Failing at Classics of the Month

I’ve attempted two Dickens novels in the last five years, and left both unfinished. I at least got about 200 pages into Dombey and Son in 2012 before I gave up, but my recent attempts to get past the first couple of chapters in Our Mutual Friend have been utterly unsuccessful. I finally gave myself permission to set it aside at page 41 – and I didn’t even read all of that; I’d started skimming in a last-ditch attempt to get myself hooked by the story. Have I lost my Dickens mojo? Do I not have sufficient patience to read Victorian triple-deckers anymore? I truly hope this is just a phase and I’ll be able to get back into Dickens someday. I certainly intend to read his whole oeuvre eventually, even the obscure ones.

So I don’t have a classic for April, nor a true doorstopper (I’ve classified David France’s How to Survive a Plague as such – a bit of a cheat since I only skimmed it). Instead what I have to offer are a modern classic and a graphic adaptation of another Dickens novel.

On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin, which I mostly read during our trip to Hay-on-Wye earlier in the month, is worthy of being called a modern classic. It has echoes of D.H. Lawrence and especially Thomas Hardy, and it’s a pleasantly offbeat look at the developments of the twentieth century as seen through the lives of Welsh identical twins Benjamin and Lewis Jones. Opening in the 1980s, when the brothers are eccentric old gents sleeping side by side in their late parents’ bed, the book then retreats to the beginning: at the turn of the last century ornery Amos Jones fell for an educated rector’s daughter and their volatile relationship played out at The Vision farm. One son was caught up in the First World War, one had love affairs; neither “ever strayed further than Hereford.” Through sickness, community scandal, and the rise and fall of fortunes, they remain wedded to Welsh village life.

“The Vision” farm is in the background to the right.

I especially loved Chatwin’s descriptions of the natural world (he’d visited Radnorshire as a boy and considered it a kind of spiritual home), and the glimpses he gives into the twins’ preternatural closeness:

Lewis and Benjamin gambolled ahead, put up grouse, played finger-football with rabbit-droppings, peered over the precipice onto the backs of kestrels and ravens and, every now and then, crept off into the bracken, and hid. They liked to pretend they were lost in a forest, like the Twins in Grimms’ fairy-tale, and that each stalk of bracken was the trunk of a forest tree. … They lay on their backs and gazed on the clouds that crossed the fretted patches of sky … they would press their foreheads together, each twin losing himself in the other’s grey eye.

(Clearance book from Blackwell’s in Oxford. )


The David Copperfield graphic novel by Jacqueline Morley (illustrated by Penko Gelev) is part of the Graffex series of graphic novel literary retellings issued by Salariya Book Company. It’s remarkably faithful to Dickens’s original, with just a bit of condensing in terms of the plot and a few secondary characters cut out or greatly reduced in importance. Although this is no substitute for reading David Copperfield itself (my favorite book), I could see it being useful for high school or college students who need a quick recap of what happens when preparing for a quiz or essay. The three main young females are amusingly similar and idealized, but all the other characters’ looks are true to the novel’s descriptions (and previous adaptations). The end matter – a brief biography of Dickens, commentary on the novel, a timeline of stage and screen versions – is particularly helpful, though in the chronology of Dickens’s works they forgot Dombey and Son!

(Remainder copy from Addyman Books in Hay-on-Wye. )

Next month: I’ve pulled out a couple of short (~210 pages each) classics from the shelf. I recently read a graphic novel about Gauguin that I’ll be reviewing on Monday, so I fancy following it up with W. Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence, which is said to be based on Gauguin’s life. It’ll be only my second Maugham after Of Human Bondage, which I loved in 2015. Anna of the Five Towns will be my first taste of Arnold Bennett’s fiction (though I’ve read his Literary Taste).


25 responses

  1. I love your classic of the month posts. Even if you don’t finish a book. Saying why is still a good post. 🙂


  2. I’ve struggled with a few of the Dickens novels in the past – absolutely cannot get to finish Tale of Two Cities even though its short and Bleak House was only half read. Dombey does get better though as long as you can ignore the number of times Florence dissolves in tears……


    1. I adore Bleak House, but A Tale of Two Cities is not one of my favourites. I do mean to get back to Dombey one of these days (years) but it doesn’t feel like a top priority. I wonder if there has been a screen adaptation I could watch first to get me acquainted with the characters and story line?


      1. There probably is a screen version though I haven’t come across it sorry.


  3. Carolyn Anthony | Reply

    Hi Beck. I think you should be less hard on yourself. No doubt some of Dickens’ books were not his best work. Maybe he was distracted by problems or under pressure of deadlines. I wonder what he’d say about these 2 titles? What would be his favorite of all?

    Sent from my iPhone



    1. Ah, but Our Mutual Friend is supposed to be his late masterpiece, which makes me feel guiltier about not getting into it. It’s true that he wrote to deadlines and to fill his serial requirements (usually about 32 pages per weekly installment), so there is a lot of what could be considered filler.

      I personally think Dickens would be delighted at the range of adaptations of his work: everything from TV series to graphic novels.


  4. I agree with you that Dickens is a snorer. Although he shouldn’t be, theoretically. Such nice opening phrases, etc. The same thing happened to me with one of Balzac’s. I must have hit the bore button accidentally. Elsewhere an author’s confusing narrative is responsible for the shutdown, or shuteye, as it were. Faulkner never fails. As also happened with one of Naipaul’s. After loving “The Bend in the River,” I tried another of his books and found myself mixing up the protagonists: son, father, and grandfather. Boom, the sound of my interest stalling.


