Stephen Jarvis's upcoming novel Death and Mr Pickwick is a sprawling book, in terms both of its 800-page girth and of its structure. I've read the first third and decided to write about it now before I forget the details.
There's a present-day frame story about the narrator writing the book, commissioned by an old man obsessed with Late Georgian London's printmaking and periodicals. This story only adds up to a few pages strewn through the first third, but there are weird things going on in it. Why does the narrator suddenly bring up his anorexic mother? I'm more curious about where this is going than about the main narrative inside the frame, whose general outline is a matter of known literary history.
The main story so far is a straight historical novel about Robert Seymour, now remembered chiefly as the suicidal first illustrator of Charles Dickens's Pickwick Papers. Jarvis appears to be one of those who agree with Seymour's widow that Dickens owed considerably more of Pickwick to the dead man than a few illustrations.
The sprawling character of the novel comes from innumerable long digressions from this storyline, amounting to a crash course in the literary and artistic antecedents of Pickwick. Dickens isn't even mentioned in the first third, though he is most likely present as an unnamed boy at one or two points.
I quite like the book even though the first third has no female main characters. In fact, it mainly has lots of minor characters who play walk-on parts in relation to Seymour's life story, and to developments in the era's interlinked printmaking and magazine businesses. It's a play acted on Jane Austen's stage, fifteen years or so after all the interesting female characters have left, taking their concerns with interpersonal relationships with them. Should the book fall into the hands of a reader who isn't familiar with Dickens, it will probably appear quite baffling, meandering and pointless. But of course, the word “Pickwick” is in the title, and so the intended readership is indicated rather clearly. I look forward to reading on.
Stephen Jarvis's Death and Mr Pickwick will be out in the UK from Penguin Random House on 21 May, and in the US from Farrar, Straus & Giroux on 23 June. I reviewed the middle third of the book on 18 April and the final third on 9 May.
Hi - I am the author of the novel. I am sorry that Martin has posted this review 'en route' when he has only read a part of the text - indeed, I have never actually seen a reviewer do this before - and I hope he will post a revised a review when he has finished the book. There are some inaccuracies in the review, mainly because he hasn't finished the text. First, though, let me make it clear that the book is NOT a prequel. It tells Pickwick's backstory: how Pickwick came to be, and what happened afterwards. Second, it is simply not the case that I cover "known literary history" - I make it clear that the "accepted" origin of Pickwick is untrue, and therefore the novel is going into hitherto unknown territory. There ARE important female characters in the book. Its intended readership is NOT Dickensians - ardent Dickensians may of course read it, but you don't need to have read a single word of Pickwick before coming to my novel. There is no reason at all why people should be baffled, or find the book pointless - even the blurb on the back makes it clear that the novel tells the story of the creation and afterlife of The Pickwick Papers. I would suggest that people might look at another review, written by someone who has read the book in its entirety, which appeared in the book trade journal Publishers Weekly. Here it is http://www.publishersweekly.com/9780374139667
I would not normally respond to a review, as it is the reviewer's right to say what he thinks, and the author should simply accept criticism. But this review is unfair.
Do you expect every reviewer to actually read 802 pages before writing about the book? Most probably won't. I'm open with that. Don't worry, it's all publicity.
As for qualities that don't emerge until after at least 270 pages -- I'd say you have a problem right there. I usually give a novel 50 pages to hook me.
I see what you mean regarding the distinction between a prequel and backstory. Perhaps "Prequel to the Writing of Pickwick" would be more accurate.
Well, I don't think it is good enough to say it is "all publicity". The fact is your review has gone out on google alerts, with frankly inaccurate and misleading statements.
I don't mind a reviewer saying they haven't finished a book, perhaps because they hated it - that's fair criticism, and fine. But writing a review "en route" is bound to lead to problems.
And as for the fifty pages...here is what a leading person at Waterstones told my editor at Random House about the novel: "Well, you were quite right: fifty pages of Death and Mr Pickwick and I was indeed hooked! The whole thing is an absolute joy, such fun and so elegantly put together. Every little narrative aside is a delight."
This person also tweeted about the book: Jonathan Ruppin
"Don't let 802pp of Death and Mr Pickwick by @DyingClown (@JonathanCape, May) deter you! Joyously absorbing & full of Dickensian titbits."
