Why Modernism Was Necessary
I am not much of a reader of fiction, so my opinion on it is worth nothing. But after struggling another night to translate Oliver Twist into language my younger children can understand, I feel it necessary to say that I, who can generally be counted on to grinch about most things modernist, completely understand the draw of literary modernism, at least early modernism.
Here is how the chapter of Oliver Twist I read to the little ones last night begins:
In great families, when an advantageous place cannot be obtained, either in possession, reversion, remainder, or expectancy, for the young man who is growing up, it is a very general custom to send him to sea. The board, in imitation of so wise and salutary an example, took counsel together on the expediency of shipping off Oliver Twist, in some small trading vessel bound to a good unhealthy port. This suggested itself as the very best thing that could possibly be done with him: the probability being, that the skipper would flog him to death, in a playful mood, some day after dinner, or would knock his brains out with an iron bar; both pastimes being, as is pretty generally known, very favourite and common recreations among gentleman of that class. The more the case presented itself to the board, in this point of view, the more manifold the advantages of the step appeared; so, they came to the conclusion that the only way of providing for Oliver effectually, was to send him to sea without delay.
Mr. Bumble had been despatched to make various preliminary inquiries, with the view of finding out some captain or other who wanted a cabin-boy without any friends; and was returning to the workhouse to communicate the result of his mission; when he encountered at the gate, no less a person than Mr. Sowerberry, the parochial undertaker.
Mr. Sowerberry was a tall gaunt, large-jointed man, attired in a suit of threadbare black, with darned cotton stockings of the same colour, and shoes to answer. His features were not naturally intended to wear a smiling aspect, but he was in general rather given to professional jocosity. His step was elastic, and his face betokened inward pleasantry, as he advanced to Mr. Bumble, and shook him cordially by the hand.
Now look, I know what that says, and I enjoy, sort of, the fun Dickens is having with language. But a little of that goes a very long way, and Oliver Twist has a lot of that. I’m going to fade reading this to the kids — who are nine and six — because I keep having to stop and translate it, e.g., “‘Despatched to make preliminary inquiries’ means they sent him to ask some questions,” and that messes with the flow of the storytelling. I know, I know, Dickens has more than stood the test of time. The problem is not Dickens’s, but me. Still, it’s so irritating to me how Dickens can’t say something in 10 words when he can take 30, and grandiose words at that. He does that to comic effect, and it’s funny … but it wears me out.
It’s a matter of taste, I suppose, but every time I’ve tried to read literature from the 19th century, I find myself thinking, Oh, come on, just say it plainly, why don’t you! But then, I hate most of the gingerbread fussiness of 19th century style in everything. Stylistic modernism was an overreaction, I think, but encountering it for the first time must have seemed like gulping clear, cold water after having only been given egg nog with which to slake one’s thirst.
The thing is, I don’t like simplicity for simplicity’s sake. Most architecture after the Second World War strikes me as aggressively ugly, cold, and soulless. My favorite architectural style is Gothic, which does not count plainness among its virtues. There is just something about the way 19th-century style was complex that I find so suffocating. Reading Dickens, to me, is like putting on the clothes of a Victorian gentleman. I can admire the way they’re made, and can see why a man would find them attractive, but I just want to take the damn things off and put on something that breathes.
OK, fire away. I’m sure my wife, who loves 19th century literature, will read me the riot act.