Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A CHRISTMAS CAROL: Part I

A CHRISTMAS CAROL: Half as long, twice as appealing?
by Jesse Kornbluth

Half a century ago, I left the suburbs of Philadelphia to become a boarding student at Milton Academy, a school so different from anything I knew that it might as well have been on the moon.  

Suits at dinner? Amazingly, we wore them.

Toothpaste inspection? Yes, and your shoes had to be spit-polished.
 
Doing your homework in a communal study hall? Ninety minutes a night.
 
In those days, Milton --- like many New England boarding schools --- was staunchly traditional. Teachers were addressed as “sir.” There was a girls’ school across the street, but we had no co-ed classes. And before the prom, we rushed to get our “dance cards” signed by our coolest friends, so our dates wouldn’t think we were social outcasts.
 
But the library was the setting for the most memorable event of my first year at Milton --- there, the night before we went home for Christmas, the headmaster read “A Christmas Carol.” Arthur Bliss Perry was as Old Boston as it gets. Son of a Harvard professor who discoursed on Emerson and edited the Atlantic Monthly, he came to Milton to teach in 1921 and became headmaster in 1947. In 1961, when I first encountered him, he was a figure out of time --- a tall, thin patrician, wearing three-piece suits, a school tie and eyeglasses with octagonal lenses and the thinnest of wire frames.
 
The Milton library was a red-brick, ivy-covered cathedral. For Mr. Perry’s reading, the fireplace was lit. I believe we stood as Mr. Perry entered and took his seat in a baronial chair that had been set between the two standing lamps that were the only lights.
 
And then Arthur Bliss Perry became Charles Dickens.
 
He read without accent and without drama. He didn’t play up the sentiment. He simply delivered --- as he had each December for fourteen years and would for two more --- the greatest Christmas story since the original one.
 
I got shivers. Maybe a tear. It was that remarkable an experience.
 
Last December, I decided our almost-eight-year-old daughter was ready for a version of “A Christmas Carol” not dumbed down by Disney.
 
I didn’t imagine she would listen in rapt silence to 28,000 words, but I certainly thought she could make it, over two or three nights, to the end.
 
She lasted five minutes.
 
Some parents, at that point, would blame her near-total boredom with Scrooge on computer games and kiddie TV and an overly permissive culture.
 
Not this parent.
 
Books change over time, and over 170 years, “A Christmas Carol” has changed more than most. We like a punchy opening; “A Christmas Carol” is a slow starter. By our standards, the language is clotted and the piece is seriously overwritten --- as I was reading it, I was scanning ahead to see what I could paraphrase or cut.
 
(It’s not generally noted, but it didn’t take 170 years for young readers to be bored by Dickens. In America on a lecture tour, Dickens was approached by a young girl. She said she loved his books, but she had a confession: “I do skip some of the very dull parts, once in a while; not the short dull parts, but the long ones." The great writer’s response was to laugh --- and take out his notebook and ask for details.)
 
A few weeks after the non-start with our daughter, I realized that I want her to experience “A Christmas Carol” sooner than later. And I got serious --- I started to work on the text. My goal wasn’t to rewrite Dickens, just to update the archaic language, trim the dialogue, cut the extraneous characters --- to reduce the book to its essence, which is the story. In the end, I did have to write a bit, but not, I hope, so you’ll notice; I think of my words as minor tailoring, like sewing on a missing button or patching a rip at the knee.
 
The “Christmas Carol” that awaits you is half the length of the original. Like the Paige Peterson illustrations that accompany it, it means to convey the feeling of 19th century London in 1843, but without the formal diction and Victorian heaviness --- it means to be a story that adults can read to their captivated kids right to the end, and that kids, starting with my daughter, can read by themselves with pleasure.
 
May I ask a favor? Like Dickens, I’d love to know what works in this version of “A Christmas Carol” --- and what doesn’t. If you read it to your brood during this holiday season, would you take a moment and write me at HeadButlerNYC@AOL.com. Many thanks.
 
Note: I'm publishing this in two parts. Second part: tomorrow.
PART 1: MARLEY'S GHOST

Marley was dead. That was a fact. His certificate of death was official. And then Scrooge signed it, which was the right thing to do, for Scrooge had been Marley's business partner for many years. And more: He had been Marley's only friend.
 
