Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Inscrutable, Insoluble Drood

Perhaps I haven’t yet gotten around to writing about the last Notting Hill Napoleon discussion because it was so unusual. But then, I guess that should be expected when the book being reviewed was Charles Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

We tackled the task a couple of weeks back at our annual “fall retreat” at the Whispering Pines Bed and Breakfast in Nebraska City. The novel was actually the last Dickens the Napoleons had left to read. After 15 years, each of which has featured a Dickens novel as its climatic highlight, we have completed the circuit. So, what to do? Easy decision for us – next year, we start over!

Anyhow, the natural melancholy of finishing this long tradition of a fresh Dickens’ novel was probably one of the elements that made the discussion kinda’ tricky. But much more to the point, of course, was simply the fact that The Mystery of Edwin Drood was never finished! Dickens died after only 22 chapters, probably about halfway to what he conceived as the story’s ending. And any book you only read a half of is going to present huge problems for interpreters. But it’s all the worse when that book is a mystery and the reader is left to live forever with the resultant confusion, tension and inevitable hunches of what the solution just might have been!

We tried to climb this formidable hurdle by all reading the Pantheon Books edition of 1980 which included popular author Leon Garfield’s 122-page conclusion. And we had also come up with our own basic conclusions of what Dickens had in store for the characters. That was most interesting. But, for all of our best efforts, the salty taste of dissatisfaction just couldn’t be completely removed.

Now, Garfield gave it a “game try” and was capable of some good writing. We all agreed to that. There was a strong consensus, though, that Garfield failed in the essential goal; namely, to produce a believable, instructive, enjoyable solution to the mystery. In fact, Garfield pulled some tricks that most of us found (at the least) most un-Dickensian and (at the worst) downright revolting.

But then again, I’ve got to try and be understanding of the poor fellow’s plight. For when all is said, the only writer with any chance of “completing” a Dickens novel would be… Charles Dickens! Perhaps if Holmes, Poirot or Father Brown were called in, the facts of the mystery might possibly get cleared up. But the pathos, the compelling characters, the intricacy of plot, the comedy, the moral instruction, the vivid prose paintings of persons and scenes, and all else that is Dickens? Those can never be imitated. And therefore, they should never be attempted.

Therefore, we all ended with at least one strong agreement -- the best response to The Mystery of Edwin Drood is to simply read what Dickens wrote and relish the suspense that never ends. Along with the Easter Island statutes, the disappearance of the Roanoke colony, the fate of the Mary Celeste and so many others, I’m afraid that The Mystery of Edwin Drood awaits its solution on the other side of this veil of tears.

No wonder then that the Napoleons’ discussion of the novel was an unusual one. The mystery itself, the sad brevity of the Dickens’ material, and the dissatisfaction of Garfield’s treatment, all made the afternoon’s gathering rather tough going. But, we handled it fine. And, as I mentioned earlier, we’re not done with Dickens by any means. HOwever, we did make sure we selected for our 2007 rota a Dickens novel that will be nice and easy.

Our choice? Bleak House!