May 9, 2018

Rhapsodies in Reverse: Dickens and Pynchon Tell a Tale of Two Londons

By Stuart Mitchner

London burning. London blitzed. London embattled by the elements. It’s a subject that inspires bravura prose. Like the London at the opening of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, where there’s so much mud in the streets it is “as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.” This is a city where the smoke from chimney-pots makes “a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.”

A century later Thomas Pynchon, who was born 81 years ago yesterday, begins Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) in London: “A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now.” Actually there is if, like me, you’ve been reading about London under attack not from V-2 rockets from above but from rioting mobs below.

For bravura prose with a Dickensian glow, you have Pynchon’s London, with its “trestles of blackened wood,” its smells “of coal from days far to the past, smells of naphtha winters, of Sundays when no trafflc came through,” its “ruinous secret cities of poor.” In Pynchon’s city “the yellow sun” is “being teased apart by a thousand chimneys breathing, fawning upward without shame.” Smoke as imagined by Pynchon is “more than the day’s breath, more than dark strength,” it’s “an imperial presence that lives and moves.”

It’s not all that wrenching a transition to go from the London where the V-bomb “took down four dwellings the other day” to the burning of the same city during the riots of 1780 described with such power and passion in Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge, A Tale of the Riots of ‘Eighty (1841).

The Ruins of the Law

A letter from a witness to the mayhem quoted in Peter Ackroyd’s London: The Biography (2001) speaks of “the maddest people that the maddest times were ever plagued with.” According to Ackroyd, the burning of Newgate prison and the release of its prisoners “remains the single most astonishing and significant act of violence in the history of London,” one that left Londoners witness to “the smoking ruins of the Law,” so “dismayed and astounded … that it seemed to them that the whole fabric of reality was being torn apart before their eyes.”

The vision of lawless London, a city gone mad, informs the greater part of the last half of Barnaby Rudge, which I had yet to read when I wrote about mad Barnaby and his raven Grip last week. I might have put the novel aside unfinished but for the biographical note at the back, where the author’s friend and eventual biographer John Forster declares that “there are few things more masterly” in any of Dickens’s books than his description of the riots. Forster cites the “unabated power” of the depiction of “the frantic outbreak of popular ignorance and rage … the recklessness induced by the monstrous impunity allowed to the early excesses … the horrors that are more bewildering for so complete an absence of purpose in them,” and “the misery found to have been self-inflicted in every cranny and corner of London, as if a plague had swept over the streets.”

High on History

My excuse for nearly missing out on hundreds of pages of intoxicated prose is a chronic indifference to “historical” fiction. I should have known better. It’s true that Dickens’s stated intention was to provide an account of the Gordon Riots, named for the Protestant bigot Lord George Gordon, who was opposed to the passing of legislation restoring limited civil rights to Roman Catholics. What began as a peaceful, if massive, protest (Gordon leading a crowd of 50,000 to the Houses of Parliament) descended into rioting and looting when the protestors were rebuffed. Something similarly explosive happens in Barnaby Rudge. As Dickens plunges into the madness of King Mob, there’s no such thing as “history,” it’s all fire-and-fury, shock-and-awe present-moment immediacy, as if he were making everything up as he goes along, taking personal command of the devastation. The possessive urgency of his approach can be felt in his letters to Forster before and during the writing, where he expresses his determination to “make a better riot” than the historical reality. “I have just burst into Newgate,” he writes in December 1841, “and am going … to tear the prisoners out by the hair of their heads.”

So it goes as the Gordon Riots become the Dickens Riots, with the word-drunk author glorying in the occasion. For impassioned, fiercely propulsive prose, the riot scenes in Barnaby Rudge equal or surpass anything in Dickens.

Blitzing the Cozy Maypole

The copy of Barnaby Rudge given to me by British friends in memory of an evening at “Dickens’s Maypole,” the novel’s central setting, contains a marking on page 273 meant to draw my attention to the “rich and lavish bounty of that goodly tavern” on a wintry evening in 1780, where “one fire roared and sparkled on its spacious hearth” and in “the tiles which paved and compassed it, five hundred flickering fires burnt brightly also,” while “one red curtain shut the wild night out, and shed its cheerful influence on the room.”

