Wednesday, 19 August 2009

58 - 'Oliver Twist' by Charles Dickens

Let's get it out in the open: I was not hugely impressed with this book. Before all you Dickensians flee for the exit, screaming in anguish, please let me explain my reasons; just like Fagin and the gang, I deserve a fair trial...

First things first. 'Oliver Twist' is, as most people in the western world are well aware, the tale of a boy who survives hardship in the form of life in the workhouse, a rough apprenticeship and a spell in a gang of thieves (none of whom, at any point, comes even close to bursting into song). Oliver Twist, the character, however, is a weak, uninteresting boy who actually takes up a lot less of the novel than you would expect from his prominent billing. He is more an excuse for Dickens to rant and rave, in pantomime fashion, about the iniquities of the laws governing the treatment of the Victorian poor than an actual, fully-rounded person.

Oliver is also (and this really annoys me) goodness incarnate. How else could you explain the fact that a young boy who has been abused his whole life and brought (dragged) up grudgingly by the authorities is able to resist the temptation of crime and the degrading behaviour of everyone he meets? If you or I (heaven forbid) had been subject to the same kind of woeful upbringing that Oliver undergoes, I guarantee that we would have been out on the streets of London snatching wallets and handkerchieves to our hearts' content - or, at least until we got caught. However, Oliver, sickly, saccharine-sweet Oliver, is so horrifed by the sight of such felonious behaviour that he quivers at the knees. Rubbish.

Many of the other characters in the book are also relatively boring. The whole array of personages from the right side of town, undoubtedly mirror images of the people actually reading the book in its original serialisation, are fairly sketchily drawn and are hard to remember on completion of the book; in fact, I'm hard pressed to recall many of their names, and I only finished it this morning...

However, perhaps the main reason I have for not really liking this book is not so much what it is as what it's not. It's not Dostoyevsky; it's not 'The Brothers Karamazov'. Having just finished the afore-mentioned Russian classic, anything was bound to suffer a little in comparison, but 'Oliver Twist', with its tweeness, and beautifully sanitised view of suffering, comes off especially badly against the stark, bare and bloody representation of life in Dostoyevsky's work. Who could care about Oliver after reading the fate of Dmitri, Ivan and Alyosha? How could such anodyne lovers as Harry and Rose(?) compare to Dmitri and Grushenka?

Of course, the book does have one redeeming feature, and that is the depiction of the darker side of the story. Bill Sikes, as nasty a piece of work as you're likely to find in literature, curses and threatens his way through the novel until his murderous betrayal and subsequent flight and descent into the darkest bowels of London. His persona looms so large that, by the bitter end, even his companion thieves are terrified by him and turn away from his gaze. The critics who accused Dickens of glamourising crime (and who would have been very smug if they had lived to see the stage version with the Artful Dodger singing and prancing around) were certainly off-target regarding Mr. Sikes.

And then there was Fagin. Not requiring more than one name to dominate the book, the 'dirty old Jew' is the personification of evil, the devil incarnate, spinning a web of sin and attracting young innocents like flies in order to corrupt and feast upon their souls. The longer the story goes on, the more we are drawn into his world, and the more complex the webs of intrigue surrounding him become. All is brought to a climax by his trial, surrounded by a packed house of baying spectators, vultures thirsting for the old criminal's blood...

...wish he'd got off.

In the introduction to my edition, the editor remarked that 'Oliver Twist' is notable for being an early, flawed work of a great writer, which is as close to saying that it's not that good as a paid review is going to get. I'm afraid that's not good enough for me; when the end of the reading year (same as the normal one) comes around, there's a good chance that this book will feature in my 'Hall of Shame', not what I would have expected from a work by the great Victorian novellist. Consider yourself... well and truly underwhelmed.