Sunday, 22 April 1984 (Easter Day)
I can remember sitting at the kitchen table with my mother a couple of years ago: I was reading aloud from Pickwick Papers and we were laughing ourselves silly over “On a log / Expiring frog!” “Now, that’s what I call writing,” said my mother. “What happens? Nothing? And it’s so funny…”
That’s what one reads Dickens for: his ability to make something out of absolutely nothing. It is the elegance of the exaggeration that provides the true content; the elegance and the control. Here is another example, culled from his American Notes: “The train calls at stations in the woods, where the wild impossibility of anybody having the slightest reason to get out, is only to be equalled by the apparently desperate hopelessness of their being anybody to get in.”
Who else could write that? All this by way of heralding the announcement that I have just picked up a complete set of Dickens’ works in an antique shop for £12. And the man who sold it to me was so nice that I was hard put not to enquire of him why he wasn’t asking three times the price. I left the shop like a cartoon criminal, my eyebrows shooting up and down like springboards on my forehead.”
Illustration by Robert Seymour from the first edition of The Pickwick Papers (1837).
Mr Pickwick addresses members of the Pickwick Club.