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New Left Review I/23, January-February 1964


J.M.

‘Dickens and Crime’; ‘Dickens and Kafka’

Dickens and Crime. Philip Collins. Macmillan, 258 pp, 40s.

Dickens and Kafka. Mark Spilka. Dennis Dobson, 308 pp, 45s.

These two books more or less represent—literally and metaphorically—two continents of criticism, linked only by the English language. In their different ways, both are valuable. Collins documents with extreme thoroughness Dickens’ attitude as writer and father towards children and their education. He examines the actual state of 19th century education and convincingly depicts both the fullness of Dickens’ interest and the limitations of his reformist schemes. At the same time, despite the welcome conjunction of litterary and sociological interest, the book reveals a certain lack of imagination. Spilka’s book, by contrast, is an original tour de force. Biography for Collins is simply an integral part of his documentation; for Spilka it is an (often audacious) method of critical substantiation. The child is the theme of Collins’ research; for Spilka too it is the bridge between Kafka and Dickens. But where it remains object for Collins, childhood is seen by Spilka as a dynamic determinant of both Dickens’ and Kafka’s vision as novelists. Dickens and Kafka write from the ‘arrested sensibilities’ of childhood; this at the origin of their preoccupation with the grotesque (the world is seen by the child from a literally oblique perspective), their evasion of sexuality and their view (covert or overt) of the differing nature of sin and guilt. Spilka’s analysis of Dickens benefits dramatically from being worked in terms of the later, conscious methods of Kafka, and the post-Freudian Kafka only loses marginally from ‘fitting’ the Dickensian pattern. Spilka successfully establishes Kafka’s debt and similarity to Dickens; the only weakness of his statement of the crucial Kafka themes is his failure to allow that Kafka may present the reader simultaneously with several possible values for his symbols.

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