens the Moralist runs amock, to the point of nearly destroying what should be the climactic finish of a masterpiece. The damage is contained by the thoroughly wonderful closing line, but it is still an unfortunate black mark against a virtually flawless novel, which gets marked down from perfect to brilliant as a result. If you haven't read it yet, stop reading this and go track down a copy. Or at least a DVD of Wishbone™.

No comments: