The roads not taken

For Charles Dickens, whose bicentenary is inspiring new interest, writing fiction was a way of reach

One of London's free newspapers used to contain a column, under the come-hither heading "Lovestruck: Change Your Fate", in which commuters could record their romantic near misses. Part valentine and part message in a bottle, each of these little confessions allowed the writer to speak up without fear of public rejection, and the result was a welling-up of fantasies usually hidden behind the sports pages. "You were on the 8.35 from Balham to Victoria on Tuesday wearing glasses with a scar above your eye. Drink?" enquires Blonde in Green Dress. "To the lady sitting on the 18.05 from Victoria to Lewes, I think I may be falling in love with you," confesses Man Opposite. Rarely has the line between talking and stalking been so delicately smudged.

As in other attempts to restore the genteel eroticism of Brief Encounter to modern public transport, it is fitting that most of the scenarios involve a train. This might reflect a more general temptation to use the blank expressions of strangers as screens on to which private dreams can be projected, but it also reflects a common resistance to the idea that our lives trundle along a set of tracks as predictably as the 18.05 from Victoria. To confess that you might be falling in love with a fellow passenger opens up an alternative future, a shiny new timeline, into which your imagination can be shunted for a few moments.

The roads not taken, the parallel worlds in which things happened otherwise - such thoughts are not restricted to a particular genre. They are as integral to the optimistic melodrama of It's a Wonderful Life as they are to the tragic realisation of Marlon Brando's washed-up boxer in On the Waterfront that "I could have been a contender. I could have been somebody." Nor are they unfamiliar in literature.

“Mugby Junction", a Christmas story that Charles Dickens published in December 1866, opens with a traveller passing through an imaginary railway station. A "shadowy train" goes by him in the gloom and it rapidly becomes clear that this is an image of his life. The survivor of an unhappy childhood, who is later "coupled to" a miserable career, he drags his past behind him like a set of grimy freight wagons. As the story develops, Dickens's hero comes to realise that even the longest train is not doomed to travel in the same direction for ever. Gazing at the junction from above, he observes the "wonderful ways" in which the railway lines cross and curve among one another, or veer off unexpectedly, or double back on themselves. By accepting that human life works in a similar way, he discovers that he is free to travel in any number of directions. The "gentleman for Nowhere", as he is known around the station, becomes the gentleman for everywhere.

Such uncertainty has rarely been acknowledged by biographers. Most lives are full of clutter and confusion; every day brings a lesson in how easily planning can be mastered by contingency. Biography, on the other hand, usually seems less concerned with reflecting a subject's life than with redeeming its inadequacies. It tidies up the shapeless business of living into a story with a beginning, middle and end; it removes background hiss and crackle until a single tune can be traced across the years.

While a biography might acknowledge occasional detours from the main narrative - here a failed love affair, there an abandoned draft – most sentences are arrows that fly straight and true until they hit the full stop with a satisfying thwack. There is little room for the kinds of repetition, hesitation or deviation that Radio 4's Just a Minute bans but that most real lives specialise in.

Dickens was aware of the temptation to view life in this way - on one occasion, he sympathetically observed an inmate of a lunatic asylum in Lancaster as he stared at a piece of matting, trying to find a pattern in its fibres - but it hardly reflects the course of his own career. Like the hero of Dombey and Son, he remained obsessed by "what might have been and what was not" and his fiction teems with characters who are granted the power to change their lives, like that seasonal regenerate Scrooge, or who discover that they have badly misunderstood the kind of story they are in.

Dickens's interest in lives that are stymied or knocked off course was more than theoretical. It was personal. The story of how he was sent to labour in a blacking factory as a child has often been told, but it is hard to overstate its importance to Dickens, for whom the tedium of the work was far less significant than his sense that every one of his ambitions was being slowly "crushed in my breast". "My rescue from this kind of existence," he recalled, "I considered quite hopeless and abandoned as such." The echo of Dante - "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here" - suggests that, for the young Dickens, slapping labels on to bottles of shoe polish was as bad as a tortured soul endlessly gurgling mud or being dunked in pitch.

In the end, his parents weakened, or their finances strengthened, and he was allowed to return to school. It was the first step in what has usually been seen as the triumphant progress of his career. Yet Dickens never forgot how vulnerable his life had been - and, as a freelance writer, to some extent still was. The lasting result was his fiction, which allowed him to release - under strict supervision - dozens of alternative lives on to the page: all the damaged children, lonely clerks and other surrogate selves that would otherwise have remained bottled up in his imagination.

The best-known example is David Copperfield, whose initials reflect Dickens's in reverse, like somebody looking into a mirror, and who, over the course of the novel, encounters a mad second-hand clothes dealer named Charley, an ineffectual flute-playing schoolteacher, also named Charley, and Mr Dick, who is writing a "memorial" of Charles I. Similarly, A Tale of Two Cities revolves around physical doubles whom Dickens originally wanted to call Charles Darnay and Dick Carton, so that even their initials would reflect each other.

Soon after I decided to write a new biography of Dickens, it became clear that it was his early fiction that explored these alternative lives most urgently. That is partly because his first stories were chronologically closest to his childhood, meaning that it loomed proportionately larger in his thinking, but it is also because the period in which they were written was equally uncertain about where it was heading. With the first Reform Bill, the accession of Victoria and technological change in everything from transport to computers, the 1830s were a time when the future seemed to be a blank sheet waiting to be written upon.

Dickens's works were equally committed to putting the past in its place, as when Oliver Twist drifts away from his delicate pauper friend Dick and joins a gang of London pickpockets that features a young joker named Charley. Yet the author's past continued to trail him like a shadow. Of all the places in London he could have chosen for the gang's home, Dickens selected "a house near Field-lane", right at the heart of the stinking slum that was on the doorstep of his new home in Bloomsbury. Oliver ascending "the dark and broken stairs" of Fagin's lair was like a distorted reflection of Dickens climbing up to his first-floor study, from where he could look out over the rooftops and catch an occasional whiff of a world he had escaped. So far.

The ending of Oliver Twist is much more reassuring. Oliver is welcomed into his adoptive family and the original final illustration showed him nestled happily in a middle-class living room. It was a model of what would later happen to everything that Dickens wrote. Realising that this was a tipping point in his career, he travelled down to London on one of the new railway lines to alter the title page. After several years of publishing sketches and serialised fiction, he was no longer prepared to shuffle off responsibility on to his comic pseudonym Boz.

With "Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens", he had arrived as a novelist. Yet that didn't stop him thinking of his career as a work in progress. Every sentence was a way of reaching into the unknown; every page was a miniature Mugby Junction - a place "of many branches, invisible as well as visible, and joined . . . to an endless number of byways".

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst is the author of “Becoming Dickens: the Invention of a Novelist" (Harvard University Press, £20)

This article first appeared in the 10 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The next great depression

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis