Friday, May 16, 2014

A Scholium ad “The Fragment”

[The extraordinary level of public interest, and the unwonted acerbity of critical debate, occasioned by our recent publication of A Lost Fragment of “Our Mutual Friend”,  has led me, on the counsel of colleagues -- not to mention the advice of counsel --  to append a bit of evaluative background.   The following passage is to be appended to our original essay.]


Albeit, on the evidence of the handwritten superscription, we may assume that the passage contained in the manuscript  had been intended to figure in a dinner-party scene Our Mutual Friend -- either one of the scenes extant, or one yet to be added -- there exists, in point of style and content, an even more striking resemblance to the subtly charged verbal sparring between Sir Leicester Dedlock and Volumnia, in Chapter 40 of Bleak House.   For it is the kind of fraught, enigmatic depiction à demi-mot, which Dickens rather seldom essayed, but excelled at when he did.  Too, though old Boz, by way of ratcheting up the tension, seldom or never resorted to that classic advice of Raymond Chandler, to the effect that, should the narrative flag, “Have a guy come through the door with a gun” -- still, in that same fortieth chapter of that cool, bleak work, we do suddenly read, against all expectation:

Everybody starts.  For a gun is fired close by.

This odd and otherwise uncharacteristic interruption does then provide a point of comparison with the implied dénouement of the dinner-table rivalry in our new fragment.    These further resemblances should be enough, if any more were needed, to assure all impartial jurors  that the fragment is indeed from the hand of the London master.

This new passage, which it was our happiness and our privilege to discover, and to purchase for a not inconsiderable sum (and whose revelation led to our being offered a chair at Balliol, which we were  however  obliged to decline, owing to advancing age  and declining health), while not so polished as it presumably should have become had it been shepherded along for actual publication, still reveals, in the rough, the outlines of that eristic technician’s steely craft -- he who is  too often  unfairly charged with being a mere sentimentalist.

The consensus of those critics to whom I privately showed-round the manuscript, prior to its revelation on this site, is that, while it certainly does not alter the standing of the author in general, or even of Our Mutual Friend in particular, is still a welcome afterpiece, like a bit of fruit after brandy:  comparable to the recently unearthed new passage in Huckleberry Finn.

A variant and challenging opinion, which we have not the skill to evaluate, was recently put forward by Professor Isaac “Ike” Bickerstaff, of Harvard Yard, to the effect that the passage in question, being actually the purest example of Dickens’ late, flinty, disillusioned style, may have failed to figure in the published version of Our Mutual Friend  for the very good reason that it was penned posterior to that work:  that it may actually have been written  more or less on his deathbed;  certain similarities to the unpublished passages of Edwin Drood are said to strengthen this remarkable conjecture, but since I do not have access to those passages (I have contacted Anton in Geneva, to see what he can do), I cannot comment.

A recent conference, held in Milan,
at which scholars debated the Dickensian “Lost Fragment”

Complicating the picture considerably  is the recent suggestion by a well-known European scholar (who has requested anonymity while his monograph on the matter is at the printer’s), claiming to have discovered (mirabile dictu) a Latin version of this new dinner-party scene.  The guests are in togas instead of evening wear, but otherwise the similarity of content is too close to be coincidental.

Naturally, this raises questions as to the stemmatological authenticity of the purported “Latin original”.  Cognoscenti will be immediately reminded of the controversy, not long ago, which attended our discovery of the manuscript of a Lost Sonnet of Saint Augustine (in the original Latin), whose genuineness was soon established beyond reproof, though it continues to be doubted by blackguards, knaves, vivisectionists, and cranks.

There exist but two possibilities.

(1)  The Latin version is posterior to the Dickens fragment -- and therefore pointless.  Of course, other pointless translations have been attested, and on a much larger scale -- witness the rendering of the entire Bible, Old Testament and New, into LOLcats language!  But more importantly, if the alleged Latin precursor is not genuine, why would a scholar with the international reputation of Professor N.  devote an entire monograph to the subject, risking ridicule if he is wrong?

(2)  The Latin version is anterior to the Dickens fragment -- and therefore authentic.  But in that case, criticism must confess itself at a loss.  That the mature, inimitable Dickens style, seen to such brilliant advantage in the “Veneering” fragment, could by any means have been anticipated by some medieval clerk, beggars credulity.  But again, stranger things have happened, many of them in Las Vegas.

~  Posthumous Endorsement ~
"Alas, I never lived to finish 'Edwin Drood';
but if I were alive today, and in the mood for a mystery,
this is what I'd be reading: "
(My name is Charles Dickens, and I approved this message.)
~         ~

For a complete list of our unique discoveries  in the matter of incunabula,
click  here.

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