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查尔斯·狄更斯与他的圣诞小说

彭博社 2019年01月02日

从商业角度讲,狄更斯的圣诞小说都很成功。

查尔斯·狄更斯在1843年创作了小说《圣诞颂歌》,部分原因是英国城市穷苦人家的生活状况让他感到震惊,特别是在他于当年9月走访了为伦敦贫民区儿童建立的所谓贫民儿童免费学校之后。不过,写这部小说的另一部分原因是他需要钱。狄更斯的第六部小说《马丁·翟述伟》卖的不好,亲戚们纷纷上门借钱,房租也让他感到力不从心——几年前狄更斯和家人搬进了伦敦的一所大房子。

狄更斯只用了六周就完成了创作,钱也随之而来。《耶诞鬼故事,一首以散文写出的圣诞颂歌》于当年12月17日出版,首批印制的6000本小说在平安夜前销售一空。几周之内,伦敦就出现了八台《圣诞颂歌》改编戏剧同时上演的情景,只是其中七台都没有获得授权。盗版书也四处流行。《圣诞颂歌》成了热门小说,也让狄更斯得以支付账单,但如果是在严格执行版权法的时代,这本小说或许能带来更多财富。

第二年狄更斯故技重施,又写了一本圣诞主题的中篇小说《古教堂的钟声》。1845年他创作了《炉边蟋蟀》,1846年推出了《人生的战斗》。休息一年后,他在1848年又写了一本圣诞小说《着魔的人》。

从商业角度讲,这些书都很成功——每本书问世第一年的销量都达到或超过了《圣诞颂歌》的水平。不过,批评人士至少开始对这类书感到厌倦了,《着魔的人》引发了很多吐槽:

再多出几本圣诞节作品,狄更斯先生就会毁了自己的小说家名声。我们衷心建议他放过12月25号,转向4月1号。

狄更斯听出了弦外之音,而且他已经在忙着写《大卫·科波菲尔》了。圣诞系列就此止步。不过狄更斯很快创办了杂志《家常话》,而后又创办了《一年四季》,这两本杂志每年都会出版一期圣诞特刊。他还找到了另一条利用《圣诞颂歌》热的途径,那就是对这本书进行戏剧式朗诵。最初几次他把朗诵所得用在了慈善上,但从1858年开始,他把朗诵变成了创收渠道和创作方式。演员兼历史学家西蒙·卡洛写道,狄更斯仔细排练的《圣诞颂歌》等圣诞小说以及他较长的小说中的片段成了“当时精彩的戏剧享受,在英国和美国都是如此”。

《圣诞颂歌》一直在给人们带来多重享受,有书籍,有戏剧,甚至是每个假日季都会上演的音乐会。2017年还改编成了一部相当不错的电影《圣诞节发明家》。他的其他几部圣诞小说则已销声匿迹,在英语圈狄更斯热的“包容”之下濒临绝迹。我最后一次听到它们的名字是在2017年1月,当时我偶然发现了纽约摩根图书馆与博物馆即将闭幕的《查尔斯·狄更斯和圣诞精神展》。它展示了这五本书的手稿,也成了上述大多数信息的来源。我也因为这次展览而去读了《圣诞颂歌》之后的四部小说。

这几本书并不像常见的狄更斯小说那样让读者觉得收获颇丰。对此,萨塞克斯大学英语学者塞德里克·沃茨在Wordsworth Classics圣诞系列丛书的序言中有过精妙论述:“本丛书所选作品参差不齐,对欣赏狄更斯写作技巧的人来说是个考验。”人们当然欣赏《圣诞颂歌》的节奏、清晰及其对幽默、悲伤和恐惧的均衡把握。这本书开门见山地说:“首先,马利死了。”其续作《古教堂的钟声》的第一句话则用了83个词。

四部后续作品中有三部以超自然干预为题材,而且至少参杂了一些社会评论。在《古教堂的钟声》中,绅士和政客们当面和背后对穷人说的话都很难听,可以说其表现甚至比《圣诞颂歌》的主人公还糟糕。它们和圣诞节的关联度也远不如《圣诞颂歌》。《古教堂的钟声》和《炉边蟋蟀》中的关键节日是新年,《着魔的人》结尾处的圣诞晚餐感觉像是一场反思。我最喜欢的是《人生的战斗》,它没有提到幽灵,也没有社会评论,只有和节日的一丝联系(或者具体到这本书来说,是和战斗的联系),但其中的人物很有魅力,他们在书中有施展空间,另外故事情节虽然一目了然,但一直不能完全猜透,直到看到那个出人意料又令人满足的结局。但在这四本书里,《人生的战斗》收到了一些最不好的评价,所以我的观点可能不足为凭。

