Jean-Pierre Ohl has written a novel that is at once a curious and adept mix of homage to Charles Dickens, send-up of literary scholarship, and mystery. Generally, I’m leery of books based on literary figures or borrowing heavily from a previous book to bolster a premise, but Mr. Ohl, a bookseller from Bordeaux, France, manages to rise above the common pitfalls of not only a first novel, but of other devices used when one exploits a classic text. Mr Dick or the Tenth Book is inspiring and challenging with its eclectic mix of narrators—François Daumal, the down-trodden boy turned seemingly failed scholar who is obsessed with Dickens, Évariste Borel whose journal tells of his time spent with Dickens during his final days, and Arthur Conan Doyle’s account of a séance where Wilkie Collins and Robert Louis Stevenson are present to contact the spirit of Dickens himself—that keep us guessing even when we are not sure what we are guessing about.
As with any novel with several narrators, this book demands the reader play close attention to the potentially convoluted story. Throughout the whole book, I couldn’t help but think of Julie Kristeva and her concept of intertextuality. Granted, the concept has been around and at times, executed brilliantly, as is the case with Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea. In books such as this, there is always the danger of the original text overwhelming or discounting the current text, which is something Ohl avoids in his novel. François Daumal is the main narrator and we meet him as a little boy who is being shipped off to live with his hateful grandmother after his mother and father separate. While living a squalid existence with his grandmother, he finds reprieve in the novels he discovers in the attic where his grandfather used to work. This is the origin of his obsession with Charles Dickens and from then on, he consumes every piece of Dickens literature and criticism he can find.
Within a few months my grandfather’s attic had revealed its treasures. A single glance was all it took me now. I could unhesitatingly pick out the tasty ceps from the boring old boletus: Nicholas Nickleby, Oliver Twist, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (in an abridged version, though I did not know this at the time), A Christmas Carol had dropped one by one into my pouch. Scrooge and his miserliness, Jingle and his sentence fragments, Grimwig and his famous ‘I’ll eat my head’ had become more familiar to me than the boys and girls at school, or even my mother: I kept company with them late into the night. They visited me while I slept. And in the morning I was reluctant to leave their three-dimensional world to flatten myself out until evening on the dismal white page of reality.
François manages to rise above his circumstances with the help of Dickens and ends up in a boarding school on the outskirts of Bordeaux. While there, he discovers he has an uncle, Monsieur Krook, who owns a second-hand bookshop. They develop a father-son type of relationship that is also largely based on a love of Dickens. Once François enters University, he meets the cunning Michel Mangematin who is possibly more obsessed with Dickens than François himself. The basis of their relationship begins as a healthy rivalry to finish the allegedly unfinished Dickens novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Because of François’s low self-esteem, Michel seems to have an edge on him, and constantly berates him. As the pressure of the rivalry bears down on François, he decides to move back to the house in which he had lived with his grandmother in the town of Mimizan. He begins teaching and marries a beautiful redhead, Mathilde, whom he believes he met when he was a boy. He manages to escape (for a time) the Mangematin relationship as well as the obsession with Dickens.
Then, three years later, he receives a call from Mangematin:
I was half-asleep when I answered the phone. The simple greeting that came out of the receiver has the same miraculous effect as Aladdin’s cloth.
‘What’s new in the past three years?’
Those three years in Mimizan flashed before my eyes in the form of ludicrous journeys, speeded up as in a slapstick comedy. From the house to Notre-Dame school. From Notre-Dame school to the Plageco supermarket via Bar de la Marine. From Plageco to the house.
I sat on the edge of my bed.
‘Nothing. What about you?’
‘Masses of things. We must meet.’
‘I know. The university job.’
‘Don’t be stupid. I’ve got some real news’
‘Why tell me?’
Michel gave a burst of laughter. ‘Because you’re the only Pickwickian!’
I was beginning to feel a tingling in my extremities, signaling the end of a long, very long, stiffening. It might have been a pleasant sensation but it had taken me years to put to sleep the part of me that was now awakening. I did not want to go back there again.
And this is when the healthy rivalry turns unhealthy. Time goes by and there is an elaborate set-up that plays out at a Dickens museum full of wax characters from his novels. The people attending the gala are dressed as Dickens characters as well to add to the surreal unfolding of the denouement. At this point, François has fallen on hard times—with no job and Michel having manipulated his wife away from him—he shows up at the gala that is celebrating the release of Michel’s book about the solution to The Mystery of Edwin Drood. A macabre scene unfolds between Michel and François, uncovering an elaborate vengeance that ends with a murder. And it is a surprise to the reader who has diligently followed every narrator, invested himself in the conceit of the book.
Mr Dick and The Tenth Book may seem a bit light at the start, with appearances from literary figures ranging from George Sand to Wilkie Collins, but François’s joyless narrative provides a sobering contrast that evolves into intricate work of fiction. Ohl has mastered a blend of parody and vengeance that few writers can do. Except, of course, for Dickens.
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