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Coffee with… Series

Posted By Elinor Teele On March 20, 2008 @ 9:16 am In Biography,Fiction Reviews,Historical Fiction,Philosophy,Writers | No Comments

Coffee with Dickens (Coffee with…Series)
by Paul Schlicke
Duncan Baird, 144 pp.
CLR Rating:

Coffee with Aristotle (Coffee with…Series)
by Jonathan Barnes
Duncan Baird, 144 pp.
CLR Rating:

I Speak to Dead People

One could imagine that the conversation in the conference meeting at Duncan Baird Publishers, producers of the new Coffee with… series, went something along the lines of:

“We need a new idea for bookshop counter purchases. Something you could slip into your pocket or purse. What usually sells?”

“Biographies of famous dead people seem to do well.”

“And interviews with famous live ones.”

“But book buyers don’t like to be patronized – we can’t give ‘em celebrity gossip.”

“And Wikipedia’s kind of cornered the bio-lite market. I mean, it’s not like we can interview dead people.”

“Eureka!”

And with that, a modestly entertaining revenue source was born.

It’s a fantasy that most of us have indulged in some time or another – the “if I reach heaven” wish list. What a gift to have a coffee and a chat with Dickens, Michelangelo, Aristotle, Shakespeare, Mozart, Marilyn Monroe, Groucho Marx, Isaac Newton, or Oscar Wilde. What a thrill to be able to ask them about all those pesky mysteries they left unanswered when they died.

Taking this concept as their starting point, Duncan Baird enlisted the help of some extremely knowledgeable authors. Coffee with Dickens is penned by Paul Schlicke, noted Dickensian scholar, and is introduced by Peter Ackroyd; Coffee with Aristotle contains the talents of Jonathan Barnes, philosopher and Fellow of the British Academy, with a dry contribution from his younger brother Julian. A foreword, introduction, brief bio, footnotes, further reading, and an index surround the core conversations. A bona fide scholarly format, though perhaps just a wee bit of overkill for a book that’s 4″ x 6″.

Owing to this diminutive size, Schlicke and Barnes face a large challenge. Not only do they have to condense a vast amount of scholarship into a meager word count – shades of school essays past – but they also have to resurrect their heroes’ personalities. And while Dickens’s conversational quirks – “that’s it!” or “capital, capital” – can be gleaned from secondhand accounts, pity the poor philosopher who has to breathe life into a semi-mystical ancient Greek.

In terms of compression, they both do an admirable job. Adhering to what must have been an assigned template (“now make sure you cover…”), the authors break the conversation down into thematic sections. Though unlike normal meandering speech, the structure gives an author like Dickens the chance to assert some ordered thoughts on his childhood, influences, writing habits, lovers, etc., as well as his views on religion, education, and social justice:

“What Oliver [Twist] needs is not just more gruel, but more food, more clothing, more shelter, more attention to his needs as a child, more kindness and more love,” Dickens argues at one point.

More cerebrally, Aristotle is asked, off-the-cuff, to discuss Plato, rhetoric, logic, science and causes, slavery, ethics, metaphysics, the soul, and, for a lark, death:

“If you’re looking for immortality, the divinities are immortal. So too is the universe – and all the natural species it contains. There always have been dogs and dandelions, and there always will be. In that way, the human race too is immortal. But individual humans – like individual dogs and dandelions – aren’t.”

As regards the resurrection of a living, breathing giant – that’s a trickier process. Within this odd combination of academic primer and personal reminiscence, the authors must decide how much background they can include without affecting the conversational tone. They must address some longstanding arguments (what kind of relationship did Dickens have with the actress Ellen Ternan?) without allowing their personal views to weigh too heavily. And they must try for spontaneity in a fairly strict format.

Schlicke assumes, understandably, that the reader is familiar with his subject’s writings, and his interviewer sticks primarily to leading questions that draw out details on characters and themes. Fans of Flora in Little Dorrit, for example, will enjoy the background the ghostly Dickens provides on Maria, one of his early loves:

“Maria drove me to distraction, until finally I could stand no more, oh lor no, and stopped my futile pursuit. Years later she reappeared, but although she warned me that she was toothless, fat, old and ugly, I was unprepared to find her changed so utterly… As I wrote privately to the Duke of Devonshire, ‘we have all had our Floras (mine is living, and extremely fat!)'”

Now and again, the mask falls. Leaving aside the spontaneous exclamations, his Dickens can be a little didactic, a little more biographer than speaker. But at other times, such as when Dickens is describing the death of his angelic sister-in-law Mary, it’s likely Schlicke shrewdly mixes cloy sentimentality with sharp observation to echo Dickens’s own writing style.

Over at the other table, Barnes senses we might be intimidated by Philosophy with a capital P, and his Aristotle is from start to finish an admirably clear speaker. One suspects, too, that Barnes is not taking his challenge completely seriously:

“You’ve read my lectures on Ethics?” Aristotle asks.

“Well, I’ve tried…” the companion answers.

“You’ve read them ‘up to a point,’ eh? Can’t say I blame you. They’re pretty arid stuff – like eating hay, someone once said.”

That’s Thomas Gray, a British poet of the eighteenth century. And later, as Aristotle explains his theories on tragedy and catharsis:

“Remember the tragedy of Hecuba, Queen of Troy? Her husband was hacked to pieces before her eyes. Troy was sacked by the Greeks. She was taken prisoner, exiled… Well, what’s Hecuba to you?”

That’s Hamlet, pondering the play within the play. He gets around, that Aristotle.

Barnes’s giant of the Western world is short, sharp, and funny, and well worth spending time with, even if he is, perhaps, more modern Englishman than ancient Greek in some places. As a taste of philosophical ideas Coffee with Aristotle is just right – now if only the longer treatises were as palatable.

An original idea then, from Duncan Baird, and briskly tackled by its authors. Both books provide good, solid information to prepare for those meetings up on cloud nine. Though we can’t aspire to the scholarship of Schlicke and Barnes, at least, after reading their “interviews,” we will be better prepared to ask intelligent questions.

But, and this is where there is really no substitute for the unearthly thing, we probably shouldn’t assume that Mark Twain or Shakespeare or Buddha is going to spill out the secrets of his genius as easily and logically as he does in this series. For one, it’s going to take something a mite stronger than coffee to make Mark Twain talk.


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