Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Dickens vs. Conan Doyle

This hasn’t been much of a book blog lately, the directions I’ve been meaning to pursue have been a bit contradictory, perhaps – English essayists, Virginia Woolf / Bloomsbury, and then the Big Books that glare out at me. Big novels can be great, of course, they can absorb you into a setting in a way that smaller ones can’t. But what if it strikes you, three quarters of the way through, that the painstakingly constructed social scene is a house of cards, that the words are just words, that length doesn’t equal depth after all? Chris and I never did reach any kind of agreement over War and Peace: for me, the second half was a thrilling exercise in thinking everything into line with a cause, I got caught up in the back-projected, desperate nationalism; for him, it was deeply untrustworthy. For the last few weeks I’ve been re-reading Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, not because of his bicentenary so much as a smaller anniversary – twenty years ago my class read it at school, and I loved it as much as most of the class hated it. Now, I always get annoyed with Dickens somewhere between half way and three quarters of the way through one of his longer novels: his circumscribed idea of characterisation becomes so irritating (Mr Jarndyce has just proposed to Esther, if you must know – why on earth?). This time, the vagueness of his attack on the processes of the law has also become a bit too blatant. They are bad because they result in endless procrastination, and they should be reformed. What are they? Bleak House won’t tell you that. So it, too, becomes deeply untrustworthy. But for the left.

A splendid antidote to all of this has been Arthur Conan Doyle’s marvellous, straightforward The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard, a collection of linked short stories about a soldier in Napoleon’s forces, both before and after the Battle of Borodino which lies at the heart of War and Peace. A brave and hilariously conceited brigadier looks back on his exploits in the glory days of 1812 or so, when he was about thirty, which would make him 112 in 1894, when the first story was published – or 77 in 1869, the year of Conan Doyle’s birth, so it is at least plausible that he could have met a hero of this sort as a boy. Anyway, he blows up a castle in that first story, so let’s not quibble. Then he gets involved with bandits with vendettas, other bandits who want to lash him to bound trees and rip him in two, bandits in disguise, Wellington, Napoleon himself several times, damsels in distress who may or may not be in distress for the reason they pretend, English soldiers who rescue him from bandits and therefore might not be so bad after all – it’s great fun. And I shouldn’t call him conceited, because, as he argues:
It has sometimes struck me that some of you, when you have heard me tell these little adventures of mine, may have gone away with the impression that I was conceited. There could not be a greater mistake than this, for I have always observed that really fine soldiers are free from this failing.
The irony doesn’t dawn upon him, as ironies never do, for Gerard is like Bertie Wooster in his ability to tell a complete story without understanding half of it. Napoleon seizes on this quality when he picks him for a secret mission:
‘Brave and clever men surround me upon every side. But a brave man who –’ He did not finish his sentence, and for my own part I could not understand what he was driving at.
It is striking, in fact, how much Gerard is like the stupid Watson played by Nigel Bruce in Roy William Neill’s 1940s films. The Gerard stories are much funnier than the Sherlock Holmes stories and, if less ingenious, they are much more action packed. I love the bit where he escapes from prison and navigates by following the wind in the dark.

I also read Anthony Horowitz’s ‘official’ Sherlock Holmes novel The House of Silk recently, which struck me as pretty good, all things considered, but please take into account my extremely high tolerance for bad Holmes adaptations. S. read it too, and pointed out that the language is not 19th century English, though it clearly strives to be; there were too many modern idioms for her liking. Not to mention idiotic mistakes, e.g. an old newspaper that becomes as soft as tissue – this simply isn’t what happens to old newspaper, it becomes brittle. Various clever-sounding clues fail in this way. My favourite bad bit was Holmes’ deduction, from watching Watson’s bookmark move slowly and unsteadily through a book he’d lent him, before disappearing completely, that he’d finished the book, and hadn’t liked it very much. There were plenty of good bits too – the American gangster plot was well done, and the basic problem of how to spin out a Sherlock Holmes story to novel length (always tackled by Conan Doyle with lengthy absences of Holmes, or 100 pages of back story), was inventively dealt with, by linking two stories together. Then to finish a set piece of depravity – used as a reason for this story’s late emergence – and a really great horse drawn chase sequence, which finds its equivalent in the Gerard story ‘How the Brigadier was Tempted by the Devil’. Or The Sign of Four’s boat chase, possibly. Curiously, the book seemed aware of the trap of linking Holmes too closely with the police (discussed here), but fell into it anyway. Holmes is not about procedures or processes – neither is Gerard – but about swiftness and excitement. Not that it is wrong in a novel to point out the limitations of the legal procedures that less mercurial citizens have to endure, but I think I’ll pause a bit before finishing Bleak House.

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