Lucy and Todd

Archive for April, 2013|Monthly archive page

David Copperfield – by Charles Dickens

In The Gloves Are Off : Thoughts on Literature on April 19, 2013 at 5:44 am

Dickens can’t deal with women, as we know (Miriam Margolyes has made the most of this difficulty, hilariously so). Why though? All because his mother made him work in the bottle factory? They either have to be absolutely passively good and benevolent, as in Agnes, who never does anything but glow; or Dora, that sickly concoction of crying and curls (she should really have been a comic figure); or they’re corny witchlike monsters: Rosa Dartle, of the scarred lip, who’s presented as the personification of all evil, even more so than Uriah Heep – yet her actual effect on anything is very anti-climactic.

All the fallen woman stuff in this novel is amazing for its prudishness – and its melodrama. The worst writing of the book flows from these sexual ‘disasters’ (women having sex before marriage). The pleading, the clasped hands, the faces lifted up, the tresses poignantly spread across the shoulders… Good grief! David can’t even be in the same room with Emily after she’s found (rescued from prostitution), as if she’d sully him.

David’s inaction when watching Rosa haranguing Emily (he peeps at them through a doorway) is not just a let-down, and poor writing, but turns him (for me anyway) into an amoral character, from which he doesn’t recover, no matter how tender he feels towards his dying wife and his new bride (the remorseless tear-jerking moments of the book). Why doesn’t he step in? Come on, man! In fact, he’s curiously passive throughout, a mere witness rather than a hero – he’s not even Johnny-on-the-spot when Dora dies but downstairs watching the DOG die!

Heep’s downfall should have come much sooner, and David should have been more dramatically instrumental in it. There’s a much earlier moment when he should have punched him out. Heep’s reappearance as a hardened criminal – in prison – is also unnecessary and undramatic. Enough of HEEP. Meanwhile, poor old Peggotty and Aunt Betsey Trotwood subside into dull functions, shadows of their former selves. Dickens really should have given them more to do! Betsey in particular showed so much spirit earlier on, she was startling, and a great eccentric. Then she just becomes GOOD. What a waste.

In fact the whole book would have benefitted by being half the length, or less. The childhood is extraordinarily engrossing, and moving. Dickens has us in the palm of his hand throughout. It really should end when David reaches Dover, and is taken in by his aunt. Some hints about his later life could be offered, and some time given to Mr. Dick. Instead, they bundle him off to school almost immediately. And silly reappearances of the Murdstones follow later on, when the superb scene with the aunt should have been the last we see of them.

The only reason to read the book, apart from the childhood section, is for Micawber, who is a stunning achievement, and really does seem just like W. C. Fields (who played him in the movie). Micawber’s ornately formulated letters are one of the wonders of the world. He himself delights in them too.

It may be understandable that, over such a long book, written in parts, Dickens couldn’t sustain or pace it right, but that doesn’t excuse the wheel-spinning, such as all the Miss Mowcher stuff (the abrupt insertion of comedy into an increasingly ominous scenario in Yarmouth just doesn’t work). And in such a flawed book, to make Copperfield himself become a highly successful writer seems immodest.

And yet of course, now it’s over, I miss it all and will have to start another one soon. Part of Dickens’ genius is that he drags you in and won’t let go.


The Five Simple Machines

In Reviews of Our Books on April 2, 2013 at 2:02 pm

Nicholas Lezard’s Book of the Week in the Guardian!

Craig Raine on the radio last week came up with a phrase that captured nicely the common English reaction to a novel that is not rigidly conventional. “Why, that novel isn’t even wearing a suit!” (He was talking apropos Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being.) Well, this novel isn’t wearing a suit. Actually, it’s not even a novel: it is six separate narratives, and they are certainly not wearing suits. They are, figuratively speaking, wearing loud Hawaiian shirts and holding improbably large cocktails and being incredibly indiscreet – and making you laugh until you wonder whether you can take much more.

By which I do not mean that there is anything tacky about them: the prose is tight, even when it looks colloquially sloppy. Todd McEwen can get you to laugh, simply by the quick spin he puts on someone’s turn of phrase. Here is one narrator describing how he introduced two senior clergymen to each other at a convention: “And this, I said, is Bishop Staunton. We’ve met, said my uncle, strangely, and they sneered at each other.” You may not find that in and of itself hilarious, but here’s the context: an ex‑girlfriend of the narrator’s, whom we already know to be a little odd, had left him 10 years earlier for this Bishop Staunton chap, on account of his having (a) the largest known collection of gnostic literature on the eastern seaboard of the US (“but how large does it have to be, I said, to be the largest known etc”), and (b) an improbably enormous penis (“proportionately as knobful ivory and stiff as the Staunton chess piece of the same name”).

Or how about something more conventionally, if that is the word, funny? On people in the BDSM “scene”: “There’s an entire race of people out there with dungeons in their garages. They publish very bad magazines about this – they are called Fake Dungeons Monthly and Stupid Looking Dungeons and Slobs in Rubber.”

So, the stories in this book about reminiscences of sex: relationships that went bad, or were ridiculous, or were mismatches – there’s one about a marriage that seems to be working, yet is still radically unsatisfactory.

The titles are “six so-called mechanical powers – the lever, wedge, wheel and axle, pulley, screw and inclined plane”. The explanation for the confusion arising from the six mentioned here and the big red “5” on the front cover comes in an italicised form under the chapter headed “Wedge”: “It is well known that, strictly speaking, the wedge is only an application of the inclined plane. But.” And then we’re off: a story in which the girlfriend wears wedge shoes, her car looks like a wedge, and there are wedges driven between the characters.

