Charles “Disappointing” Dickens v. the Panda

Dickens showing off his trousers. Scroll down for the intimidating panda.

The closing paragraphs of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens had my eyes tearing up. The final sentence is iconic.

It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.

I won’t spoil it by explaining why it’s such a tearjerker. You should read the book yourself. But don’t be deterred by the disappointing opening sentence.

Pause for shocked intake of breath. This is where I should insert an advert for Bisquit Cognac peopled by shocked and horrified observers, with the amended caption: The man who described the opening sentence of A Tale of Two Cities by the great Charles Dickens as “disappointing”.

But just hold your horses. I bet you’re thinking of the wrong sentence. You’re thinking of the famous opening that goes like this:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

Yup, it’s a good ‘un. Solemn, pithy, switchbacking and full or foreboding. No wonder so many people know it. But let’s play it again, Sam.

That’s not what Dickens wrote. Here’s the first sentence of A Tale of Two Cities as it actually is:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way–in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Like that way he found room for the phrase in short? Call me an ignorant, jumped up dullard – after all, this is a family blog and what you’re thinking may be worse – but that’s a sentence that could benefit from a few full stops. Or bullet points. It does go on a bit.

But how long is too long? Your thoughts please. Especially you Charles Dickens London.

Perhaps I err too far on the side of pithy.

Let’s have a quick delve past the dusty bottles, the dusty microwave, a mere bagatelle, dusty bags, dusty mugs, dusty packets of flour and rice to see what alternative openings I can put my hand on.

What about these:

At some point in my childhood, perhaps when I was aged ten, or eleven, I became aware that during the Second World War my Turkish grandfather – my mother’s father, Joseph Dakad – had been imprisoned by the British, in Palestine, a place exotically absent from any atlas.

That’s from Joseph O’Neill’s Blood-Dark Track – A Family History. His other grandfather was interned in Ireland, by the Irish. It’s a great uncovering of family paranoia, fear and violence.

Here’s another from Elmore Leonard’s Tishomingo Blues. I haven’t got round to this one yet.

Dennis Lenahan the high diver would tell people that if you put a fifty-cent piece on the floor and looked down at it, that’s what the tank looked  like from the top of that eight-foot steel ladder.

Works for me. Something more highbrow? Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier.

This is the saddest story I have ever heard.

Works as a first sentence, but I’m glad the plan to call the book The Saddest Story was scrapped. I got this next one from our local library bus, run by the redoubtable Michael. It’s the beginning of Andrew Pepper’s The Detective Branch.

He had been looking for his mother among the prostitutes and brothels of the Ratcliffe Highway when they had seized him; two pairs of hands that had clasped his coat at the shoulder and lifted him clean off his feet.

Not sure if the word clean helps there. (Speaking as the great pontificator on everything literary, you understand.)

The fewer the colons and dashes the better. Though my TV-addled attention span can cope with a little delayed gratification, especially if a hedge or a field is involved. Like this hedge and this field from Maurice Leitch’s Stamping Ground.

Under the hedge at the foot of the Five-Acre the grass was thick and dark, a growth spared both by the first scythe that had opened the field and the mowing-machine following later; allowed to flourish, wither and die, free from human agency except for an occasional wind-blown fall of fertilizer.

Breath in through the nose… Yes, I can smell the damp loaminess.

And here’s an odd one from You Shall Know Our Velocity by Dave Eggers. I’m not enjoying it, but the opening sentence intrigued me.

Everything within takes place after Jack died and before my Mum and I drowned in a burning ferry in the cool tannin-tinted Guaviare River, in east-central Colombia, with forty-two locals we hadn’t yet met.

But getting back to Boz.  I’ll try to erase the reality and remember the abbreviated mythic opening to A Tale of Two Cities.

What Dickens needed was a vigilant Panda policing his punctuation. A panda like this one…



Filed under art, What I'm Reading

11 responses to “Charles “Disappointing” Dickens v. the Panda

  1. The first sentence in the first story in Ian McEwan’s first published book (‘Solid Geometry’ in First Love, Last Rites):

    “In Melton Mowbray in 1875 at an auction of articles of ‘curiosity and worth’, my great-grandfather, in the company of M his friend, bid for the penis of Captain Nicholls who died in Horsemonger jail in 1873.”

    • blackwatertown

      I seem to recall that the penis was a bone of some contention between the lucky great-grandson and his partner.
      I’m quite keen on Horsemonger jail.

      • Yep. It all goes horribly wrong (worse, in its own way) than the fate of Captain Nicholls.

        Another, from Pig Tales by Marie Darrieussecq (easier to read than to spell):

        “I know how much this story might upset people, how much distress and confusion it could cause. I suspect that any publisher who agrees to take on this manuscript will be heading for trouble – heading for prison, probably – and I’d like to apologize right now for the inconvenience.”

  2. Barbara

    Hmmm, not sure I’ll be looking at pandas in quite the same way any more…

    I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve not read “A Tale of Two Cities.” Guess I need to take it off the shelf and start reading. I like the first paragraph, though. Sometimes I try to trim my writing down without it letting it get too choppy. Moving phrases from one sentence to another. I keep doing it until it feels right, but I’m at a loss to explain just what it is that makes it feel right.

    Apparently when Charlotte Brontë went to boarding school in Brussels her teachers worked on getting her to simplify her writing as well.

    It occurs to me that in Dickens’ day people had a lot more time to slowly enjoy a book. These days when we’re all in such a hurry, to take the time to wander through lengthy, winding prose can seem daunting. But I’m a slow reader and like to savor words. I also enjoy Shakespeare plays and don’t mind sitting there for hours on end listening to his wordplay.

    • blackwatertown

      Not read A Tale of Two Cities? Shame on you!
      And on me just a fortnight ago.
      About your moving things around till it just “feels right” – perhaps it’s the rhythm as you say the words, even into yourself. I think the constancy and sometimes the upsetting of the rhythm is very important. (Which doesn’t mean I often get it right – on the page or the dance floor.)

  3. Once Upon A Time, in a land far far away ,lived………

  4. Despite the sentiment going against the very fibre of my being as a geeky, science-loving rationalist, I still feel a chill on reading the opening of the Lovecraft classic “The Call of Cthulhu”:

    “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

    I can’t help but think the fact that we have to fully open these mythical vistas yet we’re already fleeing back to the comfort of the dark ages does not reflect all that well on us.

  5. Just because we live in the age of “texting” doesn’t mean that we have been empowered to edit Dickens. These are the worst of times made memorable by a lack of reading and education. I am dyslexic. I have not read the “Tale of 2 Cities” (how it would be texted to somone) in its entirety. But I savor the way Dickens’ voice echoes down the rows of his words I have cultivated and cherished.

    Go after Henry James who takes fully 20 minutes to describe a woman turning her head if you wish but leave this man and his true text alone. I’m an old dog and I bite.

    Even Selznick – famous for bringing “Gone with the Wind” to the screen hacked the first page of “Tale” in a shot that preceded his movie version. One man’s poetic license is another’s license to kill.

  6. blackwatertown

    Jake – that chilling opening from “The Call of Cthulhu” reminds me of the initial revelation in the Matrix.
    samhenry – Thanks very much for the film clip. I laughed when I saw the text edit at the beginning. Nice to know I’m in such bad company as David O. Selznick.

  7. I don’t know if I did it but the panda looped into a video of George Carlin.

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