THERE'S NOTHING LIKE READING writers on writers, and this Penguin series, first published at the turn of this century, contains some gems, including Edna O'Brien's biography of James Joyce (see below). Writers understand exactly how life interferes and inspires the work; the terrible choices that must be made, the money, the downsides of drawing from one's own life. Smiley believes in Dickens wholeheartedly. She compares him to Shakespeare, "pouring forth characters of such number, variety, and vividness that it seems impossible that they could be the products of a single mind. Both depicted English life when English life was at its most interesting and vital, and both seemed to sparkle at the center of that life." She is charmed by Dickens the spectacle and awed by the careful construction, the raw skill of his writing. Dickens, Smiley writes, was physically appealing, stylish, keen. He had a talent for mimicry (a real party guy) and he was a "snappy dresser." But he had a secretive side that eclipsed his youthful vigor as he got older, and this, too, found its way into his work. By the time he wrote Bleak Housemidcentury, he was craving escape from a house of ten children, arguments with publishers, and financial burdens that came and went throughout his life. ("As with the work, so with the life," Smiley writes.) His true legacy is his "vast intuitive grasp of the possibilities of urban capitalist life. His works explore and touch upon almost every facet of modern life (public sanitation, education of the masses, proliferating litigation, social tensions brought about by class fluidity, waste management, high-speed transportation, dislocation of traditional neighborhoods, divorce, the alliance of religion and economic exploitation, governmental incompetence and corruption, the commodification of family and social relationships, even addiction and colonialism)." He is a literary David Macaulay, showing us the nexus of daily life and emotional development, the wearing away, the potential nobility, the losses and gains.
Discoveries: Jane Smiley
January 7, 2012 • By Susan Salter Reynolds