McEwen is not afraid to alert us to any possible metaphorical or secondary applications of the terms he uses. You should see what he does with “Screw”. No, really, you should: McEwen knows what he is doing – this is his fifth novel, and I recommend the others, too. I gave a brief thumbs-up to McX: A Romance of the Dour 15 years or so ago, but this is much more chatty, fluid, and, once you accustom yourself to its varying rhythms, hilarious.

This is a rare kind of humour: it is not only a matter of verbal deftness – a word, or a comma, popping up unexpectedly – but of intelligence, lightly applied. Says a narrator admiring his girlfriend’s autumn outfit: “Wow, I thought, who has not seen thee oft amid thy store?” – which is sweet and charming to boot. Another character, whose girlfriend works in Wall Street and doesn’t understand her job (this one’s set in the 1980s, I’d say), chats up a different woman in a bar: “he listened to her describe her job and realised she didn’t understand it.” These stories manage to be unflaggingly funny, yet never wearisome: the tonal control is complete. And the deeper message is that laughter is a cure. I have the best job in the world because I can tell thousands of you at the same time about this book, instead of having to tell everyone individually.

(Nicholas Lezard, Guardian, April 2, 2013)

© 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved.


This beautifully produced little book is about sex.

It is not about sex in a way that puts it at any risk of being nominated for the ludicrous Bad Sex Award that acknowledges the clumsiness of some novelists when they feel the need to join their characters between the sheets. Nor is it anything to do with the sort of erotic fantasy that made 50 Shades Of Grey a Kindle hit. In fact, it takes time to ridicule people who find diversion in the paraphernalia of manacles, whips and chains and have fake dungeons in their garage instead of a car and a lawnmower.

Doubtless such folk would retort that McEwen’s way with sex is “vanilla”, but more of us might regard it as adult, realistic and recognisable (even when it is dealing with the juvenilia of real life) – and remark that vanilla is surely the gold standard for ice-cream. As much, if not rather more, to the point is that it is beautifully written and extremely funny. The conceit of these six narratives of sexual relationships is that they are titled after the six simple machines that demonstrate mechanical power – the lever, the wheel, the screw, the wedge, the pulley and the inclined plane. The discrepancy the more numerate reader will have picked up on between the title and the number of tales is explained (sort of) by the debatable distinction between the wedge and the inclined plane as a mechanical device. McEwen may not be 100% serious about this, but he is fastidious about the extended metaphor of the book.

Pulley begins with the words: “Got to raise something heavy here.” By which time we are well in on the joke, as well as the ones about the actress and bishop and the narrator hoist by his own petard. Screw does not eschew the obvious, but it is also a stream of consciousness that embraces being screwed up and being screwed, in every sense, as well as the manufacture of the actual objects for fixings. Wedge clads the object of its affection in appropriate footwear even as it documents the dividing agents being forced into the relationship. Wheel proves highly informative about the mechanisms of early merry-go-rounds. The opening tale, Lever, plunges straight in, examining the physical and mental tumescence of a narrator fascinated by his own apparatus, and the very mechanics of fornication.

Perhaps that makes McEwen’s writing sound cold, when it is anything but. There is a palpable affection for his characters, even when they are plainly misguided, obsessive or barking (up the wrong tree). Names are important, and sometimes particularly in their absence (“girlfriend”) or their masking of a true identity. It is never just the description of carnal activity that is explicit – the appetite for self-deception can be every bit as seductive as the appetite for sex.

It is tempting to draw conclusions about the author’s own self-awareness in some of the clarity of the analysis in all this, but there is no hard evidence for that, really. I fancy, nonetheless, that there is more than an element of autobiography in the closing meditation on “inclination”.

Elsewhere, the voices of the stories and the sharp, concise portraits of the characters are as much of a delight and McEwen, as readers of any of his work will know, has a remarkable gift for the startlingly original and yet instantly comprehensible descriptive phrase. I have been squirrelling away some of these phrases for future use. I hope to use them to impress women. You’ll have guessed why.

(Keith Bruce, Herald, May 4, 2013)


The Seven Deadly Sins, published by Union Books in November, 2012 (see “Woman’s Hour”, Radio 4, Nov. 28), contains an essay by Todd on SLOTH.

Here’s an extract:

‘Every day when I went off to school, my mother said, ‘Don’t doddle on the way home’. I didn’t know what doddling was, though in moral Sloth I promised not to. When I finally found out it was dawdling (I think I asked the ice cream man) I was filled with resentment that they thought me capable of it. I was a nervous kid and I really shot home every day to the safety of our arid house and television and my cat, who was rather good at relaxing and so was a comfort to me (are cats thought to be Slothful?).

Is worry Sloth? I suspect that it is.’

What reviewers said:

‘The border between sloth and laziness is wittily patrolled by Todd McEwen, who philosophises on fulfilling potential, and makes a rousing polemic on political idleness.’  (Anita Sethi, Observer)

‘The self-confessedly slothful Todd McEwen offers a quirky riff on the topic that includes a trip to the zoo, where he comes face to face with his animal counterpart, Choloepus hoffmanni. “Was there something admirable in this little chap, I thought, or at least some slap in the face for the Bible?” Well, sloths don’t put much energy into reproduction, typically managing only one offspring. They are too lazy to be gluttonous: Instead of searching for food, they wait for the wind to waft them across to the next tree. (“Surely this is the apogee of calmness, if not out-and-out Buddhism.”) It soon becomes clear that if universally applied, the sin of sloth could, with a minimal outlay of effort, disable the other deadly six, leaving a world of harmless couch potatoes. And there we have it, sinners: the problem of human morality solved.  (Elizabeth Lowry, Wall Street Journal)

And the Spanish translation of Todd’s first novel, Fisher’s Hornpipe, has just been published by Automatica Editorial to great acclaim. The title in Spain is Boston. It’s good in English too! One of the funniest things ever written.