Dickens: the Craft of Fiction and the Challenges of Reading
Papers from the Gargnano Symposium. Garnano (Italy) September 1998

The Dickens Symposium held in Gargnano from the 7th to the 9th September 1998 encouraged perhaps for the first time in Italy a genuine exchange of ideas on the writer between Italian academics and scholars from Britain and elsewhere. The Symposium was organized by the English Department of Milan University, with the invaluable assistance of Bergamo University and the Dickens Project. The editors of prestigious publications devoted to Dickens research were present, as was a representative of The Dickens House. The participation of Anny Sadrin guaranteed moreover an element of continuity with the previous Dickens Conference in Dijon.

The results of the three days of intense discussion, published in this volume, bear witness to a wide variety of critical approaches capable of exploring Dickens’s prose in all its extraordinary wealth of perspectives and narrative registers. A "polyphonic" Dickens who creates a universe as rich and vital as that of Shakespeare, deeply rooted in the urban experience and social life of his times. A Dickens no longer considered crudely improvisational, intent on gratifying his public with facile effects, but appreciated as a writer of considerable aesthetic awareness, in masterly command of an infinite variety of linguistic resources. Light years seem to have passed since Dickens was censured for his "extraordinary naiveté", "untrained intellect" and "mind insufficiently stored" (George Gissing). And although his works contain no clearly defined aesthetic statements such as are to be found in Scott’s and James’s Prefaces, and although no Art of Fiction can be attributed to him, random notes in his letters and articles underline a deep preoccupation with the craft of fiction. The work undertaken on Dickens in recent years – and continued at the Gargnano Symposium – has brought to light the highly diversified nature of his imagination. Wonderful geometries have been revealed in his works by critics such as Hillis Miller and some of his fiction has been used as a kind of touchstone to test recent critical methodologies (Steven Connor). What was once considered a major fault – the complexity of the plots and language constructs – is nowadays an endless source of interest for "postmodern" writers and readers. Recent work has not however neglected the comic quality of his writing, his bizarre and sometimes sarcastic sense of humour, which reflects an often subversive view of life; a quite uncomplacent perception of reality. This extraordinary "entertainer" was also a journalist and a man of the theatre, who interpreted his own works to mesmerizing effect. As rapid in his costume changes as a Shakespearian actor, passing with ease from comedy to tragedy, the Dickens revealed by New Historicism and feminist criticism, by deconstructionists and experts on cultural studies and Victorian Art, remains in essence a visionary, through whom every aspect of reality is transformed into a verbal process, into an ironical reflection in and about language.

Dickens’s reputation in Italy can be traced by reading two complementary essays. Carlo Izzo – author of the often innovative Autobiografismo di Charles Dickens (1954) – published in 1974 a very complete study of "Dickens in Italy" in the Annali dell’Istituto di Lingue e Letterature Germaniche di Parma. And his work has been updated – not only with regard to translation – in Francesco Casotti’s recent "Italian Translations of Dickens" (The Dickensian, Spring 1999). In between came the volume edited by Maria Teresa Chialant and Carlo Pagetti – La cittŕ e il teatro. Dickens e l’immaginario vittoriano (1988) – which attempted a summary of Italian Dickensian criticism and offered a collection of essays by some of the most eminent Italian scholars specialized in his work. Almost all of them – along with a number of others – met again in Gargnano to discuss the writer with their British, American and French colleagues. A sharing of experience and interests which has found its logical conclusion (although all such conclusions are necessarily temporary) in the present volume.

The papers in the first section deal mainly with textual strategies in his fiction, but also with Dickens’s role as an editor and his relevance in the canon of Western literature. They also give a sense of the incoercible vitality of Dickens’s fiction and the inexhaustible resources of his language and rhetoric.

In the second section the focus is on Dickens’s negotiation with traditional genres and his "anxiety of influence". Contrasting a long-term trend of criticism dealing with the sombre aspects of his fiction (Trey Philpott, DSA 1998), three of the papers examine the fundamental role of comedy in Dickens’s work. Bakhtin’s idea of the carnival and a re-consideration of Ben Jonson’s legacy certainly shed new light on Dickensian humour – which, however, often appears to be tinged with sadness or romantic overtones.

The urban experience – quite central both in Dickens’s fiction and in Dickens studies – is explored in the third section. Benjamin’s essay on Paris and his idea of flânerie are the starting point for a re-consideration of London as the centre of a discourse on human identity. The city and the urban landscape seem to be able to influence the very forma mentis of Dickensian characters. Recent critical approaches to the visual dimension of Dickens underline the expressive complexity of his representation of the Victorian metropolis; the aesthetic and epistemological implications of the modern – if not modernist – quality of Dickens’s cityscapes.

Translated, re-read, re-written and adapted for the stage and screen, Dickens is among us: his stories, his images, his provocations circulate within our culture and our language, in the form of recognisable or hidden quotes, adapted to our discourses, adjusted to our dreams. Thus we have asked a number of specialists in contemporary literature to trace Dickens’s voice and visions in the work of twentieth-century fiction writers, film makers and dramatists. Annie Sadrin’s essay on translation strikes the key note for the final section, by stressing the similarity between translation and other forms of adaptation of the original text and by drawing attention to the fact that Dickens himself believed in the energizing effect of adaptation and translation. The essays in this section, dealing with various modes of translating and re-writing Dickens’s works, appear also to prove Benjamin’s intuition that a literary text calls for translation as translation is first of all an interpretative and hermeneutic act. The analysis of the relationship between Dickens’s original works and their translations and re-makings seems rather helpful in bringing out elements that can be better grasped by creative intuition than by philological and philosophical reasoning. The outcome of this section, and possibly of the whole volume, seems to be that not only has criticism not said the ultimate word on Dickens, but that Dickens himself has not yet finished producing texts and discourses. Patrick McCarthy’s proposal for a subtler way of using electronic means to analyse Dickens’s language opens up a whole field of possibilities for scholars willing to carry into the new millennium their exploration of the Dickens universe.

A few years ago Kenneth Ireland wrote that for the novel today the role of strong precursors might be assumed by Joyce or Dickens. We are inclined to agree with him.

Our thanks are due here to the institutions which supported the symposium: the University of Milan, the University of Bergamo and the University of California (Santa Cruz). We would like to thank in particular professor John Jordan, director of the Dickens Project who first suggested the idea of a Dickens Conference in Italy and supervised the overseas part of the organisation. Our warm thanks also to the colleagues and the post-graduate students in the Department of English (Milan University) for their enthusiastic participation.

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