And as for qualities not emerging until at least 270 pages - that's what happens in The Pickwick Papers itself. The debtors prison section of Pickwick is almost a "novel within a novel", and it doesn't appear until three-quarters of the way into The Pickwick Papers.
Here's a few words about literary criticism for you.
There is no objective criticism. I speak only for myself. When I tell my readers about my opinions, nobody thinks that they are empirical facts.
And another thing: your problem isn't that people might get the impression that your book is bad (and I haven't said that it is) -- your problem is that most people might not know or care that it exists. Regardless of what I say about your book, I help your book's name recognition.
You've seen the logotypes of companies at sports venues. They say nothing about the quality of goods and services that these companies provide. They just create name recognition. And that's what your novel needs.
Sorry, I meant to say a leading person at Foyles, not Waterstones. The reason I got confused is that the fiction buyer at Waterstones has just sent me a separate message about Death and Mr Pickwick saying "It really is a remarkable book."
One other thing: you will see, if you read the whole text, that the so-called minor characters often reappear, deepening a reader's understanding of the characters.
"I look forward to reading on." M. Rundkvist
Well, I thank you for giving me brand recognition. Mind you - I already had it, to some degree, because The Pickwick Papers was the greatest literary phenomenon in history.
Of course literary criticism has a hugely subjective element. But it works upon a foundation of facts about the nature of a book. One technique which I use throughout Death and Mr Pickwick is recurrence - a character, or an object, or an event, will come back, even after a very long gap. This is, I believe, one of the key elements of Death and Mr Pickwick, and was particularly enjoyed by Jonathan Galassi, the head of my American publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux. But of course you will not see this so much if you just read a part of the novel.
Thank you for reading on. I hope you will revise your review.
These are the kind of comments that embarrassed writers tend to ask me to delete a few months later. Just chill. You have a big book out with big publishers. You're going to be fine.
You mean the web site linked to twice from my review? Yes, I agree, do take a look at that, Dear Reader.
How bizarre. I took the blog post to be saying "I'm reading this, it's quite fun if a bit baffling and I'm going to finish it". On the basis of this part-review, I would have considered reading it myself. Now I'm not so sure!
Well - in response to Martin, if you have linked to my website twice, I can't see it above, There is a dead link on Death and Mr Pickwick at the bottom, though.
In response to Jane - what has changed your mind?
Fixed the broken link -- trouble with typographical quotation marks in the HTML. Also do try clicking the book's front cover image.
Thanks for fixing the link. Look, I am not trying to score points here - the history of The Pickwick Papers has, for one reason or another, been tied up with misrepresentation. Dickens, and his associates frankly lied about the origin of Pickwick. It's time for the record to be put straight. This is why it so rankles me that this first appearance of the novel on a google alert describes my novel as a "prequel", and then proceeds to give readers a misleading view of the novel's contents. If Jane (or anyone else) would like a prequel to Pickwick, or some other sort of novel about Samuel Pickwick, then that is fine. I am not providing that, though.
I was actually vaguely interested in the book *because* of its strange structure. But I have an - admittedly infantile - desire for the authors of books I read to be dignified when responding to reviews, which frankly you haven't been Stephen! (See Martin's comment #9.)
If Martin had been rude about the book, then maybe I could understand this desperate defence. As it is I just don't think you needed to express any opinion except maybe "I hope you enjoy the rest of it".
Once again, I admit that this is an illogical attitude on my part, but at least I admit it and will consider whether I should reject it. Many readers wouldn't - and it's them you need to worry about.
I do not see how I am being "undignified" simply because I would like my book to be accurately described, and a review to be free of misleading statements! Indeed, I know that I am not alone in my view that Martin's approach is unfair. I have just emailed the editor of an ezine about the review, whom I know picks up statements in google alerts, and this is what he said: " Thank you for alerting me to the Martin R. review. I agree with you; it is incredibly unusual and unfair to review a book when one has gotten only one third of the way through. I wouldn't trust anything such a reviewer might say."
If Martin had written a completely scathing review - if he had described the book as utter garbage - that would be fine with me, and I would have said nothing. I would have been, as you put it, "dignified" in my silence. But I am not prepared to have this book misrepresented.
"The Pickwick Papers was the greatest literary phenomenon in history."
