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BlogJuly-August-September, 2014
The Influence of Bleak House

Artistic influence is an inexhaustibly delicious topic. Mainly because we seldom learn--unless an artist admits it--which works of art influenced another. But even then, there are mysteries. Novelists, directors, painters and songwriters are all famously dodgy about these things. I've never heard Bruce Springsteen say that Who's Next was a massive influence on Born to Run, but I'll always believe that it was.

Then there's the subconscious to consider. Sometimes you don't know something was an influence until you realize it in retrospect. There are countless parts of Zinsky which--as I was drafting and redrafting them--I didn't realize were influenced by one novel or another. (Color me "dodgy," I don't feel like being specific about this right now.) But then, as you live your life and reread your favorite books, you realize: "Oh, wait a minute. This must have been in my head as I was composing."

Well, with that windy preface out of the way, let me get to the point: I'm rereading Charles Dickens' Bleak House right now, having a great time. And so far, I've found four sections that I believe were influences on significant books (Orwell, James, Melville, Lawrence) that came later. I don't presume these to be original discoveries on my part. Surely there are devoted dissertations which have already argued for or against what I'm about to say here. But as you can tell by my parenthetical remark in the previous paragraph, I'm feeling kind of mentally lazy. It's Sunday morning, a gorgeous day in mid-June. I want to record these thoughts but I also want to get outside and stop typing! So, without further ado, here are the four major works and the relevant passages.

1. Animal Farm by George Orwell. "There may be some motions of fancy among the lower animals at Chesney Wold. The horses in the stables--the long stables in a barren, red-brick courtyard, where there is a great bell in a turret, and a clock with a large face, which the pigeons who live near it, and who love to perch upon its shoulders, seem to be always consulting--they may contemplate some mental pictures of fine weather, on occasions, and may be better artists at them than the grooms. The old roan, so famous for cross-country work, turning his large eyeball to the grated window near his rack, may remember the fresh leaves that glisten there at other times, and the scents that steam in, and may have a fine run with the hounds, while the human helper, clearing out the next stall, never stirs beyond his pitchfork and birch-broom. The grey, whose place is opposite the door, and who, with an impatient rattle of his halter, pricks his ears and turns his head so wistfully when it is opened, and to whom the opener says, 'Woa grey, then, steady! Noabody wants you to-day!' may know it quite as well as the man. The whole seemingly monotonous and uncompanionable half-dozen, stabled together, may pass the long wet hours, when the door is shut, in livelier communication than is held in the servants' hall, or at the Dedlock Arms;--or may even beguile the time by improving (perhaps corrupting) the pony in the loose-box in the corner" (96).

2. The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. Three things here. First, Chapter 34 of Bleak House is fucking called "A Turn of the Screw." Second, Chapter 7 of Bleak House, which is called "The Ghost's Walk," tells a frightening ghost story. Third, one of the main narrators of Bleak House is Esther Summerson, which is to say, there's a female storyteller--just like governess in The Turn of the Screw. While it's more accurate to compare the governess's voice to Jane Eyre's than to Esther Summerson's, I'm just putting the female-storyteller thing out there, as a third commonality between Bleak House and Screw.

3. Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville. Of the four influences, this one is perhaps least likely, because it's arguable Melville was already working on Bartleby (1853) when Bleak House came out. (By contrast, the other three titles on this list are at least 40 years removed from Bleak House's initial serialized release in 1852.) In which case, there's still a fascinating coincidence going on here, in which both Dickens and Melville decided to build major stories around the act of copying legal documents. Whereas a scrivener is Melville's title character, the copyists in Bleak House (Snagsby, Nemo) play a major role. You could certainly argue, too, that Bartleby is a Nemo.

4. Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence. I have an especial affinity for this novel, which everyone seems to believe (with some justification) is Lawrence's biography, completely ignoring his massive efforts at revision and character-polishing. Anyway, the character of Walter Morel--influenced as he may have been by Lawrence's own father--has a strong literary antecedent in the form of another type of Nemo: the nameless "Brickmaker" who is the star of Chapter 8, "Covering a Multitude of Sins." There are innumerable nuances to both Morel and the Brickmaker, but if you've read Sons and Lovers, you'll quickly spot the similarity after reading this passage, which takes place when the Brickmaker receives a house call (at his rather squalid quarters) from a persistent fundraiser:

"'I wants a end of these liberties too with my place. I wants a end of being drawed like a badger. Now you're a going to poll-pry and question according to custom--I know what you're a going to be up to. Well! You haven't got no occasion to be up to it. I'll save you the trouble. Is my daughter a washin? Yes, she is a washin. Look at the water. Smell it! That's wot we drinks. How do you like it, and what do you think of gin, instead? An't my place dirty? Yes, it is dirty--it's nat'rally dirty, and it's nat'rally onwholesome; and we've had five dirty and onwholesome children, as is all dead infants, and so much the better for them, and for us besides. Have I read the little book wot you left? No, I an't read the little book wot you left. There an't nobody here as knows how to read it; and if there wos, it wouldn't be suitable to me. It's a book fit for a babby, and I'm not a babby. If you was to leave me a doll, I shouldn't nuss it. How have I been conducting of myself? Why, I've been drunk for three days; and I'd a been drunk four, if I'd a had the money. Don't I never mean for to go to church? No, I don't never mean for to go to church. I shouldn't be expected there, if I did; the beadle's too gen-teel for me. And how did my wife get that black eye? Why, I giv' it her; and if she says I didn't, she's a Lie!'

"He had pulled his pipe out of his mouth to say all this, and he now turned over on his other side, and smoked again" (121-122).

Happy Father's Day. Time for me to get outside.

Ilan Mochari is the author of the Pushcart-nominated debut novel Zinsky the Obscure (Fomite Press, 2013). The novel earned rave reviews from Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Kirkus. It was also featured in the Boston Globe and on Boston's NPR station. His short stories and poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in Keyhole, Hobart, Stymie, Midway Journal, and elsewhere.
Another story received an honorable mention in a Glimmer Train competition. He has a B.A. in English from Yale University.

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