intense sensations

Teetering on the edge of a precipice

Posted on: March 7, 2012

The Mystery of Edwin Drood  The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don’t know what made me buy this book and start reading it. The first few pages were torture. I knew the novel was unfinished. At least it would be short. But why even bother at all?

Then gradually there appeared light in the murk. Uncle and nephew, Jack and Eddy, got out their nuts and started to talk about Pussy.

No one does dialogue like Dickens. It is crisp, clear, entertaining and lifelike. Even the way the men crack their nuts adds to the drama.

Dickens is completely unafraid of sentiment. He allows the two men to be as affectionate with each other as two lovers.

When Pussy comes into the story it gets even better. Everyone is in love with her. It’s sickening but it’s also exciting. I love this kind of melodrama.

The way John Jasper stares at Pussy when she is playing the piano is fantastic. You remember it throughout all that follows and so does she. She especially remembers it many months later in Chapter 19 when John/Jack is staring at her again, dressed in mourning for the missing Eddy.

At times Dickens can be so verbose that it’s hard to catch his meaning but when he is describing passion his sentences are models of clarity. This chapter is called Shadow in the Sundial and the image, like so much that Dickens writes, sticks forever in your mind:

This time he does not touch her. But his face looks so wicked and menacing, as he stands leaning against the sundial – setting, as it were, his black mark upon the very face of day – that her flight is arrested by horror as she looks at him.

What makes Dickens’s writing so thrilling is that he captures the passion of the moment in the very rhythm of his sentences. He isn’t afraid of dramatic gestures.

“There is my fidelity to my dear boy after death. Tread upon it!”

With an action of his hands, as though he cast down something precious.

“There is the inexpiable offence against my adoration of you. Spurn it!”

With a similar action.

“There are my labours in the cause of a just vengeance for six toiling months. Crush them!”

The scene builds and builds like a symphonic poem till Pussy rushes away to her room and faints half way up the stairs.

There is a masterful touch at the end:

A thunderstorm is coming on, the maids say, and the hot and stifling air has overset the pretty dear; no wonder; they have felt their own knees all of a tremble all day long.

My knees were also all of a tremble and my heart all of a flutter while I read, and read, and read.

Two semi-colons in a single sentence, by the way! There is a man who is not afraid to flout convention.

The ending is, of course, abrupt and dizzying. It leaves you tottering on the edge of a precipice. My imagination was teeming with possibilities. I read a few theories about how the story might have been meant to go on but I wasn’t satisfied by any of them. I couldn’t help feeling that Dickens’s imagination was just too ingenious, too inventive and too mischievous to be second-guessed by even the most creative of scholars.

So for stimulating my imagination, this was the best book by far that I have read this year.

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10 Responses to "Teetering on the edge of a precipice"

The novel was unfinished, but the ending was restored, and I learnt of the brilliant and most convincing restoration from one brilliant TV movie (1980). The final part of the movie was dedicated to the explanaition of the ending and sounded much like a lecture, which I loved. A clue was on the cover of the original parts of the story, first released in 1870, and personally I don’t want anything mofre, after I listened to the lecture. Thank you, Vanessa, for mentioning the novel and the name of Charles Dickens and for the kind words to the book.

Hmmm. I would like to see the 1980 TV movie. Maybe it’s still available on DVD? I will investigate.

Made in Russia in 1980. This is a video and you can find some more videos. http://youtu.be/_Ee-Q8xMJUE
Seeing it recently on TV, I thought the movie looked and sounded so English, more English than some modern day British movies, I would say :)

Thanks, Larisa. It’s superb. The Russians did a very good Sherlock Holmes, too, which put the American movies to shame.

Wonderful appraisal of Drood! As usual, Pussy rules the world. Just surprised Madonna wasn’t in it. With Sean Penn playing a chair or other item of furniture. Semi-colons? I have three and a colon in one sentence in my new novel – it may need a semi-colonic irrigation.

Hahahaha! Glad to hear you are keeping the semi-colon alive.

Personally I never could understand why semicolon should die out. Why do sentences in the modern day writings should be shorter and shorter? Writings in German are known to have long sentences, and I have to say that in Russian too, and I find it nice. The longer, the more interesting.

Short sentences are part of the dumbing down of literature. People neither have the patience nor the intellect to follow a long sentence and understand it, so the thinking goes. It’s sad, because I’m sure that’s not true, but it’s the current fashion.

I agree. It is a good habit to read books with long sentences because it trains your ability to hold a complex construction in your head, anticipate the writer’s intentions and pay close attention to punctuation. However, there is an art to writing short sentences just as there is an art to writing long ones. You do not dispense with the need for logical and consistent thought patterns when you shorten individual sentences. Dickens writes excellent short sentences. “Tread upon it!” “Spurn it!” “Crush them!” And also “This time he did not touch her.” (Taken from the passages above.)

I think there is a place for long and short sentences. A sentence should be long enough to express its meaning in the most appropriate way. I think the German habit of putting the crucial word of a sentence right at the end can be a bit tantalising. I don’t know if they do this in Russian too.

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