"Future writers should remember that one of the amazing things about the holiday's ur-text, Charles Dickens's 1943 novella, A Christmas Carol, is that it's pretty grim, that is to say realistic, when it comes to depicting Scrooge's past and Tiny Tim's present. Without Dickens's eye and ear for extreme emotional and fiscal predicaments, the story's more fantastic moments wouldn't have the weight of truth." --Hilton Als, "'Tis the Season," New Yorker, December 7, 2015
Reading those lines last night, as I wallowed under the couch blanket beside a warm fire, made me realize that, of course, Dickens is what I should read next. And when I imagined which novel I should reread, I found myself longing for the comic/bathetic/grubby/enchanting theater troupe of Nicholas Nickleby. The Crummles family's traveling thespians capture the sweet cranky joyousness of constructing ensemble art--bad ensemble art, of course, but who cares? Their only literary rivals may be the mechanicals rehearsing for Pyramus and Thisbe in Shakespeare's Midsummer.
Nicholas Nickleby has numerous plot and character doldrums, but in sheer zest it rivals Pickwick in a way none of the other "greater" novels do. And its comic-nightmare characters are unmatched: the educational Squeers family; Mr. Mantalini, that absurb Lothario; the elderly next door neighbor who romantically throws squash at Nicholas's mother. . . .
Dickens was 26 years old when he began writing and serializing this novel, which was not his first. At that age, Keats was already dead. Meanwhile, George Eliot was 40 when she published her first novel, Adam Bede. I was 39 when I published my first collection of poetry. The definition of novice is relative, that's for sure.