Sam Schulman's Reviews > Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens by Michael Slater
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's review
Jan 08, 2010

really liked it
Read in March, 2010

Not entirely successful, but an interesting attempt to write a history of Dickens' writings and Dickens at work. This method both empowers and limits - on the one hand it allows Slater to focus on the process and the glory of someone who thought hard about the process of writing and was superbly good at it. (And incidentally it allows Slater to spend more time on the writings than other biographers do, which allowed me to realize that there was a lot of Dickens I hadn't read - such as the Christmas books and short stories - and some of them are fantastic, such as the second or third Christmas book, about the Tolliver Baby, etc. - others are supernatural, which scare me). The downside is that when Dickens himself sets his mind to obscure or ignore or explain away, he's a dab-hand at it, and Slater feels himself honor bound not to go much farther. So there is a real reticence to speculate too much about the Ternans and the Dickens divorce. Don't get me wrong - it's fully narrated. But there is no overriding sense that Slater can see into Dickens' soul and explain matters - which is, I suppose, a mercy.
Slater is really good at showing the links between Dickens as writer and Dickens as performer (in amateur theatricals of a maniacal elaborateness) and ultimately as performer of his own works out loud. It all makes sense at any moment of the tale - but it is hard to hold all of Dickens' life in mind. Which is again a mercy - it is rather as Dickens must have felt himself to be at any one time in his life.
Finally, I should mention that there is something clotted and subtly awkward about Slater's prose style - not noticable sentence by sentence, but after pages there is an impulse to put it down - and I had to force myself to pick it up again. I can't figure it out - it's not academic, though it is formal - but there is something in how he writes that makes it a relief to stop reading him. But don't let this discourage you!
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