From ’70s pop-soaked afternoons to naked flights on the trapeze, Stephen Jarvis shares the singularly unusual genesis of his vast, richly imagined, Dickensian debut, Death and Mr. Pickwick. Enter here for your chance to win a copy!
My new novel, Death and Mr. Pickwick, tells the story behind the creation of Charles Dickens’s first novel, The Pickwick Papers. Although Death and Mr. Pickwick is entirely self-contained, and requires no previous knowledge of The Pickwick Papers, the two books of course bear a relationship to each other. Indeed I take Dickens’s first illustrator, Robert Seymour, as my main character—a man who shot himself shortly after completing a picture of a dying clown for Pickwick. I’ve often been asked: what are the things in my background that led me to write this novel? And I suppose people expect me to say, “Oh, I have had a lifelong fascination with nineteenth-century literature in general and Dickens in particular.” But the answer to the question may surprise you—it’s not literary at all.
I first encountered the “sad clown” motif so important to my novel when I was a teenager via These Foolish Things, a 1973 pop album by the British singer Bryan Ferry. The album’s opening track was a remarkable cover of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” and this song has a line about a clown who cried in an alley. But the emotional power of the motif was truly brought home by another song on the album, a cover of Smokey Robinson’s “The Tracks of My Tears.” This song is based on the idea that a smile does not necessarily represent happiness:
So take a good look at my face
You’ll see my smile looks out of place
If you look closer it’s easy to trace
The tracks of my tears
The motif was further reinforced by another teenage idol of mine, Steve Harley, of the band Cockney Rebel. His album The Psychomodo featured a strange song called “Ritz”—the lyrics are dreamy and not especially coherent, but they include these lines:
Oh! the clown, his stare is eyeless
Shall he make you laugh or cry, yes
Indeed, the song even opens with a line referring to the artist Rouault, who took a special interest in painting clowns:
Hark to Rouault’s white insanity
Clowns in drag concealing vanity
Seymour’s suicide after drawing a dying clown resonated with these songs. It’s not that I had a fixation with sad clowns, but I was instantly connected to a moment in my past—I was a teenager again, singing in my bedroom.
Then there was my father’s obsessive interest in making scrapbooks. He died in 1987, and when I showed a family member just how many scrapbooks he’d amassed, they remarked that he must have been suffering from mental illness. And perhaps he was—if he found an interesting nugget in a newspaper or a magazine, or a picture story in a children’s comic, he would cut it out, and paste it into a scrapbook. He made literally hundreds of these books. So many that by the time of his death, the sheer weight of them was starting to cave in the back room where he did his pasting. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the comics my father bought were laying the groundwork for my future interest in an illustrator, a fact reinforced by my own boyhood fascination with American superhero comics. Pictures of Superman, Batman, and the Flash which I encountered as a boy led directly to a fascination with the pictures of Mr. Pickwick, Sam Weller, and the other heroes of The Pickwick Papers.
In a way, my novel could be seen as a literary scrapbook in which diverse types of material are gathered together. Furthermore, my research on Pickwick involved collecting mountains of material, as I strove to read everything ever written about the novel—and this could be seen as obsessive behaviour on my part. People might wonder whether I am nervous about having the obsessive tendencies of my father, but the point is my father had no focus. He just collected anything. Writing Death and Mr. Pickwick required concentration on one subject alone.
I must also mention the particular niche I occupied during my time as a freelance writer. I used to write about unusual leisure activities for the Daily Telegraph, and I was a frequent guest on BBC and Canadian radio, talking about unusual experience and strange people. For instance I might try out a weird sport, like toe-wrestling or competitive snuff-taking (where you have to take fifty sorts of snuff as fast as you possibly can, and if you sneeze, cough or splutter you’re disqualified). Or I might sample the delights of lying on a bed of nails. Or I would meet peculiar clubs and societies, like the International Brick Collectors’ Association. All this activity culminated in the compilation volumes of my articles, The Bizarre Leisure Book and its expanded follow-up, The Ultimate Guide to Unusual Leisure.
Let me say that if I tried out an unusual activity requiring any skill at all, I was normally utterly incompetent, and performed disastrously. There was, for instance, the time I tried out the flying trapeze: I made a bad launch, was dragged across the ground, and the friction of the mat pulled down my shorts and underpants, leaving me naked on the flying trapeze. To my mind, these disasters just added humour to my articles. But incompetence at leisure activities is strongly reminiscent of parts of The Pickwick Papers—notably the scenes involving Mr. Winkle, who is an incompetent sportsman. Indeed the whole enterprise of travelling around and meeting eccentric and unusual people sounds very Pickwickian. Most important of all, when I interviewed people, I would seize upon the single line they said which revealed their life and personality, and this was a great preparation for characterising people in Pickwick. I remember, for instance, interviewing a married couple who had a collection of 5,000 bricks. When I asked them why they pursued the hobby, the husband said: “We haven’t got any children—what else can we do?”
The final thing which led towards Death and Mr. Pickwick was the reality television show Big Brother. Some people may be appalled by this—Big Brother has been called the worst TV show in the world—but I have heard of other writers watching Big Brother because of the insight it gives into human behaviour. I was fascinated by the show from the start. The first UK series, featuring a villainous character called Nasty Nick, was an extraordinary television experience: when Nick was exposed as a cheat, and in his shame hid himself under a duvet, weeping, I thought Big Brother was among the most compelling television I had ever seen—so compelling that commercial breaks were almost painful to endure.
When I read Pickwick for the first time, it struck me that the book could even be seen as a nineteenth-century forerunner of the TV show—both are rambling, plotless things, in which many an episode is fuelled by alcohol. Both, too, are concerned with observation of people—Mr. Pickwick even describes himself as “an observer of human nature,” emphasized by the magnifying glass on his chest. Towards the end of Death and Mr. Pickwick, in one of the sections set in modern times, I even mention Big Brother, as a nod to the influence this show has had upon my writing.
So there you have the explanation for Death and Mr. Pickwick: pop songs, scrapbooks, superheroes, unusual leisure activities and reality television—not a dusty nineteenth-century volume in sight!
Stephen Jarvis was born in Essex, England. Following graduate studies at Oxford University, he quickly tired of his office job and began doing unusual things every weekend and writing about them for The Daily Telegraph. These activities included learning the flying trapeze, walking on red-hot coals, getting hypnotized to revisit past lives, and entering the British Snuff-Taking Championship. Death and Mr. Pickwick is his first novel. He lives in Berkshire, England.
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