Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The ‘Dickensian’ and The Raven’s Seal


Novelist Martin Amis, interviewed in the Chicago Tribune, acknowledges a Dickensian influence on his new novel, Lionel Asbo: State of England.

Amis says Dickens ‘isn't really a realist. Accurate social criticism is not his great strength; his great strengths are exaggeration and melodrama and comedy. It's a melodramatic form, the Dickensian novel — a magical transformation, with a sort of fairy-tale vocabulary or furniture behind this amazingly vivid picture of London....’

Amis’s comment had me thinking again about the Dickensian. To me, this word summons up not just the rich texturing of character and place and fairy-tale plots, but an extraordinary imaginative density and energy of style. Accuracy is not the point; the range of his sympathies, his irony, anger and penetrating humour are what makes Dickens' social criticism not only pointed but universal. 

This is what inspired me about using Dickens as a source for The Raven’s Seal. I aimed for a richness, and sometimes a complexity, of language that could create a lively sense of scene, which could be comic or melodramatic but never static. I wanted vivid characters rather than psychological portraits (although I hope that many of the characters are psychologically interesting). The prison was not only a Dickensian motif but an ideal setting for social criticism, still relevant because so much hinges on wealth and poverty, crime and punishment, the law and injustice, prisons and policing. And The Raven’s Seal is structured by at least a couple of Dickensian reversals of fortune which have that fairy-tale Romance flair about them. One of them, of course, is Grainger’s fall into the prison. The mystery hinges on the other. And the last thing I took from Dickens was a conviction that mystery need not just be a puzzle but the thematic core of a novel.