The book group go to Bleak House

Charles Dickens, Bleak House (1852, Project Gutenberg version, prepared by Donald Lainsman with revision and corrections by Thomas Berger and Joseph E Loewenstein)

Unless you count comics or movie and TV adaptations, just about anything by Dickens is likely to win me a game of Humiliation (rules at the link). When someone suggested him for our next Book Group title I was happy, and even happier when we settled on Bleak House: Neil Gaiman has been going on about it on his blog recently, and my friend Cassandra Golds says it is a huge presence in two of her recent novels.

Before the meeting:
This is the first book I’ve read on iPhone and iPad, and it was a good experience. The iPad is more satisfyingly book sized, but I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the sense of continual progress that comes with the iPhone. One of the book’s 8041 screens had to be ‘turned’ every couple of seconds – so many words, but in such tiny portions!

I was probably out of harmony with the spirit of the book, not so much because of the electronic devices as because I read it in just a few weeks. It was originally published as a serial over 20 months: if you read one of its 67 chapters a week you would have kept pace. I doubt if anyone much reads at such a leisurely pace any more, and we’re probably the poorer for it. Anyhow, it’s a truly wonderful book which I recommend for when you’re in the mood for sustained, leisurely reading.

I’m confident I have nothing at all original to say about the book itself, so I’ll presume on a little of your time by ruminating on translation issues. Every now and then someone writes an article saying that each generation needs its own translation of [insert name of classic work here]. The idea is that we need to have ancient Latin or Renaissance Spanish served up in contemporary language. By this logic, Italian or Spanish readers need a fresh translation of Dickens every 50 years or so. If so, doesn’t it follow that we need an updating in English just as regularly? After all, the language has changed in the last 150 years, and early 21st century English speakers have a very different, and more diverse, take on the world than their mid-19th century equivalents. Where Dickens could assume that literate English speakers shared a vast set of references – the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, Shakespeare and classical mythology come to mind, and there’s plenty of each in Bleak House – we can no longer do that. Just for the heck of it, I thought I’d see how a hypothetical translator might tackle the opening:

London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.

I thought ‘translating’ this would be a straightforward bit of fun, but by the second word I was in trouble. When I was at university we had three terms, Lent, Trinity and Michaelmas, but surely Dickens isn’t talking about university here? Did the English courts have terms? (Do they still?) What is Lincoln’s Inn Hall, and who is the Lord Chancellor again? And so on. None of this worried me at all when I read the book, but a translator might feel obliged to do something like:

London. The year coming to an end, and the nation’s most eminent judge, the Lord Chancellor, hearing cases in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the Flood had just withdrawn from the face of the earth, and it would not be surprising to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling up Holborn Hill.

There, now that’s more accessible, isn’t it? (No need to gloss the Megalosaurus for 21st century readers, I thought, but the edgy play on biblical and palaeontological versions of prehistory does need clarifying.) It’s not quite Dickens, but then what translation is? Interestingly enough, even being facetious I couldn’t bear to touch what comes next:

Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes – gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

In short, I found the novel irresistible, especially for the way it wallows in language. And Cassandra is right – it’s full of echoes of Clair de Lune and The Museum of Mary Child.

After the meeting:
It’s winter in Sydney, and half of us were away, either home sick or visiting warmer climes. Of the five who showed, three had read the whole book, one was a hundred or so pages from the end, and the last confessed up front that he’d picked up a copy in a bookshop, and then thought, ‘Nah!’, though it turned out he had read it 20 or so years ago.

It was a good book to discuss. We talked about Mr Guppy’s withdrawal of his proposal, the death of Little Jo, the use of catchphrases (‘Discipline must be maintained!’), the pleasure of reading bits aloud. Someone knew that the appalling Mrs Jellyby was based on Caroline Chisolm, and the execrable Skimpole on an actual person. We wondered about the politics, the anti-Jewish nastiness (‘Smallweed is a Jew’), the depiction of industrialisation. Someone had thought about this book in comparison to the other Great Works we’ve read, Anna Karenina and The Tree of Man, and found it suffered from the comparison. I don’t know what I think of that. I know I enjoyed it at least as much as the Tolstoy and quite a lot more than the White, but I suppose enjoyment isn’t everything.

I haven’t been deliberately secretive about this blog and its reports on the group, but nor have I deliberately drawn people’s attention to it. If anyone from the group does drop in, welcome! Please add a comment.

3 responses to “The book group go to Bleak House

  1. Thanks Jonathan, I have the entire works of Dickens on the Kindle. They were either free or 99cents to download. I’ve almost got through Pickwick Papers, so now you’ve inspired me, Bleak House will be next.


  2. Neil Gaiman listened to a talking book of Bleak House while exercising, Richard. if you wanted to sacrifice your awareness of the coutnryside, you could have it playing as you went on your heroic bike rides. It would probably last the length and breadth of the Netherlands.


  3. Bleak House is one of my all-time favourite novels. I’ve read it twice (once at Uni), and I loved the adaptation the BBC did a few years ago. I’m glad you enjoyed it. WHen we were staying in Holborn last month, just round the corner from Lincoln’s Inn Field, I thought of it a lot.


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