The Dickens Universe, parallel indeed / It is bliss between the covers at a yearly event, indulging in one novel for one week

August 15, 2004

By David Kipen, SF Gate 

This article was originally published in SF Gate on August 15, 2004. Written by Chronicle Book Critic David Kipin.

2004-08-15 04:00:00 PDT Santa Cruz -- In 1859, while Charles Dickens was re-creating revolutionary Paris for "A Tale of Two Cities," the great French urban planner Baron Haussmann was busy razing the real thing. Isn't it always the way? Consciously or no, that's what all historical novels do: demolish the original and raise in its place a usurping fiction. This intrinsic dodginess applies not just to novels but to works of history, such as the perfumed scholarship of Carlyle's "French Revolution," which Dickens read, reread and ransacked for his novel. And it will go double for the following potted account of an idyllic week -- one I spent earlier this month, hashing out "A Tale of Two Cities" at UC Santa Cruz's 24th annual Dickens Universe.

This headlong yearly delving into a different novel from the canon, produced by UCSC's Dickens Project -- a leading international center for Dickens studies that also produces and directs much fine scholarship -- may just be literary California's best-kept secret. I revere Dickens, I adore California with an obsession that borders on stalking, and yet, if not for a friend's chance remark, I'd still be in the dark about this ambitious undertaking. The Dickens Universe is the 24-year-old brainchild of Santa Cruz English professors John Jordan, Ed Eigner and Murray Baumgarten -- junior faculty then, all variously tenured or emeritus now. Their simple idea, still unplagiarized despite a near quarter century of success, was to bring professional and amateur Dickensians together under the same redwoods. The result is a party, a symposium and a summer camp all in one. Roughly 120 members of the public and 80 scholars showed up this year, and you'd have had to be a banana slug to go home unmoved.

The choice of "A Tale of Two Cities" proved especially apt. What Dickens in the book marvelously calls "the great grindstone, Earth," finds herself these days under a geopolitical Reign of Terror just as bloody as its predecessor. Latter-day Jacobins are arrayed on all sides, and simple Dickensian decency is notably thin on the ground.

"In Dickens, we have a true liberal," the novelist Jane Smiley observed in a Universe lecture. Dickens' deeply empathetic, anti-revolutionary suspicion of sweeping solutions is hard to mistake in "A Tale of Two Cities." For example, it's hard to read this description of the novel's implacable knitting revolutionary, Madame Defarge, without thinking of today's extremists, whether schooled in a Saudi madras or a fundamentalist Bible study group:

"... imbued from her childhood with a brooding sense of wrong, and an inveterate hatred of a class, opportunity had developed her into a tigress. She was absolutely without pity... It was nothing to her, that an innocent man was to die for the sins of his forefathers; she saw, not him, but them."

"A Tale of Two Cities" tells the story of two look-alikes amid the Terror, the exiled Frenchman Charles Darnay and his double, Sydney Carton. Both love the same woman, Lucie Manette, whose father was imprisoned and presumed dead in pre-Revolutionary France. When Doctor Manette is "recalled to life" after years squandered as a cobbler in the Bastille, a masterfully orchestrated plot hums to life. It all climaxes four hundred pages later at "La Guillotine," with a heroic sacrifice that still influences suspense fiction to this day.

Indeed, one could make a strong case for "A Tale of Two Cities" as the prototype of the modern thriller. All the hallmarks of contemporary genre narrative are present here in embryo. Identical doubles have long been a staple of pulp storytelling; "The Prisoner of Zenda" and "Dave" are but two examples. The wastrel redeemed by a single altruistic gesture is familiar not only from "Casablanca," in which Rick finally "sticks his neck out" for a very different sort of French Resistance, but also in "Star Wars," where the mercenary Han Solo doubles back to save the rebels at peril of his life.

Similarly, Dickens' ultimate death-grapple between Madame Defarge and Lucie's nanny may seem a cliché now. A pistol goes off and the combatants freeze, leaving us in exquisite suspense for a moment about who has shot whom. In 1859, though, Dickens was navigating his story by dead reckoning, without the instrumentation of previous cliches to guide him. Between Dickens' early pioneering of thriller technique and his strikingly up-to-the-minute liberal condemnation of violent extremism, "A Tale of Two Cities" resembles many of the hundred or so senior citizens who've come to Santa Cruz to read it this week. Like the book, they're old enough to recall the roots of our modern predicament, yet contemporary enough to shame their inheritors. Like the Dickens Universe itself -- among whose nonacademic participants I'm easily among the youngest - "A Tale of Two Cities" is an experience in lifelong learning.

Next year's book promises a comparable experiment in Dickens' continuing relevance to the modern world. The Dickens Universe climaxes each year with a drumroll-accompanied announce-ment of the following year's book. So it was that, on Aug. 6, Prof. John Jordan revealed the subject of the next annual symposium to be perhaps Dickens' profoundest, most personal exploration of poverty and selfishness. Yes, for the 25th anniversary of the Universe - which will coincide almost exactly with the 25th annual Steinbeck Festival, just down the road in Salinas - another couple hundred Dickensians will assemble next July 31-Aug. 6 to savor ... "Little Dorrit." (Contact hum for further details as they become available.) For a book critic, spending an entire week among aficionados of a single great novel is both a luxury and a reproach. Reading new books one after another sometimes feels like a species of promiscuity - the opposite of all those lucky re-readers in English departments, who can really marry a book and settle down.

Put another way, I kiss frogs for a living. Academics and amateurs, meanwhile, get to kiss the same prince over and over, as often as time and tenure committees permit. As a book-mad kid, for a while there I could have gone either way: through the campus gates into academia, or in the other direction, into literary journalism.