After Marley's death, Scrooge never painted out his name. There it stood, years later, above the warehouse door: Scrooge and Marley. Sometimes people who wandered in for the first time called Scrooge Scrooge, and sometimes Marley. He answered to both names ---- it was all the same to him.
 
Scrooge didn't keep the old sign out of sentiment or respect to Marley. He was just saving money. For Scrooge was the cheapest of the cheap, so tight-fisted that if the coins in his hand could talk, they would scream. His cheapness was cold and hard, and it froze him from the inside out; it shriveled his cheek, made his eyes red and his thin lips blue. He seemed to carry winter around with him.
 
People noticed. And they avoided him. Nobody ever stopped him in the street to say, 'My dear Scrooge, how are you? When will you come to see me?' No beggars approached him for coins, no children asked him what time it was, no one ever stopped him to get directions.
 
But what did Scrooge care? Being left alone --- he liked that.
 
And so it was that three o'clock in the afternoon on the day before Christmas found Scrooge working away at his desk. It was cold, bleak, biting weather. He could hear the people walking past his office stamping their feet on the sidewalk to warm them.
 
Scrooge's clerk worked in the next office. Scrooge kept the door open so he could keep his eye upon this clerk, who sat shivering as he copied letters. It gave Scrooge pleasure to see the man wrap himself in his coat. And he was absolutely delighted to see the clerk's breath became a small cloud of smoke in the chill.
 
The bell jangled, and in walked Scrooge's nephew. “A merry Christmas, uncle! God save you!” he cried.
 
“Bah!” said Scrooge. “Humbug!”
 
The nephew was a young man, and a handsome one. And happy --- he seemed almost to glow with the spirit of the season.
 
“'Christmas a humbug, uncle?” said Scrooge's nephew. “You don't mean that, I am sure.”
 
“I do,” said Scrooge. “Merry Christmas! What right have you to be merry? What reason do you have to be merry? You're poor enough.”
 
“What right do you have you to be sour?” the nephew asked. “What reason do you have to be depressed? You're rich enough.”
 
Scrooge had no smart response, so he just repeated, “Humbug!”
 
“Don't be like that, uncle,” the nephew said.
 
“How else can I be,” Scrooge snapped, “when I live in a world of fools? Merry Christmas! I wish the day didn't exist. What's Christmas but a time when people without money buy presents they can't afford? If I had my way, every idiot who goes about with 'Merry Christmas' on his lips should be boiled with his own holiday ham and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.”
 
“Ah, but you don't have your way,” his nephew said.
 
“In that case,” Scrooge said sternly, “you keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it in mine.'
 
“'Keep it?” his nephew said, with a short laugh. “But you don't keep it.”
 
“Let me leave it alone, then,” said Scrooge. “Much good may it do you! Much good it has ever done you!”
 
“There are many things I thought would do me good --- and didn't,” said his nephew. “But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time. It's the only time of the year men and women seem to be of the same opinion --- they open their shut-up hearts and they think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers on this journey from birth to the grave. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that Christmas has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”
 
The clerk in the next office couldn't help himself --- he applauded.
 
Scrooge whirled around. “'Let me hear another sound from you,” he said, “and you'll keep your Christmas by losing your job!” He turned back to his nephew. “You're quite a powerful speaker, sir --- you should think about going into Parliament.”
 
“Don't be angry, uncle. Come! Have Christmas dinner with us tomorrow.”
 
“I am expected elsewhere,” Scrooge said.
 
“Where?”
 
“Right here.”
 
“Working, uncle? On Christmas?”
 
“Good afternoon,” said Scrooge.
 
“I am sorry, with all my heart, to find you so resolute. We have never had any quarrel, and I won't start now. So a Merry Christmas, uncle!"
 
“Good afternoon,”' said Scrooge.
 
“And a Happy New Year!”
 
“Good afternoon!” shouted Scrooge.
 
His nephew left the room without an angry word, stopping in the next office to offer the greeting of the season to the clerk, who returned them cordially.
 
“There's another fellow,” muttered Scrooge; who overheard him. “My clerk, who earns almost nothing and has a wife and family, talking about a merry Christmas. Madness!'

The clerk, in letting Scrooge's nephew out, had let two other people in. They were large men, looking prosperous and pleased with themselves. They had books and papers in their hands, and bowed to Scrooge as they entered his office.  

