Pisani drags through the drudgery of Charles Dickens
Dear Reader, many years ago, when I was a young dandy who taught English literature at a private school, I inflicted the greatest possible pain on my students by making them read “David Copperfield” by Charles Dickens. All 789 pages — or more depending upon your edition.
There were anguished cries and rebellious threats. Several students even fainted, along with their parents and household pets, but I ignored them because the assignment was for their own good. I hasten to add that it also helped Dickens, who sold a few more novels, although he never made the “New York Times” bestseller list.
The truth is my students survived this ordeal by following the time-honored academic tradition of reading Cliff Notes. I realized something was amiss when the entire class of 14-year-olds started babbling like Ph.D. candidates in the British literature program at Harvard.
I recently followed their example and bought a copy of Cliff Notes after I decided to reread “David Copperfield.” To be sure, 789 pages of Dickens can really tax your brain ... but not as much as 789 pages of Dostoevsky, whose novels have hundreds of Russian characters with names like Igor Stravinsky, Nikita Khrushchev, Vladimir Putin and Mikhail Nikolaevich Baryshnikov.
I’m ashamed to admit I did the same thing as my students when I was their age. Without “trots,” Cliff Notes and Monarch Notes, I’d still be in high school.
What would I have done without the English translation of Caesar’s Gallic Wars? “Veni, vidi, vici!” (Unfortunately, I translated those historic words as “I came to see Vicki!”)
Then, I had to read the Spanish novel “La Barraca,” not to be confused with “El Barack.” “La Barraca,” aka “The Shack,” was a famous work by Vincente Blasco Ibanez. After searching throughout the five boroughs of New York City, my classmate Uriah Heep (I changed his name to protect his reputation) found the only English translation in the entire New York Public Library system, which was kept under lock and key in a vault at the Queens Library along with the payroll checks.
Every morning he’d take the train to Queens, borrow the book for the permitted 15 minutes, copy the necessary pages and then return to the dormitory and share the translation with us. (I’m pretty sure the statute of limitations has passed for this crime, but you can never be sure when the FBI will strike.)
I hope this confession doesn’t cause my alma mater to rescind my diploma. They may also want to give back my donation to the school library, which was used to purchase Cliff Notes for the complete works of Herman Melville and Leo Tolstoy.
Whenever I’m haunted by my youthful indiscretions, I recall the words of the great linguist Bart Simpson, who said, “Ay, caramba!” But before you accuse me of being a lazy ne’er-do-well, let me say in my defense that I’ve read all of Dostoevsky in his native Russian tongue if you can believe that ... and I hope you don’t.
To redeem myself, I’ve started to slog through the complete works of Dickens. That’s a lot of reading, considering he wrote more than four million words, but what do you expect from a blowhard who was paid by the word? Reading Dickens in English can be harder than reading Caesar in Latin because he composed convoluted compound-complex sentences up to 85 words long.
Nevertheless, I’ve made it through “A Christmas Carol,” “Oliver Twist,” “A Tale of Two Cities” and “The Old Curiosity Shop.” I’ve also watched several dramatizations, including “Great Expectations,” “Hard Times” and “Little Dorrit.” Thank goodness for BBC. After an evening of Masterpiece Theatre, I’m so inspired that I put on my smoking jacket, started talking with a British accent and summoned the missus to prepare a hot toddy.
And so, Dear Reader, I leave you with this thought. Dickens’ novels are a lot less violent than Quentin Tarantino’s movies. Plus, he doesn’t swear, and his writing is a very effective sedative when you can’t fall asleep.
Joe Pisani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.