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Dickens--mon voisin: a London diary of random thoughts of persons and places.

The worst thing that happens to us in the 21st century is that we are, all of us, losing our sense of history to an ever greater extent. We live from day to day, the American way! One of the fundamental problems that Charles Dickens had to face throughout his life was the question of time, more particularly how to handle time in his fiction, and that perhaps was his weakest point. As for ourselves, one of the problems we face every day is precisely the relation between time and history.

To me, Dickens is the first modern author of whom I have to speak in terms of 200 years, instead of just 100 years. It is probably the first author in my life of whose year of birth I was overconscious--1812, in the far away days of Napoleon, The Corporal-Emperor, and his French Revolution.

I can adopt the point of view of the novelist, I can adopt the point of view of the journalist, and I can adopt the point of view of the philosopher. But, from all three points of view, the relation between time and history remains the most enigmatic relation in the day to day life of everybody, great or small.

When I was in London, and that was more than thirty years in all, I spent most of my time studying James Joyce and rhetoric in The British Museum Library. For The British Library at St Pancras had not come into existence yet. And Joyce I have always considered my absolute contemporary, as I was seven years old when he died. Whereas Dickens was far back into the remote past for me, as far back as Beowulf ... And this is the most important point for the novelist, for the journalist, and for the philosopher.

But both time and history are subjective concepts. Depending on one's state of mind, they can suggest nearness and remoteness so very simultaneously, that one is staggered at the thought.

Anyhow, I was with the Joyce manuscripts in the British Museum. And my temporary flat was so far away, somewhere in Hackney, that the journey by bus took almost one hour one way, morning and evening.

Two hours on the bus every day was such precious time wasted that I decided to acquire a flat as close as was humanly possible to the British Museum. And luck was on my side, because, almost every day, going to my local pub, called A Friend at Hand, to meet my University of London friends and colleagues, I would pass a building right in Russell Square, if you please, where there were more than a hundred or so flats available for sale. Consequently, I almost forgot Joyce, as I forgot every other author, dead or alive, in English literature, and concentrated on the flat. The location was ideal, because it was within fifty yards of the back entrance of the British Museum, but the choice of the flat was difficult, because of my embarras de choix. I used to spend my lunch break visiting the hundred flats over and over again. Can you believe that all the doors were open? Can you believe there was nobody around in competition with me, except the friendly concierge? They were all nearly identical, like many authors are nearly identical in the cheap literature of the detective-story kind. As I never resort to outside opinion, I had nobody to turn to, except the more than useful pint of Guinness. And so it happened that, one sunny day in mid-winter, not very far at all from either Dickens's or Joyce's birthdays, I had the brilliant idea to see the sunniest place in gloomy London. It was the most suitable place for me. And it turned out that it even had a balcony looking out on Russell Square. The rest was easy. A phone-call to my London solicitor did the trick, and then a phone-call to my best friend in the University of London, Dennis Deletant, to invite him for a celebratory drink.

It was only days afterwards that I started thinking about my neighbours. And, as the building was still practically empty, and the name of the street was Upper Woburn Street, I started examining everything around, house by house. And this is when I had the time-and-history-shock, all in one, just because I had decided to take a break from my intensive research in the British Museum, where I was the first to arrive, at nine in the morning--I mean, among the first five queuing to enter the library, and the last to leave, among the last twenty-five packing their papers to go home. I was right back in the middle of Bloomsbury, without realizing it, and who do you think was my next-door neighbour, two houses away in the direction of Euston Station, but Charles Dickens himself!

The literary shock was terrifying in that, to any 20th Century specialist, Bloomsbury only means Virginia Woolf and T.S. Eliot and all that lot. But to discover Charles Dickens' House at less than a stone's throw away from the house of Virginia and Leonard Woolf was a jump in time, quite worthy of H.G. Wells and his Time Machine ... And it was not the end of the shock. We are all familiar with the quarrel between Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray, which lasted for years; this was put an end to late in life, right on the steps of my own club, which then was the London Athenaeum, off Piccadilly Circus.

Thackeray was not very far away from my house either, I soon discovered, because his house was on a narrow little street behind Dickens's, practically back to back with it. It was the moment when I realized that the term Bloomsbuthry carried a clearly distinct time-dimension: to be able to say Bloomsbury in the 20th century, and think of the Bloomsbury Group, with all its implications, in the same geographical area of London where, one hundred years before that--and a hundred years to the day it was--the very same streets carried the very same names, but the "Bloomsbury" of Virginia Woolf did not exist yet ..., it was still tucked away in the H.G. Wells's silly little Time Machine. And, to be honest, it was not really a Time Machine that Wells was talking about, but rather a History Machine! Poor H.G. Wells does not seem to have been sufficiently well educated in philosophy to see the difference between Time and History--the starting point of this very discussion.

