International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Opinion
the dickens...it's Mr. Dickens
Admiral Nelson, hopelessly romantic and missing parts of his body,
leads his ships to victory against the combined fleets of Spain
and France. His body, pickled, I believe, in a barrel is brought
back to Britain and buried with due ceremony in St. Paul's cathedral.
And then, with the arrogance of a country that can look back on
many military victories, we let it merge into that general feeling
that when it comes to killing foreigners we are really quite good
We don't ignore
it. We just don't write novels about it. Benito Pérez Galdos,
quite clearly not British, uses the Battle of Trafalgar to open his
series of novels called Episodios Nacionales. From 1873
until 1912, in 46 novels, he covered the main events of Spanish history
in the nineteenth century. He is highly regarded in Spain, not least
for using as his principal characters ordinary people who, up to then,
had been largely absent from popular novels. He is compared with Balzac,
Stendal, Dickens and Tolstoy. I've read three of his novels and feel
confident that if I met him I could have a bit of a blether with him.
I can't say I would feel the same if I met Charles Dickens.
I think it was when I was reading Pérez's account of the
Spanish uprising against the French in Madrid in 1808, that I realized
that I could understand it without too much difficulty. I've read enough
in Spanish to know that I read it better than I speak it. But it was
more than that. Yes, there were a few old-fashioned words which I had
to ask my girlfriend to translate. Some of those she had to guess because
they were words which even her parents wouldn't have used. But the main
reason why I could follow the story was that his written Spanish was
identical to what I was reading in contemporary Spanish novels despite
being separated by more than a century. Hence the feeling that
if I met him I could have a nice chat with him. Naturally, I would avoid
any reference to him being dead but we could at least talk about the
weather, the state of public transport and importance of eating at least
three portions of fruit per day.
Charles Dickens, on the other hand, would be quite a different kettle
of fish. Only a fool would criticise him as a writer but he was a man
of his time. And his time was that of Britain in the nineteenth century.
Reading his novels, as we read Shakespeare or Jane Austen, we have to
assume that he spoke as his characters spoke. It would be a short time
into the conversation with him that we would find, to our horror, that
we were talking like him too. Well, you would, wouldn't you? After all,
it is Charles Dickens. "Ah yes, Mr. Dickens, I was commenting only
the other day, the numerous hardships and general malfeasance that have
recently befallen the poor souls of this parish who, through the intervention
of the mighty potato barons, have seen their hard won potatoes torn,
at times quite literally, from their calloused hands, the calloused
hands, mind you, of the sons of lost fishermen." Or some such bollocks.
Charles Dickens, insulted at being patronised like this, would leave
in high dudgeon, doffing his top hat , while saying, "And I wish
you good day sir!".
Am I saying that whereas English has evolved throughout the centuries,
adapting itself to changes within society, renewing itself constantly,
Spanish has remained static, unchanged for more than a century? Quite
clearly, yes, that's exactly what I am saying. Am I saying that this
is one of the strengths of English, and one of the weaknesses of Spanish?
Ah well, that is a horse of another colour. What I would say, is that
the more I am here and the more I read in Spanish, the more I am aware
of the capacity for invention that writers in English display. Be it
Winnie the Pooh and Piglet hunting Heffalumps or Winston Smith deciphering
the coded layers of Doublespeak, there is in written English a sense
of adventure, a search for the next discoveries, in the words themselves.
This can have unforeseen consequences.
In my desire to explain this theory to my girlfriend I chose as an example
of this eternal search for the new in English literature, Trainspotting
by Irvine Welsh. Here was the writer who would show her the capacity
for invention that English has and also how it can be assimilated into
popular culture. I read the passage to her and in the short silence
that followed it was clear that I had misjudged her taste in literature.
She then made her feelings very clear, using a range of well-chosen
Spanish phrases that would have made Begsy blush and the crew of the
Santisima Trinidad, flagship of the Spanish fleet that fought bravely
against Nelson's ships, cheer to the rigging. English may have
the capacity for never-ending renewal. But it can also weigh itself
down with metaphor, imagery and ambiguity. Spanish, on the other hand,
says exactly what it wants, when it wants to and to whom it wants to.
My ship listing, holed below the waterline, I did what Nelson never
did. I retreated.
© Colin Fisher February 2009
colinafisher at mac.com
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