At times during the Dickens Universe, I've felt like one of the double heroes in "A Tale of Two Cities," brought face to face with the alternate life he could have led. Now that I've gotten a taste of how the other half reads, I'm already making reservations for another helping of the Dickens Universe next year.

Yet I find, perversely, that I'm also happier than ever on my side of the street. Because, as it turns out, book reviewing isn't all one-night stands after all. If we're lucky, book critics do get to settle down - not with a single book, reader, but with you.

Soaking up Dickens by the hour

7:00 a.m.: A typical day starts with dawn fighting down through the treetops, filtering at length through the windows of each Dickensian's spartan dorm. Out of dreams, out of bed, out of sleep's muzzy hug. Books and papers rain to the floor. Into shower, into clothes -- like any historical novel, a mix of present and past -- into, at length, the bleary company of one's fellow Dickensians. Mug of improbably exotic coffee, morning paper. Cell phone doesn't work here, no TV, radio spotty. Half expecting headlines of Robespierre, Danton, Madame Defarge. Khalid who?

8:30: With the breakup into faculty-led discussion groups, one's own groggy faculties slowly return. Twenty or so of us in a circle now, mostly elder hosteling civilians, nudged into profundity by City University of New York discussion leader Gerhard Joseph. Working on a book about the Victorian idea of "interest," in both its financial and personal senses, as a harbinger of modernity. Also chiming in: a retired businessman, dogged but well versed, an economic interpretation for everything, eager for lore he can take home to his annual Riverside Dickens Festival; a pretty woman, easily 70, in massive Swifty Lazar glasses and gray ponytail, eyes bright with contagious Dickens love; and me, the old seminar reflexes still detectable under 20 years of accumulated rust.

9:45: The first of usually three daily faculty lectures, by turns bracing and stultifying, sometimes in the same sentence. Bolts of imaginative insight, then suddenly it's "problematize" and "distanciation" for the first time since college. Q&A: the familiar eagerness to impress, the jockeying for favor, one's own brilliant notions jotted down for ease of future forgetting. This is what it would be like to live in a world of readers, a Vegas for the mind.

11:15: We disperse into discussion workshops. Elusive paper topics dart in and out of reach, including: " 'Tale of Two Cities': The First Thriller?" and "Provence: Birthplace of Kabbalah and Courtly Love."

12:30 p.m.: Lunch at a UC Santa Cruz cafeteria, offering an uneasy marriage of the politically conscientious and the institutionally familiar. Shade-grown coffee with your soft-serve vanilla ice cream cone? But it's all fatteningly tasty, and the conversation is the draw. What's your dissertation about? Did you care for that last lecture? What went wrong with Dickens' marriage? Who are you voting for in November?

3:00: Victorian tea, laid on by the Friends of the Dickens Universe, the universe's saintedly benevolent fund-raising auxiliary. Mismatched china, beguiling dottiness and undergrads who've read more books than seems humanly possible. Try to rationalize: Their social lives must be taking it on the chin. Must be. Tell yourself that.

3:45: The second lecture of the day. Ian Duncan of Berkeley gives an especially good one on Dickens and Darwin, all about ideas of extermination in the novel and Victorian England: Who survives, the evolutionists or the revolutionists? So well conceived and witty and jargon-unbound, Duncan makes you want to run out and read "Origin of Species" and Sir Walter Scott's "Old Mortality" immediately. I suggest that Dickens' serial method of composition, whatever its other advantages, also served as a surefire cure for procrastination. Sometimes it takes a journalist.

5:30: Dinner. Some nights in the Kresge College Cafeteria, named for the Kmart magnate; sometimes in the College Eight Cafeteria, a.k.a. the Donor's Name Here Cafeteria. With a little craning, beyond the bunny- and hummingbird- frequented hillsides, a Pacific vista looms. As of 1859, while Dickens was racing to meet overlapping weekly and monthly deadlines for "A Tale of Two Cities," the city of Santa Cruz wouldn't be chartered for seven more years. For one of his magazines, though, Dickens once edited and co-wrote a picaresque story, "The Wreck of the Golden Mary," about an ill-fated oceangoing expedition to the California goldfields. Alas, the argonauts never make it to California; nor, despite two unsatisfying trips to America, did Dickens.

6:30: Postprandial potations. Like Victorian tea, but with books and Dickens attire for sale. By this point, the outside world has become notional at best. The other conferees are fast becoming our friends. Business cards are by now exchanged apologetically, as if the institutions on them named some shameful secret: debtor's prison, or perhaps a blacking factory.

Evening: A party, guest lecture on film adaptation. Rather than pooh-pooh any filmmaker presumptuous enough to translate Dickens for the screen, the participants surprise me by mostly loving David O. Selznick's atmospheric 1935 "Tale of Two Cities" -- the one with Ronald Colman. Even better is novelist Jane Smiley's talk on "Dickens and the Challenge of the Political Novel." A pocket biographer of Dickens herself, Smiley pays eloquent tribute to him not as a scholar or a fan, like the rest of us, but as a colleague in craft.

Especially memorable is Smiley's audacious pronouncement, due soon as part of a book on the writing life, that "every novel, at 62 percent, has a twist." Sixty-two percent of the way into "A Tale of Two Cities," it's Darnay's irrational trip back to France, even if it costs him his head. In "Huck Finn," it's Jim and Huck's equally irrational rafting trip back into the South. Other examples are promised, and we can't wait. Better bring a calculator to the universe next year for "Little Dorrit."