Suddenly, the moment I discovered the Dickens House, all my childhood came back to me, and I remembered how, as a small child, I used to love A Christmas Carol, and hate its very first sentence. It was that very first sentence by Charles Dickens that started me on English studies in earnest. He says of one of his characters, and you know very well who that was, that he was "as dead as a door-nail". Why, in the name of hell, as dead as a door-nail, I wondered? That sentence haunted my childhood. That sentence haunted my adolescence. That sentence haunted the rest of my life! Wherever I went in Europe, and saw the Dickens book, I automatically looked at the translation of the first sentence of A Christmas Carol. I did it in Oslo, and I understood everything. Then I did it in exactly the same way in Helsinki, and understood absolutely nothing, just because the Finnish language is even worse than Hungarian. And I cannot help being obsessed with what I heard the other day on the radio: it was the BBC of course; namely that The Dickens Museum at 48 Doughty Street--just round the corner from Russell Square was the only museum in the whole of the United Kingdom which was open on Christmas Day! No communist-born individual can even understand what that means in the United Kingdom, where Christmas Day is so absolutely holy that there are not even taxis available anywhere in the whole country for the whole day. Well, the Dickens Museum was, in 2012, open on Christmas Day. Why? For the sake of one single story, and that single story was A Christmas Carol. And, to me, A Christmas Carol is more than that. Or rather less than that. Because, to me, A Christmas Carol is only its first sentence: "He was as dead as a door-nail." If you put on your hat as a sophisticated literature man, you begin to suspect that Dickens was far too subtle for us. Particularly when you consider that bit of text against the factual statement which is currently said about Samuel Beckett, namely that Samuel Beckett was born the day Jesus Christ died! And Samuel Beckett died the day Jesus Christ was born! And that is not literary nonsense. It is absolutely correct actual fact. Look it up if you do not believe me!

It is there that we begin to understand that Dickens was not the superficial storyteller, uneducated and all that. A Christmas Carol, probably Dickens's most importantly cheerful piece, begins with death, and it is there that the connection with the present day becomes unavoidable.

But let us go further, and take again the opening paragraph of one of his novels, chosen more or less at random. Dickens begins the book--one of them--by writing the following, and a lot more: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the age of hope, it was the age of despair." Et ainsi de suite.We clearly begin to think that Dickens was a far more sophisticated story-teller than we take him to be. I have only illustrated one of his rhetorical devices so far, and that is called the hammer-stroke introduction.

Let us not forget that Dickens also wrote Pickwick Papers, which is his next best, and which I used to read as a child, and give it preference over all other stories, for one single reason, and that single reason was I did not quite understand it. Often I did not see the humour. I did not see the irony, either. I was fascinated by the names of the characters, which kept ringing in my ears every day on the way to school.

So, what is Time? What is History? What is Literary History? I realized, to my professional despair, that Mr Jingle and his father were far more alive in my throat than either Mrs Dalloway or even Becky Sharp of Vanity Fair. To say nothing of the highbrow Stephen Daedalus.

How was that possible? Walking aimlessly round and round these houses, I discovered that, right in front of Euston Station, there was a beautiful church, and, on a little street by the side of it, at 5 Woburn Walk, there was a special plaque saying that that had been the residence of William Butler Yeats for close to twenty years, from 1895 to 1917. That is where James Joyce used to go to see Yeats, and knock on the door. And, even as a very young man, had the impertinent courage to throw "You, I do not need!" in Yeats' face. And he meant it. And he achieved it. But, for some very strange reason, of all these authors that I have mentioned, whenever I was mumbling names and texts in my mind, imperfectly, of course, I fell back on Charles Dickens. His name had a resonance that was outshining everybody else. When I was speaking to myself, I was never saying Oliver Twist: I was saying Oliver Twists. Far jazzier, is it not? And that is why I perfectly understand the platitude that was commonly circulating as early as the 19th Century ... You may remember that in Pickwick Papers there is a character called Sam Weller. Well, the 19th Century platitude that I found ridiculous as a student and more than ridiculous afterwards, as a teacher, was the following: "Others wrote well, but Dickens wrote Weller!"

So far, I have been dealing with books and houses. To wind up the whole thing, I would like to say a few words about how, and where, Charles Dickens used to write.