Do you mean the greatest English literary phenomenon in history, or are you just incredibly ignorant of everything outside of English literature and history, Mr Jarvis? Or perhaps you consider anything non-English obviously not trifling with?
Quiz question - do you happen to know who wrote the world's first novel?
...not worth trifling with...
BTW, Berger Johannson, if you have not yet watched the 2014 movie "Interstellar", I really think you should. I loved every second of it. For a sci-fi movie, I think it's brilliant.
In response to John Massey - yes. the Pickwick Papers was the greatest literary phenomenon in history. Its circulation was exceeded probably only by The Bible. For a time, Uncle Tom Cabin's circulation probably exceeded that of Pickwick, but by the end of the nineteenth century, Pickwick was almost certainly in number one position again. At the time of Dickens's death, it was acclaimed as Dickens's masterpiece, and really only went into decline, as the most popular novel in the world, in about 1930. So yes, it was the greatest literary phenomenon in history. To find a cultural phenomenon that rivalled it, you would have to go outside literature, and you would probably choose The Beatles.
You didn't answer the quiz question.
How do you or others know about literary circulation in, say, China? I suspect the truth is, you wouldn't have a clue.
Well, some people say the Epic of Gilgamesh.
Well, give me an example of something else which retained such an astonishing level of popularity for nearly a century after publication. I suspect YOU wouldn't have a clue on that.
BTW, I detest the Beatles, and I always did - lowest common denominator garbage for the drooling brainless masses. Funnily enough, that's what I also think of Dickens. Perhaps that's what is phenomenal - the ability to sell so much crap to so many moronic punters. English-reading punters, that is. They might have been reading Pickwick in India, but China, Japan, Korea, Indonesia and Brazil are pretty doubtful.
I can give you quite a few examples as it happens - the Chinese Classics, which are still very widely read. And the first 'true' or 'modern' novel, which was written by a Japanese woman in the early 11th Century (which is a true phenomenon, not some penny dreadful pap) and which is still devoured in Japan today. They are so proud of her they build statues of her everywhere.
I love both the Beatles and Dickens. And I quite like Stephen's book too.
But he didn't like you saying that you liked the first 270 pp. Apparently that is against the rules, despite the fact that you explained clearly at the outset why you were doing it.
Just like questioning whether the PickWick crap was the greatest literary phenomenon is against the rules - as long as it's Mr Jarvis and presumably the British literary establishment making the rules.
Well, the Chinese Classics have no worldwide profile, in the same way as Pickwick. In terms of novels appreciated by vast populations, Pickwick was popular in India, and in many countries of the world. I don't think the Chinese Classics would even come close to Pickwick's widespread popularit around the wor;dy. And we are talking,in the case of Pickwick, about literature at the highest level. Until James Joyce's Ulysses, it was often regarded as the greatest piece of prose in the English language. And incidentally, part of my novel is set in modern times, and in homage to The Beatles, I include a scene set on the day of John Lennon's assassination.
around the world, I meant to say
This is nonsense about the British literary establishment. Pickwick was a worldwide phenomenon. I might mention for instance the Portuguese poet Pessoa who was a huge admirer of Pickwick.
"Well, the Chinese Classics have no worldwide profile."
You must be joking. I take it you move in pretty lowbrow circles, then.
Come on John, quit offending the other commenters. Stephen is a very well-read man and a good writer.
Pickwick and The Beatles have a lot in common, and I don't just mean in terms of popularity. Both display an incredible range of styles.
Well, quite frankly the Chinese Classics just don't have the worldwide profile of Pickwick. The point is that Pickwick has been forgotten. Why Pickwick went into decline in the 1930s is an interesting question. I suspect it has something to do with the emergence of systems of transport, especially the motor car. Pickwick is a travel book, and when the car came on the scene, people didn't need Pickwick so much. But I think Pickwick is a sleeping giant...
Since I belong to the wrong language region, I came in contact with Pickwick indirectly, throgh the books by Jasper Fforde.
Regarding which country's literature that get widespread, this is determined by political and economic dominance.
The German classics were pretty much required reading for anyone with pretensions of literary knowledge right up to 1945.
And the French classics have faded too, at least in the "swenglish" language region.
So, it's OK for someone to offend the literary traditions of other great civilisations, but I'm not allowed to offend one of your commentators.
