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Bleak House (2)

I go for days without opening the novel, but when I do, I always find surprises.

In most cases the characters are either good or evil, but there are so many, you need a list to keep track of them all.

One of the evil ones is Mr. Guppy, who has designs on the novel's main character, Esther. Guppy, a low-level law clerk, is what we today would describe as "paranoid," although I don't think this word was much in usage in the mid nineteenth century (the OED backs this up). Anyway, when a new employee arrives at the law office, Guppy automatically assumes that the new guy is out to get him and imagines his imaginary enemy's machinations. Dickens: "he plays the deepest games of chess without an adversary."

Dickens describes Guppy and two of his pals having lunch: "... amid a constant coming in, and going out, and running about, and a clatter of crockery, and a rumbling up and down of the machine which brings the nice cuts from the kitchen, and a shrill crying for more nice cuts down the speaking pipe, and a shrill reckoning of the cost of nice cuts that have been disposed of, and a general flush and stream of hot joints, cut and uncut, and a considerably heated atmosphere in which the soiled knives and table-cloths seem to break out spontaneously into eruptions of grease and blotches of beer, the legal triumvirate appease their appetites.

What a sentence! It has

• tripartite segments: "coming in, and going out, and running about"

• repetitions: "nice cuts," "shrill crying ... shrill reckoning";

• the wonderful image of "soiled knives and table-cloths [breaking] out spontaneously into eruptions of grease and blotches of beer"

• and finally the irony of "the legal triumvirate," a grandiose way of describing a group of low level clerks.

For me the sentence nicely evokes the meal, in a loud, greasy, dark London establishment of nearly 175 years ago.

I enjoyed the use of the word "lumber" to describe what Americans called junk: "on a table beside him, among the usual lumber, stand an empty gin-bottle and a glass." Nicholson Baker has a long essay on the word "lumber."

Here is Dickens' description of a family of money-lenders that has no interest in culture at all: "the complete little men and women [the family] has produced has been observed to bear a likeness to old monkeys with something depressing on their minds."

"Old monkeys with something depressing on their minds" Gotta love that.

A character by the name of Guppy
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May 2019



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