dickens2012

Università degli Studi di Milano - March 15 and 16, 2012

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The Università degli Studi di Milano joined the wide international tribute to Dickens’s bicentenary with a two-day event. Organised by Francesca Orestano, Carlo Pagetti and Alessandro Vescovi, in collaboration with the British Council and AIA, the Conference Dickens: Lives in Fiction... and Afterlives took place on March 15 and 16 and focused on Dickens’s biographies – both fictional and real – and his afterlives.

dick2012
Students, both from high schools and the Milan universities, Dickens's fans and lovers, journalists, translators, scholars, and generally a vast public attended the conference which went on successfully for two full days. As far as biographies are concerned, Michael Slater explained the problems and the challenges he had to face while writing his recent Charles Dickens: A Life Defined by Writing (2009). Maria Teresa Chialant focused on the unstable dualism which characterises Dickens’s life and works, analysing the narrative motifs of the split self and the double in novels like The Old Curiosity Shop,  Great Expectations and The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Marisa Sestito’s paper dealt with Dickens’s readings and the new forms of existence Dickens allowed his characters to live once he seized the opportunity to work again on his novels. John Bowen discussed what it means to live on after death or after a radical loss: he quoted a few passages from David Copperfield to show how Dickens’s ‘autobiographical fragment’, inserted in Forster’s biography, lives on in fragments or ruins in this and other novels. Life after death and before birth was explored by Dominic Rainsford: starting from passages from David Copperfield and Our Mutual Friend, his paper examined how Dickens’s ideas on these matters relate to the plotting of his narratives.

In the wake of Dickens’s afterlives, Andrew Sanders’s lecture presented Dickens as an unsuccessful social reformer but a prophetic voice both in his social philosophy and in his influence on his literary progeny. Carlo Pagetti considered the afterlife of the protagonist of Great Expectations, Pip, analysing his transformations in a variety of adaptations and media, from the cinema to mass culture. Moving onward, Victor Sage presented ‘the afterlife of the afterlife’, offering a parallel between Scrooge, Selma Lagerlof’s The Phantom Carriage, and Frank Capra’s movie It’s a Wonderful Life. He examined, in fact, the structure of a modern journey into the underworld, sparked by A Christmas Carol’s combination of an uncanny ghost story, social exploration and moral critique, and he commented on the differences between the three works mentioned above. Marco Canani explored Dickens’s leitmotiv of food through the representation of Miss Havisham’s decaying banquet: he mapped out how Dickens relates the verbal and visual representation of food to the psychological and emotional depiction of his characters, and then he moved on to “the Joycean afterlife” of Dickens tracing it to “The Dead”. Angela Anna Iuliucci presented both a textual and a visual comparison between Oliver Twist and its latest grotesque rewrite Oliver Twisted (2012) by J.D. Sharpe, demonstrating that the latter holds up because the former is already a gothic and grotesque text. A session dedicated to Dickens and the circus featured the lecture by Michael Hollington, who proposed three utopian alternatives to the alienation of Modernity, represented by Hard Times, and versions of the circus and its society present in many modernist works of art, in Chaplin’s cinematic contributions and Angela Carter’s fiction. Following the idea  of the circus, Claudia Cremonesi attempted to analyse the central role of the circus and of the figure of the clown in Dickens and Fellini’s visions of life, focusing on Hard Times and on the Fellinian dialectical opposition between the Whiteface and the Augusto as the means of a poetical escape from the uncomfortable reality of life.

Dickens’s afterlife was also tackled from the point of view of intertextuality and critical
reception, and specific attention was devoted
 to the Italian and Spanish context. Alessandro Vescovi traced the history of Dickens’s nineteenth-century reception in Italy by focussing on translations from the 1840s to the emergence of “Verismo” and pointing out how Dickens became popular both in high- and low-brow market for different reasons. Francesca Orestano mapped Dickens’s legacy in Italian fiction, and especially in Emilio de Marchi’s Demetrio Pianelli, in Edmondo de Amicis and in Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. Similarly, Clotilde De Stasio presented a brief survey of Dickens’s reception in the Italian media in recent years, pointing out that some of Dickens’s works – namely A Christmas Carol – have become “culture texts” and hence have originated a number of interesting adaptations. Luca Cremonese presented an analysis of the Italian television adaptation of Dickens directed by Ugo Gregoretti. The Pickwick Papers is especially interesting, as Gregoretti intentionally broke with ‘the fourth wall’ in order to interact with the viewers. As far as the Spanish reception is concerned, Maria Rosso presented a detailed research of the press coverage of Dickens in the second half of the nineteenth century: she focussed on translations, reviews and articles that contributed to create a somewhat stereotyped image of Dickens and which give an account of the interest he aroused in Spain. Paul Vita, on his part, gave a paper on José Méndez Herrera’s early twentieth-century Spanish translations of Dickens’s novels. One of the aims of the conference was indeed to keep a broad perspective, so as to explore Dickens’s reception and legacy in and out of the English-speaking cultural establishment. This was well stressed in the opening remarks of Emilia Perassi (Head of the University Department which organized the conference), who offered an interesting insight into Charles Dickens and Jorge Luis Borges.

Marco Canani, Claudia Cremonesi and Angela Anna Iuliucci

Università degli Studi di Milano

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