That makes it fairly hard. Screw freedom of speech, then.
There's no great universal law that I have to like the Beatles, Dickens, Shakespeare or any of the other Anglospherical sacred cows, and I don't see why I can't say so without it being interpreted as "offending".
As for Stephen being well read, it's a matter of being well read in what, as far as I am concerned.
Well, yes, political and economic considerations play a part in all this. Economics obviously played a key role in Pickwick's initial success - that is, production in relatively cheap serial parts. The fact that Pickwick was illustrated also played a huge role in the novel's success. Two literary works that preceded Pickwick, namely Dr Syntax by Combe and Rowlandson and Life in London by Pierce Egan and the Cruikshank Brothers were in the Pickwick mould, being issued in serial parts with illustrations - and they too achieved great success in England, but they didn't break out into the wider world.
Berger, did you get my film recommendation at #20?
That was me being inoffensive for once.
I don't claim to be well-read overall. But I do claim to be the best-read person in history when it comes to Pickwick. To write the novel, I set myself the goal of reading everything about Pickwick that has been written. And it used to be said that more had been written about Pickwick than any other work of English fiction.
You have invested deeply in Pickwick, clearly.
Julie Fowlis has set herself the goal of learning 500 Highland Gaelic songs by the time she's 50, and I love her music, and her forlorn quest to prevent the language from becoming extinct. It will become extinct, despite her dedication and devotion because, when it comes to popular appeal, she will never have anything like the commercial success of the Beatles.
I am still willing to say that Julie Fowlis is 10,000 times the singer and musician that any of the Beatles were.
And I've met Ringo Starr, by the way, which did nothing to elevate my opinion of him.
How's that for range?
I hope that this will bring this little exchange to an end. What I will say is this: when you start looking into the literature on Pickwick, you see that this novel was something very, very special indeed. For instance, at the start of my novel is a page of quotes, one of which is from the British Journal of Photography for 1903: "Pickwick is a reality to all of us". What an extraordinary statement to make - and this was getting on for 70 years after Pickwick first appeared! Whatever is meant by that quote, it is quite clear that Pickwick had a truly profound effect upon people's lives. Another quote is this: “Whoever shall truly relate the history of the people of Great Britain in the nineteenth century will not pass by in silence the publication of Pickwick.” Imagine saying that about a novel! Pickwick was massive. When you consider Pickwick's vast circulation worldwide, its longevity, and its quality, I have no hesitation in saying it was the greatest literary phenomenon in history.
PS. I applaud the attempt to save gaelic. The preservation of languages is of great concern to me. Anyway, I hope you will take a look at my novel.
Oh yes, I am now convinced that you have no hesitation in that regard at all.
Not quite finished - the answer to the quiz question was The Tale of Genji, by Lady Murasaki.
I have no hesitation because, until someone can show me evidence to the contrary, I take it as true. Someone once said: "Writing Pickwick was like having the ultimate hit record". I agree. The reason my statement seemed ludicrous to you was that people have forgotten Pickwick. You can even "date" the day Pickwick went in decline, to August 19th 1934, when a movie company abandoned a project to film Pickwick because "it was not considered box office". Nowadays it is one of Dickens's least-read works. But I think my novel stands a chance of reviving Pickwick.
Anyway, I have to get on with other stuff, so this will probably be my last post on this thread. I hope you will take a look at my novel when it appears in May. Best wishes Stephen
No, the reason it seemed ludicrous is because, truly world-wide, not just Anglosphere wide, it isn't true. People are still printing, selling, reading and translating "Dream of the Red Chamber". There is a beautiful restaurant in Hong Kong, everything about it is true and perfect in terms of interior decoration in the sense of 'period' (Song Dynasty) (it has the most outstanding toilets imaginable, to the point where you feel like staying in there and meditating), not glitzyness, and it is called in English "Water Margin" - and everyone who goes in there knows what the name refers to - it refers to a Chinese classic which everyone knows and has read. The few who haven't are made curious by the name, so they hunt it down and read it. These books are in active print, and they are not acquiring fewer readers with time, they are acquiring more.
Here we have the phenomena that literary works written hundreds or even a thousand or thousands of years ago are still regarded "must read" classics by whole populations of very populous nations, and in English and other language translations by people in other countries.
