When I’m reading a book, approximately half of me lives in this book. My perception of reality is tainted by the circumstances of the characters from that book. So when I was reading A Tale of Two Cities I was partly in London in 2013 and partly in Paris during the Reign of Terror.
One day I was sitting on the sofa and watching tv (which is something that happens very rarely) when an ad for a chocolate cereal bar came on. It featured a French chocolatier who was hiding two aristocrats in the basement during the French Revolution. A group of Patriots walked in looking for them. They would’ve left empty handed but one of the aristocrats couldn’t resist the temptation and took a noisy bite of the chocolate bar, and thus they were discovered. In the last shot we see a guillotine at work. I was dumbfounded. Did they just make fun of genocide to sell chocolate bars? Is it only shocking to me because I happen to be reading A Tale Of Two Cities? Is it that to everybody else genocide that’s older than 200 years is fair game? I mean, for an innocent exercise try to replace the protagonists of that ad with something more recent and see how that makes you feel.
Anyway, it’s probably just that Dickens is a great writer who makes me care about things that happened so long ago I shouldn’t really still feel emotional about them. ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ was my very first Dickens and I wasn’t sure what to expect. Believe it or not, Dickens is not exactly a household name in Poland. He opens the book with:
“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.”
And then closes it with:
“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.”
These are, I think, one of the best opening and closing sentences in literature and Dickens certainly knows how to make a good first and last impression, so that you can forgive him any shortcomings that happen in between. Because, quite honestly, there are a little too many words there. Dickens sometimes gets high on his own style and almost derails the narrative. It’s really a minor quibble, it’s generally hard to fault to Dickens, and I surely feel like a total asshat for even pointing these things out, but, yes, the only interesting female characters, who actually possess what could be called a personality, are the villains. The heroine, Lucie Manette, is a quivering, crying, angelic thing, beautiful and utterly bland. It’s no wonder she chooses Charles, a character equally boring, whereas any woman with at least an ounce of spunk in her would have chosen Sydney Carter. What a man Sydney Carter was! I find it genuinely surprising no historical romance writer has resurrected him yet and made him the hero of one of her books.
What else can I say about A Tale Of Two Cities? The set up takes forever but once the machine is set in motion you can hardly it put it down. Everything comes together in a breath-taking fashion. I would love to see it on stage and I’m gutted I missed it because of stupid flu.