Sunday, February 23, 2014

A Tale of Two Discoveries

[Disclaimer: I don’t know why anyone would want to read this post. In order to explain my love for the book that stands as it subject, I have to remember and record the thoughts that drove my adolescent self. In doing so, I reveal a great deal of foolishness and ignorance. But if you want to read a ridiculous person’s autobiographical musings about the most ridiculous time of life, go ahead. But you’ve been warned.]

In Oklahoma, the corn is not actually “as high as a elephant’s eye”, but the wind does come sweeping down the plain. And sometimes it comes sweeping in violent circular motions. After the tornadoes of 2013, I now have a bag ready to grab in case of emergency. The bag holds three treasures: recommendations to my parents by a University of Georgia professor from when I was seven years old, a notebook of song lyrics I wrote as a teenager, and a copy of A Tale of Two Cities. When I was about twelve, my dad’s brother gave me a box of books he had found (who knows where): books that had belonged to my dad when he was a teenager. The collection included several Tarzan books, an odd miscellany of adventure novels that I had never heard of, and my now-precious little blue copy of Dickens’s great classic of revolution, love, death, and resurrection. I had heard of A Tale of Two Cities, and somehow, the combination of the ring of the renowned title, the sensation of the blue cloth binding, the musty smell of my new little library, and the reverence I had even at a young age for classic titles told me that I now held in my hands the greatest book in the world. Did I end up loving this book because that experience disposed me to? Did I just make a stab in the dark that happened to hit? Or did I have a precociously accurate sense of the true, the good, and the beautiful? I don’t know. I only know that I fell in love with the book before I ever opened the cover and that I’ve never fallen out of love since.

I had no way of knowing what wonders I would find when I did finally open the book. I had never experienced anything like it. Reading A Tale of Two Cities for the first time was like seeing Star Wars for the first time, or seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time. I just didn’t know such a thing was even possible. I think I read most of the Tarzan books first. I think I had also read some Jules Verne and maybe Treasure Island. But nothing had led me to expect Charles Dickens. First, I remember thinking that I had never experienced a plot so complex and so integrally interwoven. Treasure Island had taught me the power of secrets and twists and mounting perils. But I didn’t know that the storming of a prison in 1789 could result in the discovery of a letter written in 1767 by a man imprisoned by a Marquis in 1757 and that would be read at a trial in 1793 that condemned a man who happened to be the Marquis’s nephew and who denounced his uncle in 1780 and then married the letter-writer’s daughter in 1782 after meeting her by chance in 1775 just after her father had been released from prison by his old servant who would storm the prison in 1789. Once I had experienced it, though, I realized that the plot wouldn’t work if even one part of that formula were left out.

And reading A Tale of Two Cities for the first time opened my eyes to much more than complex plots. I had no way of knowing before that the opening sentence of a novel could be challenging, puzzling, and poetic. No pirates and no feuding Africans, as bloodthirsty as the pens of Stevenson and Burroughs might have made them, could have prepared me for Madame Defarge, a woman who desires to see her enemies killed not in order to gain money or safety but simply because she enjoys seeing them dead. I knew about good guys and bad guys, but I didn’t know a story could pit bad guys (revolutionaries) against bad guys (aristocrats). I learned that a sentence could be as long as “The obscurity was so difficult to penetrate that Mr. Lorry, picking his way over the well-worn Turkey carpet, supposed Miss Manette to be, for the moment, in some adjacent room, until, having got past the two tall candles, he saw standing to receive him by the table between them and the fire, a young lady of not more than seventeen, in a riding-cloak, and still holding her straw travelling-hat by its ribbon in her hand.” I learned that I could read a sentence that long and understand it. I learned that word choice and sentence structure could add a tone or attitude that conveyed a meaning just as important as the straightforward meaning conveyed by the vocabulary and grammar.

These are just some of the literary lessons I learned on that first encounter with my favorite book. On rereading it a couple of years later, themes started appearing to me, and I learned yet another way that great literature holds together. Above all, the theme of resurrection stood out. Dr. Manette is “recalled to life,” brought up from the grave of prison. Jerry Cruncher is a “resurrection-man,” a grave robber, a body snatcher, a supplier of corpses to physicians. Charles Darnay finds release not once but three times from death sentences. Sydney Carton recites the words of Jesus: “I am the Resurrection and the Life.”

For quite a while, the book got better and better every time I read all or even part of it, every time I thought about it. And then a setback. I had recognized earlier that Sydney Carton does his far, far better thing empowered by his hope in Jesus. Now the thought occurred to me that Sydney, besides being inspired by Jesus and following Jesus, was actually like Jesus in that he died to give Lucie hope and to give Charles life. And approximately-sixteen-year-old me got concerned about blasphemy, although I wasn’t sure if the fault lay with Dickens for writing the book or with me for drawing the sacrilegious parallel. OK, so neither my untrained literary criticism nor my untrained theology had much sophistication. But I kept growing, and within a few months, my worries of blasphemy having been overcome, I had learned to see the deep respect and devotion with which Dickens drew the Christian analogies and had begun to view A Tale of Two Cities as an allegory of redemption richer and more rewarding – to my mind at least – than John Bunyan’s tale of two cities, Pilgrim’s Progress.

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