To single out Pickwick above all other literary works, as outrageously commercially successful as it was in the Anglosphere for a relatively brief period (which it was, if we are considering something like the Iliad), does not ring true, because these works are still hit records today, whereas Pickwick went into decline a long time ago, and its longevity pales in comparison to some of the classic works I am referring to.
Anyway, I am obviously not going to try to keep the argument going. I am not convinced, and no, I won't read your book - there is too much truly great stuff out there, and the subject doesn't interest me at all. I don't wish you any ill will because of that.
I don't think you should have jumped down Martin's throat - you should have read properly and considered what he was saying, but that's history.
John, yes, I got it. I have ticked off it at Amazon. Also recommended: Titan.
(OT) -Why inequity and injustice ought to be a men’s rights issue: DNA evidence.
Coincident with the rise of agriculture, there was a drastic bottleneck in the effective population size of men, but not women. See the infographic.
Turns out that turning women into chattel is something that lots of men got behind, seeing the benefits to themselves but not the consequences. And so here we are.
Survival by the wealthiest?
The DNA evidence certainly documents polygyny, but women as chattels? Their level of freedom can't be read from the evidence in question.
It can if you read the mtDNA sequences - they became chattel of the dominant male Y DNA lines in order to survive and have children who would carry their genes.
Example: my Y DNA haplogroup is Rb1 - Bronze Age invaders, Bell Beaker (and possibly the first people in Europe to become lactose tolerant), my mt DNA is from the original hunter-gatherers who reoccupied Europe after the last glacial maximum.
That speaks about female survival and transmission of genes, at the expense of being chattel of the patriarchal societies that arose in the Neolithic. The old hunter-gatherer societies were much more egalitarian.
But women tend to quite like successful men.
I was not going to contribute to this thread, however, when I read John Massey's latest post, I had to Pickwick was NOT just an Anglosphere phenomenon. It was worldwide - and the Chinese works you name just simply do not have that stretch. They are Sino-centric works. Secondly, it is not just a question of longevity, in terms of when the work was first produced - the Odyssey, and many other works are obviously older than Pickwick. But to be the most popular novel in the world for almost a century is an INCREDIBLE achievement. The Odyssey can't match that.
Oh, and I didn't jump down Martin's throat. I am going to stand up for my novel when I see it misrepresented, though.
And Pickwick is an Anglo-centric work. And it was only world-wide if you consider the Anglosphere to be the world, a thought which has not escaped me.
The logical flaw in your argument is that you simply cannot have the data to support your claim that it was the most popular novel in the world. You cannot possibly have those data, because no one has them. If you want to claim most popular novel in the English-speaking world, fine, I'm sure you're right.
If you cannot follow that logical deduction, I am giving up, because logical argument is futile. You are certainly no scientist; you are in the intellectual camp that says that something is so because you assert it to be so, and to hell with supporting data to prove the correctness of your assertion, even to the point of appointing yourself the arbiter of what is a great achievement in terms of longevity.
The reason why there is a lack of precise data on Pickwick is precisely BECAUSE it was such a wild, runaway success - it was not under the control of any one company, and there were numerous pirated editions. By 1936, there were at least 223 editions in the English language alone. But the lack of precise sales figures does not mean there is no evidence. There was REPEATED observation of the mass distribution of Pickwick, backed up by numerous observers. Take for instance this quote from 1899: “No prose work of fiction of this or any other age has been read and read again by so many people, none has raised so much healthy mirth, none has called forth so large a bibliography of history, commentary and illustration and none is so freely quoted, consciously or unconsciously in the literature and conversation of today.” Furthermore you seem to think that the fact this was Anglosphere-dominated somehow disqualifies Pickwick from being considered the greatest literary phenomenon in history. It doesn't. The Anglosphere isn't some small backwater, but a vast region, encircling the globe. And, as I have said, there were many foreign language editions too. A copy of Pickwick in Russian was found in the ruins of a building in Sebastopol during the Crimean War. All you are saying effectively is "What about China? What about Japan?" Okay, let's assume that those territories were largely missed out by the Pickwick phenomenon. You still haven't offered anything that competes with Pickwick as the greatest literary phenomenon in history. You haven't even come close.
You have defined "literary phenomenon" as it suits you.