2017年,《查尔斯·狄更斯和圣诞精神展》的组织者迪克兰·凯利现在是纽约公共图书馆特别选集和展览部门负责人。上述四本小说中他最喜欢《古教堂的钟声》,但整体来说他觉得短篇小说真的不适合狄更斯发挥才能。凯利在电子邮件中表示,后来刊登在两本杂志上的故事要好得多,比如《一年四季》1866年圣诞特刊中的《信号员》。我之前还看到有人称赞发表于1867年圣诞节的《禁止通行》,这是狄更斯和推理小说先驱威尔基·柯林斯的合著。所以我把两个故事都看了。(我的工作很棒,对不对?)

《信号员》是一篇精美而短小的鬼故事(凯利还推荐了丹霍姆·艾略特主演的BBC改编电影),但似乎不是发生在冬天。《禁止通行》疯狂而精彩,长度接近一本书,让人爱不释手——它融合了惊悚、爱情以及认错人的罪犯视角情节。这个故事里确有新年晚餐,但结局发生在春天,而且几乎没有狄更斯的那种季节感。

那样的季节感和冬青树、葡萄干布丁以及烤鹅等事物有关,但也源于狄更斯在圣诞小说中的深入发掘,就像他曾说过的那样,是“对家和炉边的光辉、热诚、慷慨、欢乐与喜气的全面写照”。虽然在一年的其他时间这似乎有些多愁善感,但在12月份寒冷的夜晚可能就是这种感觉。所以大家至少可以知道,如果看了《圣诞颂歌》后觉得还不够,那么在这个方向上还有其他书可读。

如果人在纽约,大家还应该知道摩根图书馆与博物馆在每个假日季都会展出《圣诞颂歌》手稿——银行家兼收藏家老约翰·皮尔庞特·摩根在19世纪初买下了这部手稿。纽约公共图书馆则在举办圣诞主题狄更斯展,包括《圣诞颂歌》、《炉边蟋蟀》和《古教堂的钟声》的朗诵稿,其书页空白处还有狄更斯写的表演注意事项。

柯林斯和狄更斯还把它改编成了戏剧。(财富中文网)

译者:Charlie

审校:夏林

Charles Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol” in 1843 in part because he was appalled at the living conditions of England’s urban poor, especially after a visit that September to a so-called Ragged School for London slum children. But he also wrote it because he needed money. His sixth novel, “Martin Chuzzlewit,” was not selling well, relatives were hitting him up for loans, and he was having trouble making the rent payments on the big London house he had moved his family into a few years earlier.

The book took Dickens only six weeks to finish, and the money flowed soon after. “A Christmas Carol in Prose: Being a Ghost Story of Christmas” was published Dec. 17, and its first print run of 6,000 copies had sold out by Christmas Eve. Within weeks there were eight different stage adaptations playing in London. Seven were unauthorized, though, and pirated editions of the book circulated widely as well. “A Christmas Carol” was a hit, and it enabled Dickens to pay his bills, but it wasn’t quite the cash cow it would be in an age of strictly enforced copyright laws.

So the next year, Dickens tried to recapture the magic with another Christmas novella, “The Chimes: A Goblin Story of Some Bells That Rang an Old Year Out and a New Year In.” In 1845 he wrote another, “The Cricket on the Hearth: A Fairy Tale of Home,” and in 1846 yet another, “The Battle of Life: A Love Story.” After a one-year break came 1848’s “The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain.”

As business propositions, the books were successes: Each appears to have sold as many or more copies in its first year as “A Christmas Carol.” Still, the critics at least began to tire of the things, with “The Haunted Man” inspiring this jibe:

Let us now have a few more returns of Christmas, and Mr. Dickens will have destroyed his reputation as a tale-writer. We earnestly recommend him to quit the twenty-fifth of December, and take to the first of April.