I was saying that I have been a member of The Athenaeum for a great number of years. And Athenaeum is the most celebrated London club, having been frequented by politicians, men of letters, and top clergy, in that order. It was started way back, in the 18th Century, and it had the biggest open-shelf library of any famous club anywhere in the world. That is where I used to spend my time when the British Museum was closed on a Sunday, or any other bank holiday. And most of my evenings, of course. And what was the most cherished piece of The Athenaeum, in the small private reading room, but a writing desk and a chair going with it, all cordoned off, so as not to be used by any of the members. And ... whose desk was that? That was the desk of Charles Dickens, and nobody was allowed to sit at it and write. Though, one late evening close to midnight, when the club was nearly empty, and I had had a sufficient dose of whiskey kindly provided by the Chinese barman, who was always there, I presumed to remove the cordoning off, and sat at Dickens's own desk in The Athenaeum. Myself. My problem was, suddenly, that I did not know what to write. My mind was blank. And stayed blank. As if under a spell. In fact, at the very bottom of my heart, I realized that the only thing I could well have written would have really been a down and out platitude, or a foolish thing that I would regret for days afterwards. So I refrained that very moment from writing anything at all. (If it had been a famous tree, anybody would have scratched their name on it ...) But I for one--constantly obsessed with Joyce--could not help having the sudden revelation in my mind--Joyce would have called that an epiphany--of the vast distance between an ordinary individual like me, and the formidable genius that Charles Dickens had always managed to be throughout his fairly short life.

But that is not all. One day I went and visited the Madame Tussaud's Museum, next to Baker Street Tube Station, within fifty yards, again, of the Sherlock Holmes House, at 202b, as well as the Hotel opposite. Where Anthony Burgess always used to stay. So, I went and visited Madame Tussaud's, and what do I see there, as a piece surrounded by great restrictions of privilege, but the desk and chair of Charles Dickens. Another one. I looked and meditated that it was no wonder he wrote so much, having so many elegant desks all over the place at his disposal!

But then, I examined the desk more closely, and become suspicious; and my suspicion almost turned to certainty. I said nothing, and went back home, and thought and thought for the whole night. And I knew for certain that I had seen the desk that was being displayed in the Madame Tussaud's Museum somewhere else: and that was where it properly belonged, namely in The Charles Dickens Museum, at 48 Doughty Street. Around the corner from me again, about half a mile, it is true, but still around the corner, I had seen that desk on the first floor of the Charles Dickens Museum in Doughty Street, that was an absolute certainty. So I decided to go to Doughty Street at once and investigate. To my surprise, when I got up to the first floor, I discovered that the desk was gone! And as I used to be in the habit of visiting Charles Dickens's House quite often, either alone, or with American friends--all of them James Joyce specialists, of course--as I went on to the first floor, I discovered that the desk was indeed gone. So my gentle image of Charles Dickens having three distinct desks, in three corners of London flew out of the window into thin air. Being by nature of an inquisitive and quarrelsome disposition, I went straight to the curator and bluntly asked him: "Where is the desk, Sir? Where the dickens is the Dickens desk?" The curator was clearly embarrassed, but then blurted it out: "They get far more visitors than we do, on account of the vast array of American Presidents they display, and in consequence they pocket a lot more money than we do, too! At Madame Tussaud's! So, I let them have the desk on a long-term loan!"

That is my story of Dickensland. The problem we have, the problem we are left with in our life is that, in spite of two hundred years since his birth, Dickens flatly refuses to go away! Ben Jonson is quite gone, I'm afraid. And so is Dr Johnson! But Dickens? Not at all! There is something that is probably incruste in his very name, and that is why Dickens is in Bloomsbury today, without paradoxically being there. I repeat: Dickens's Bloomsbury is not Bloomsbury. It is Dickensland. And the further paradox is that, in Dickensland, nobody is ever dead: nobody is ever as dead as a door-nail. Everybody is still as alive as all the famous people are in Dante's Inferno, particularly in the upper--or is it lower?--circles ...

P.S. The Dickens House in Upper Woburn Street is today the headquarters of the British Medical Association. When there was a big bomb explosion on a London bus on seven seven of whatever year--2005?--the bomb had exploded right in front of my house, and right in front of Dickens's House too. And it was a big bomb. And it was a big bus. And it was a big crowd. And it was a very big explosion. But the remarkable thing is that never in similar situations had surgeons started operating so quickly on the wounded as in that particular case. And the reason was simple, so very simple: The British Medical Association in the Dickens House possessed an operation table, and everything that goes with it, and it was wheeled out into the middle of the street, and surgeons started operating there and then on the many wounded within less than minutes, right there, in the middle of the street, right next to the badly damaged bus, desperately trying to see how many lives they could still save. The British courage and stiff upper lip was omnipresent. The way Charles Dickens had always wanted it to be. The Dickens optimism is all-pervasive.

C. George Sandulescu

Principaute de Monaco
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Title Annotation:CHARLES JOHN HUFFAM DICKENS (7 February 1812-9 June 1870)
Author:Sandulescu, C. George
Publication:European English Messenger
Article Type:Travel narrative
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 22, 2013
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