    1. I’ve never tried Balzac, though I felt similarly about the one Zola novel I read, Germinal. What confuses me is that I’m sure I remember Dickens’ novels being exciting and even gripping back when I was in my late teens and early 20s. So it must be that my taste or attention span has changed.

      It’s been probably 15 years since I tried reading Faulkner, though I do remember loving Light in August.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. If you live long enough, you will reread books twice (that is, three times) at intervals in your life and enjoy of not enjoy them.

        Appreciated your thoughts. Coincidentally, Jim Harrison writes in his “The Ancient Minstrel”(2016) that he could tell which paragraphs Faulkner had written while drunk. Maybe alcohol is responsible for logic-defying reader knipchen fits. As far Zola is concerned, as well as Balzar, it might be best to read them in their own language. (Those French are always holding out.) Balzac is actually surprisingly captivating. As are Maupassant and Flaubert. At least what I’ve read of them. Zola never pricked my interest. “J’accuse?” (The Dreyfus Defense.) Yes, but he also jack-hammered Cezanne in fictional prose. So you see, you’ve opened up a whole Pandora’s box. Good for you, and thanks again.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Alas, I don’t think I could read a novel in French anymore. Or if I did I would be consulting a dictionary every few words and it would take me forever. I do intend to read more Zola, and some Flaubert, but in translation.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m a bit ashamed to struggle with Dickens too. Good yarns, but so much by-the-way stuff in between which starts to irritate me. I think if these were published these days, as novels rather than as serialisations, the editor’s red pen would be in evidence.


    1. You’re quite right. I imagine many of his books could be released as abridged editions and would not be diminished. (The Luminaries somehow got by the editors at 800+ pages a few years ago, and won the Booker Prize!)

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Maybe it’s not the ‘what’ but the ‘how’ with the Dickens you’ve tried recently? What if you try to recapture some of the original spirit of the works and tried reading them serially rather than all-in-a-go? Who knows – you might trick yourself into loving his writing again!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I do think it must be a matter of ‘how’. It may partially be because I read 10-15 books at a time nowadays, whereas I used to just read one book at a time, so I could lose myself in Dickens’s world. You mention the serial approach, which reminds me that that’s how I read Hard Times when it was reissued in its original newsprint installments as part of a Stanford project in about 2003. That was a lovely way to read Dickens, and I think would be even more helpful with the long novels.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. buriedinprint

        We have the same reading habit. Even though I’m not convinced it’s the best way to read, or even the way I like best, I only last for short spurts reading just one book (or even two) at a time. I did try the serial approach with the last Dickens I read (you can find the breakdown for weeks online and even the exact dates so that you begin on an anniversary if that idea tickles your reading fancy) and I managed to incorporate it into the mix that way, alongside the rest of the mess (*said fondly*) so perhaps it will work for you too.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. ooh, The Moon and Sixpence! It annoyed the hell out of me when I read it, not because of the writing but because the Gauguin character is such a pompous destructive arse and he gets a free pass because he’s A Genius, so of course. Still, worth reading (and blessedly short).


    1. Ha ha! It will be interesting to see how the portrayal compares with that in the graphic novel. Abandoning his family and pursuing his art and those nubile native girls…


  8. The Moon and Sixpence is a good, and fairly light reading and yes Gauguin is not portrayed in a flattering light. I have tried and failed with Dickens too (maybe I should try it a chapter a week as you suggest buriedinprint) and have been halfway through Moby Dick for about two years.


    1. I never did get through Moby-Dick, even though it was assigned for my Hawthorne & Melville class in college! I think I got about 2/3 of the way in, and perhaps skipped or skimmed some bits. Even my Melville-adoring professor agreed that Moby-Dick could have done with some severe editing.

      I do look forward to this Maugham book. Of Human Bondage was excellent but quite the chunky and time-consuming read, so it’s nice that this one is so much shorter.


  9. On The Black Hill sounds lovely, as was the selection you shared. I’ve never heard of that book! As for Dickens, I’ve been meaning to read Great Expectations for years now. Other things keep grabbing my attention! 🙂


    1. On the Black Hill is having a tiny bit of a revival because it’s just been reissued in e-book form. Chatwin is better known as a travel writer, though, with books about Australia and Patagonia.

      Great Expectations is wonderful, and not nearly as daunting as some of the other Dickens novels because it’s a fairly condensed narrative without loads of subplots and secondary characters. I’ve read it twice now and find it quite compulsive reading.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. How curious. I’m also just about to start a read of Bennett’s “Anna of the Five Towns”. I happen to really enjoy Bennett so am looking forward to this read. I’ve been reading about medical apartheid, so I’m ready for something slightly less harrowing to read before I go to bed. 🙂


    1. Now that is a striking coincidence! I think Bennett is very little read nowadays. I only know his nonfiction book Literary Taste and one short story that appeared in an anthology. I’ll probably start “Anna” later in the week.


      1. Cool. I’ve read “Buried Alive: A Tale of These Days” (1908) and “The Card” (1910)… Both pretty good, actually. Hopefully, we’ll like the read of “Anna”!!

        Liked by 1 person

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