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Mr Dick, or The Tenth Book, By Jean-Pierre Ohl, trans. Christine Donougher
An old curiosity shop of a book – with a twist of literary malice
Tuesday 06 January 2009
Above his parents' lingerie shop in Bordeaux, lonely François Daumal moves his model soldiers among boxes of bras. When his mother catches his father in one of his many adulteries, the boy is sent to stay with his chair-bound, sadistic grandmother. The only good thing about her house is an attic full of books. Here, in Jean-Pierre Ohl's novel, François discovers David Copperfield and becomes an obsessive Dickensian.
From his early teens, he reads not only all the novels, but all the biographies and critical studies on which he can lay his eager hands. Most he buys from the bookshop of Krook, an immensely tall, alcoholic Scot, a descendant of Urquhart, the eccentric translator of Rabelais. Boy and bookseller talk and drink whisky in the back room.
Before long, the reader is lost in an ingenious and beautifully worked Chinese box of narratives within narratives. Among these are the memoirs of Évariste Borel, describing the last days of Dickens, and an account by Arthur Conan Doyle of his first spiritualist séance, attended by Robert Louis Stevenson and an elderly Wilkie Collins – who collapses when the spirit of Dickens is summoned, and speaks.
When Daumal goes to university, one of his fellow students is Michel Mangematin, already possessed by the ravening ambition essential for a career in literary scholarship. The two strike up an unequal friendship, dominated by Mangematin. Over the years they become rivals in pursuit of both women and rare Dickensiana.
Mangematin builds a career in Dickens scholarship, and entices away Daumal's wife. He has a mausoleum to Dickens built outside Bordeaux, to house waxworks of all Dickens's characters. The party to open this Dickens World is the final act in this strange relationship. The guests are all dressed as a Dickens character. Daumal is drunk and the party descends into a hallucinatory nightmare. A terrible vengeance is meted out to Mangematin.
Mr Dick is an odd and hugely entertaining novel, full of mock-scholarship, ghosts, impersonations, forgery and murder. Dickens, both a conventional man and wild poetic spirit, would have admired the skillful mixture.
To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthdaybooks
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