I’ve had a difficult time the past few days doing anything except read David Copperfield. Get up: read David Copperfield. Drink tea: read David Copperfield. Go on a bicycle trip: leave David Copperfield behind.
“When did you start reading that?” my husband wanted to know when he caught me.
I’ve been low-key because my penchant for 19th century novels gets, well, ridiculed. A few years ago Nick Hornby wrote a column for The Believer, collected in The Polysyllabic Spree, praising David Copperfield. He was amazed that it had taken him so long to discover the novel (perhaps he was in his forties?) and preferred it even to Great Expectations. I instantly wanted to read it again. It happens to a lot of people. You read Nick Hornby’s column, go into a bookstore and start talking about David Copperfield, and the next thing everybody is rereading it. And after I finished Great Expectations, I wanted to reread Dickens’ autobiographical coming-of-age comedy anyway.
It’s 727 pages of delight. The narrator, as everyone knows, begins, “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” Of course David does turn out to be the hero of his own life, but since he’s such a charming, intelligent observer of people, he draws unforgettable characters, like Peggotty, the kind, loyal, hard-working servant who throws her apron over her head when she laughs at her suitor, Barkis; Mr. Micawber, who is always in debt, and whose motto is, “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery”; Little Em’ly, the lovely orphaned niece of Peggotty, who lives happily in a house made of a boat with her uncle, Mr. Peggotty, and cousin, Ham, until a tragedy occurs; and Miss Betsey Trotwood, the eccentric aunt to whom David runs away after he is mistreated by Mr. Murdstone, his stepfather. Raised by a single mother and Peggotty, who essentially takes care of them both until his mother marries the sadistic Mr. Murdstone, David has more in common with modern children than you would at first think.
I started Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna yesterday, and on the basis of 109 pages and its winning the Orange Prize admire it with some reservations, as the very good writing seems more muted than is usual in her novels, perhaps so she won’t seem too impassioned when she writes about revolution. It is a historical novel, beginning in 1929 in Mexico, the story of Harrison Shepherd, a boy with a Mexican mother and an American father, who has been taken by his runaway mother from Washington, D.C., to live with her lover, the rather sinister Enrique, on a beautiful island.
“It should have been like a storybook here. That is what she’d promised him, back in the cold little bedroom in Virginia North America…”
But the reality is there are not enough books and there’s nothing much to do except observe the fish and help the cook make bread. Told in the form of a diary, it is sometimes seems a bit too crammed with background. Harrison reads a book about Aztecs and then WE read about Aztecs. (I hate the Aztecs.) When they move to Mexico City, he happens to meet Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. He makes plaster with a team of other people for Rivera, who is painting murals. And he happens to meet Frida at a market.
Well, there’s much more. He has now been sent back to Washington, D.C., so his father can send him to a military academy, where he happens to meet a student whose family has lost everything in the Depression and who informs him about the living conditions of vets in an encampment. And they happen to be present when MacArthur and his troops massacre the veterans and their families.
Well, more later. Kingsolver seems to have been very excited about her research and even quotes newspapers. But it’s not as fluid and relaxed as her other books. Still, I’ve got 400 pages to go.