Dickens took the hint, and he got busy writing “David Copperfield.” The Christmas books stopped, although Dickens soon started a magazine, first called Household Words and then All the Year Round, that put out a special Christmas issue every year. He also found another way to capitalize on that “Christmas Carol” magic by giving dramatic readings of the book. The first few times he did this the proceeds went to charity, but starting in 1858 Dickens turned to readings as both an income stream and a creative outlet. His carefully rehearsed presentations of “A Christmas Carol,” the other Christmas books and passages from his longer novels became, writes actor/historian Simon Callow, “the great theatrical sensation of the day, both in Britain and in the United States of America.”

“A Christmas Carol” has remained a multimedia sensation, with readings, plays and even musical renditions staged every holiday season, and a pretty good movie on its origins, “The Man Who Invented Christmas,” was released in 2017. The other Christmas books, meanwhile, have faded as close to oblivion as the English-speaking world’s continuing Dickens obsession will allow. I had never heard of them until January 2017, when I stumbled upon an about-to-close exhibit on “Charles Dickens and the Spirit of Christmas” at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York. That exhibit, which included the original manuscripts of all five books, was the source of most of the information above. It also inspired me to read the four books that came out after “A Christmas Carol.”

The experience was not quite as rewarding as reading Dickens usually is. As University of Sussex English scholar Cedric Watts delicately puts it in the introduction to the Wordsworth Classics edition of the Christmas books, “The very unevenness of this collection makes it a testing ground for the appreciation of Dickens’s skills as a writer.” It certainly makes one appreciate the pace, clarity and balance of humor, pathos and dread in “A Christmas Carol.” That book crackles from its opening sentence of “Marley was dead, to begin with.” Its followup, “The Chimes,” has a first sentence that goes on for 83 words.

Three of the four successor books feature supernatural interventions and at least a dollop of social commentary, with the gentlemen and politicians who keep saying awful things about and to poor people in “The Chimes” arguably coming off even worse than Ebenezer Scrooge. None has nearly as much to do with Christmas as “A Christmas Carol,” with New Year’s the key holiday in “The Chimes” and “Cricket on the Hearth” and the Christmas dinner at the end of “The Haunted Man” feeling like something of an afterthought. My favorite was “The Battle of Life,” which lacks ghosts, social commentary and all but the faintest link to the holidays (or to battles, for that matter), but it does have appealing characters who are given space to develop, plus a plot twist that you can see coming from a mile away but remains just enough out of focus until the end that it still surprises and satisfies. It gets some of the worst reviews of the lot, though, so maybe you shouldn’t trust me on that.

Declan Kiely, who organized in 2017’s exhibit at the Morgan Library and is now director of special collections and exhibitions at the New York Public Library, likes “The Chimes” the best of the post-“Carol” books but on the whole doesn’t think the short-novel format really suited Dickens’s talents. Much better are the subsequent magazine stories, he said in an email, citing “The Signal-Man,” from the 1866 Christmas issue of All the Year Round. I had also come across an endorsement of Christmas 1867’s “No Thoroughfare,” co-authored with mystery-novel pioneer Wilkie Collins. So I read those two as well. (Do I have a great job, or what?)

“The Signal-Man” is a fine little ghost story (Kiely also recommends the BBC adaptation starring Denholm Elliott) but doesn’t even seem to take place in winter. “No Thoroughfare” is a crazy, wonderful, nearly book-length page-turner — a thriller, love story and mistaken-identity caper all in one. It does feature a New Year’s dinner, but its denouement comes in springtime and there’s little of that seasonal Dickens feel.

That seasonal feel has something to do with holly and plum pudding and roasted goose and such, but it’s also related to Dickens’s mining in the Christmas books of what he once called “a vein of glowing, hearty, generous, mirthful, beaming reference in everything to Home and Fireside.” And while that might come across as sappy at other times of the year, on a cold December evening it can feel just right. So at least be aware that, if “A Christmas Carol” isn’t enough for you, there is more along that general line available.

If you’re in New York, you should also be aware that the original manuscript of “A Christmas Carol,” which banker and collector John Pierpont Morgan Sr. acquired in the late 1800s, is on display at the Morgan Library as it is every holiday season, and that the New York Public Library has on display a sampling of Christmas-related Dickensiana, including the author’s reading copies of “A Christmas Carol,” “The Cricket on the Hearth” and “The Chimes,” with his performance notes in the margins.

Collins and Dickens also wrote it as a play.

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