I was lucky to add The Pickwick Papers to the asset side of my reading equation last month, a buoyant, rich and very funny book. As Dickens’ first book, you see the seed of some of his later work here: the interminable law suits (Bleak House), the beloved relative in the debtors’ prison (Little Dorrit), the finger-wagging spirits (A Christmas Carol), and more.
This book was the favorite of both Fernando Pessoa and Giuseppe Lampedusa, and such high-brow admiration made me a bit afraid of what it would be like. I’d also heard there wasn’t much of a story line, so I worried. Would there be a plot? Would there be characters to follow? Wouldn’t it suck if I didn’t like it?
I worried for naught, for though the narrative is somewhat liquid, running off on various tangents, there is a plot to frame it, and the characters are marvelous, especially --as anyone who’s read it knows -- Sam Weller, Mr. Pickwick’s servant. Mr. Pickwick himself radiates benevolence, and as always with Dickens, the outright melodrama of it all is like a little kindling in your hands.
Dickens is a great observer, and his scenes and dialogues can be hilarious. Take, for example, Sam Weller’s father’s explanation of the character of pike keepers:
"Wery queer life is a pike-keeper's, sir."
"A what?" said Mr. Pickwick.
"What do you mean by pike-keeper?" inquired Mr. Peter Magnus.
"The old 'un means a turnpike keeper, gen'l'm'n," observed Mr. Samuel Weller, in explanation.
"Oh," said Mr. Pickwick, "I see. Yes; very curious life. Very uncomfortable."
"They're all on 'em men as has met vith some disappointment in life," said Mr. Weller senior.
"Ay, ay?" said Mr. Pickwick.
"Yes. Consequence of vich, they retires from the world, and shuts themselves up in pikes; partly with the view of being solitary, and partly to rewenge themselves on mankind, by takin' tolls."
"Dear me," said Mr. Pickwick, "I never knew that before."
Hey, me neither! But now I do.
Like Pessoa, I can now say that a great tragedy of my life is having read The Pickwick Papers, since I can never read it for the first time again.