You have made a very strong assertion.
You have presented no firm data at all to support your assertion that it meets even your own carefully selected definition of "literary phenomenon".
The world is full of vast regions where English is not spoken. The second most spoken language after Mandarin is Spanish. You also appear to overlook Brazil and Indonesia, two of the most populous countries in the world.
You clearly have a strong vested personal and financial interest in making these assertions, which you have failed completely to demonstrate with data, rather than odd cherry-picked quotations from who knows who.
Therefore, case closed. I have done a search for similar claims to yours, and I can't find any.
I will stop short of calling you unethical, but I wouldn't push it any harder, if I were you.
As for "competing with Pickwick", I have given you several examples which you have chosen to ignore. I think you simply have no comprehension of how many people have read "Water Margin" or "Dream of the Red Chamber" and over what time span - and the fact that the readership of these classics is still increasing with time, not dead as a doornail like poor old Pickwick.
#52 - Especially when being under the protection of a powerful and successful man beats the hell out of being killed or cast into the wilderness to starve to death.
The same instincts are in play today - pair up with a powerful, successful man, and not only enjoy a better lifestyle, but produce kids who are likely to grow up powerful and successful. Genes work, as they have always done.
You only have to look at the mtDNA signatures of Central and South Americans to get a clear picture of what happened when a male army successfully invaded.
Yes, I agree that this is one possible interpretation of the evidence. But as I said, the genetic evidence doesn't tell us if the women in these polygynist unions were generally abject sex slaves or proud wives of successful men.
The same picture is replicated in pre-history everywhere you look - the Cantonese are a hybrid of invading Han males from the north and Austronesian females.
And now we are seeing the same picture replicated in Europe - waves of incoming invasion, first reoccupation by Mesolithic hunter gatherers after the last glacial maximum, then a wave of invasion by Middle Eastern farmers, and then another wave of invasion by Indo-European speaking herders and pastoralists. And that picture is reflected in my own DNA, and probably yours as well, if you ever felt like paying US$100 to spit in a test tube - although Sweden is a bit more complicated than most of Europe, being on the fringe as it was at the time.
#60 - Oh, I think we can forget the 'abject sex slave' bit - they were chattel in that they were 'owned' by their husbands, but then so were women in Victorian England. You only have to read Anne Brönte to know that. But in being 'owned', they would obviously have derived status and got more than their share of the good stuff. Men care about the kids they breed, and therefore care about the brood stock.
This was not slave trade like the Arab 'white slave' trade, it was militarily more powerful groups coming in, killing, enslaving or driving off the resident males and elderly/useless, and marrying the young females. But until just about everywhere including England until really very recently, marriage meant ownership.
In hunter gatherer societies, which were much more 'egalitarian', wives were/are often taken by kidnapping or by wife-trading between different groups ( mechanisms for avoiding excessive in-breeding).
I'm not sure that's necessarily better for the woman, is it?
To John Massey - this is nonsense. What you are doing is confusing "greatest literary phenomenon in history" with "greatest literary phenomenon possible". Of course Pickwick isn't the greatest literary possible - that has still to happen. And when a book comes along which penetrates all the markets you mention - Indonesia, China and the rest, as well as the Anglosphere - then of course that will have trumped Pickwick. BUT THAT HAS NOT HAPPENED YET. The examples you mention from China may well have sold in large quantities, over a long period, but they did not have the worldwide stretch of Pickwick. And, the point about "no firm data" is another red herring. Of course there is no firm data, for the reasons I have given, but when you have repeated observations of the mass distribution of Pickwick, and that distribution is compared to The Bible, then you know that you are dealing with a book unlike any other. There is no 'case closed' here, unless it is in your eyes. But that does not mean I wish to continue.
(OT) Singapore prepares for life after founding father Lee Kuan Yew http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/mar/19/singapore-prepares-for-lif…
This is the kind of guy fascists speak of with enthusiasm when they want a "strong leader". Effective, but a real S.O.B.
Guys, there is something called "let's agree to disagree". Sometimes a continued exchange of views will not achieve anything more.
I said "case closed" at #57 and meant it.
Birger @35: Wait, Jasper Fforde's dodo's name came from some Dickens thing? That actually makes a lot of sense. Never heard of it outside of that context before now.