Two hundred pages later, fresh from deadly fires of their drunken making, rioters invade the Maypole, “the sanctuary, the mystery, the hallowed ground,” now “crammed with men, clubs, sticks, torches, pistols; filled with a deafening noise, oaths, shouts, screams, hootings; changed all at once into a bear-garden, a madhouse, an infernal temple: men darting in and out, by door and window, smashing the glass, turning the taps, drinking liquor out of China punchbowls, sitting astride of casks … men wantonly wasting, breaking, pulling down and tearing up … men everywhere clambering in at windows when there were doors wide open; dropping out of windows when the stairs were handy; leaping over the bannisters into chasms of passages … some yelling, some singing, some fighting, some breaking glass and crockery … some ringing the bells till they pulled them down, others beating them with pokers till they beat them into fragments: more men still — more, more, more — swarming on like insects: noise, smoke, light, darkness, frolic, anger, laughter, groans, plunder, fear, and ruin!”

The headlong rush of detail is incidental music compared to the prose extravaganzas performed on riots fueled by liquor, the lifeblood of the Maypole. The way Dickens goes from rhapsodizing the tavern to ravaging it mirrors what he does on the grand scale as he moves from something like narrative complicity with the mob to prolonged passionate renderings of the “monstrous impunity” of its excesses, which rise to multiple crescendos, with the burning of Newgate, fires “blackening the prison-wall, and twining up its lofty front like burning serpents … when wall and tower, and roof and chimney-stack, seemed drunk, and in the flickering glare appeared to reel and stagger.”

Pynchon’s Solo Flights

The screaming V-2s are for Pynchon as the fires of riot are for Dickens. There’s the same rush of headlong movement and word-drunk cadenzas, though in 1973 the musical reference point would more likely be the solo flights of a jazz virtuoso. Within the “V-bomb mutilation,” there’s “a soft smell of house-wood down before its time,” and rubble “sloping up to broken rear walls in a clogging, an open-work of laths pointlessly chevroning — flooring, furniture, glass, chunks of plaster, long tatters of wallpaper, split and shattered joists: some woman’s long-gathered nest, taken back to separate straws, flung again to this wind and this darkness. Back in the wreckage a brass bedpost winks.”

Canary Birds in Cages

Even as you remind yourself that Dickens is merely orchestrating masses of information gathered in his researches (he grew up hearing accounts of the horrors from grown-up witnesses), there’s no sense of documentation, no space between was and is, especially when he illuminates details like the house where the mob “found in one of the rooms some canary birds in cages” that they “cast into the fire alive,” the “little creatures” screaming “like infants, when they were flung upon the blaze,” one man “so touched that he tried in vain to save them, which roused the indignation of the crowd, and nearly cost him his life.” In the same house “one of the fellows who went through the rooms, breaking the furniture and helping to destroy the building, found a child’s doll — a poor toy — which he exhibited at the window to the mob below, as the image of some unholy saint which the late occupants had worshipped.”

Pynchon’s Tarot

Toward the end of Gravity’s Rainbow, there’s a reference to “some angel stationed very high, watching us at our many perversities … being carried on under a sentence of death whose deep beauty the angel has never been close to.” The section that follows concerns a deck of Tarot cards, the most significant being The Tower, which is “a puzzling card” that “shows a bolt of lightning striking a tall phallic structure, and two figures, one wearing a crown, falling from it.” One of the readings of the image is “a symbol for the Church of Rome,” which “is generalized to mean any System which cannot tolerate heresy: a system which, by its very nature, must sooner or later fall.” In a book published 45 years ago, in 1973, Pynchon writes that The Tower “is also the Rocket.”

American Echoes

“The history of last week would fill you with amazement,” says Samuel Johnson in a June 10, 1780 letter responding to “the most horrid series of outrages that ever disgraced a civilized country.”

Johnson is described in Ackroyd’s London as someone who understood the pleasures and virtues of the city” and “its debilitating faults better than any of his contemporaries.”

These days the history of every day, every hour, is filled with amazement. Given the state of the nation on May 9, 2018, I think of Johnson looking at “the smoking ruins of the Law,” and of a populace so “dismayed and astounded … that it seemed to them that the whole fabric of reality was being torn apart before their eyes.”

It’s said that Dickens “was haunted by visions of America” after finishing Barnaby Rudge in the summer of 1841. He sailed for Boston in January 1842. As for the real-life Lord George Gordon, who is a fictionalized presence in the novel, he was charged with treason, imprisoned in the Tower of London, acquitted, excommunicated by the Archbishop of Canterbury, converted to Judaism, and sentenced to imprisonment in Newgate, where he died in 1793.