“Scrooge and Marley's, I believe,” said one of the men, with a glance at his list.
 
“Have I the pleasure of addressing Mr. Scrooge, or Mr. Marley?”
 
“Mr. Marley died seven years ago, this very night,” Scrooge said.
 
“We have no doubt his generosity is matched by his surviving partner,” said one of the men, presenting his business card.
 
Generosity? What a silly man. Scrooge and Marley had indeed been two kindred spirits --- equally mean-spirited and hard-hearted. So Scrooge frowned, and shook his head, and handed the business card back.
 
“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” the gentleman said, “many people like to help the Poor, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands need common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts.”
 
“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.
 
“Plenty of prisons.”  
 
“And workhouses for those who can't pay their bills?”
 
“They are. And busy, too.”
 
“I'm very glad to hear it,” Scrooge said.
 
“So,” the gentleman said, “how much would you like to give?”
 
“Nothing!” Scrooge replied.
 
“You wish to be anonymous?”
 
“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don't make merry myself at Christmas and I can't afford to make idle people merry."
 
“But these people are badly off. Some are ill. Some may die. It's our business to help them.”
 
“It's not my business,” Scrooge replied. “It's enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people's. If a poor man is likely to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Good afternoon, gentlemen!”
 
They saw that it would be useless to pursue their point, so the gentlemen withdrew. Scrooge resumed his labors with an improved opinion of himself.
 
Meanwhile the fog and darkness thickened. The ancient tower of a church became invisible; it struck the hours and quarters in the clouds. The cold became intense. In the main street, the brightness of the shops made pale faces glow as they passed. Butcher shops became a splendid joke: a glorious pageant of pheasant and duck and goose, so it was next to impossible to believe that anyone anywhere had to think about such dull realities as bargains and sales. And then it turned foggier yet, and colder.
 
It was piercing, searching, brutally cold when Scrooge rose from his desk to close the office for the day. The clerk took this moment to enter.
 
“Sir?” the clerk said.
 
Scrooge knew what was coming.
 
“You'll want all day tomorrow, I suppose?” said Scrooge.
 
“If it's convenient, sir.”
 
“It's not convenient,” said Scrooge, “and it's not fair. If I was to hold back some of your salary for it, I bet you'd think yourself badly treated.”
 
The clerk smiled faintly.
 
“And yet,” said Scrooge, “you don't think me badly treated, when I pay a day's wages for no work.”
 
The clerk observed that it was only once a year.
 
“A poor excuse for picking a man's pocket every twenty-fifth of December!” said Scrooge, buttoning his coat to the chin. “But I suppose you must have the whole day. Be here all the earlier next morning.”
 
The clerk promised that he would, and Scrooge walked out with a growl. The office was closed in a twinkling, and the clerk hurried home to play with his children.

Scrooge had dinner alone in a dull, badly lit restaurant. He read the newspapers, then went home to bed --- in Marley's old apartment, as it happened. It was a gloomy suite of rooms, in a gloomy building. And lonely, for nobody lived in it but Scrooge; the other rooms had been rented out as offices.
 
There was nothing at all particular about the knocker on the door, except that it was very large. And it is fair to say that Scrooge very rarely thought of Marley. But as he turned the key in the lock, something impossible happened --- the knocker turned into Marley's face.
 
Marley's face. It was not in deep shadow but had a dismal light about it. It was not angry or ferocious, but looked at Scrooge as Marley used to look: with ghostly spectacles turned up on its ghostly forehead. Though the eyes were wide open, they were perfectly motionless. The total effect was one of horror.
 
Scrooge stared at this phenomenon --- and it became a knocker again.
 
Was he startled? Oh, very. But he turned the key in the lock, walked in, and lighted his candle. He did pause, however, before he shut the door, and he did look cautiously behind it first, as if he half expected to see Marley's pigtail sticking out into the hall. But there was nothing on the back of the door except the screws and nuts that held the knocker on, so he said, “Pooh, pooh” and closed it with a bang.
 
The sound resounded through the house like thunder. But Scrooge was not a man to be frightened by echoes. He fastened the door, walked across the hall, and up the stairs.
 
Darkness is cheap, and Scrooge liked it. But before he shut the heavy door of his bedroom, he walked through his apartment to see that all was right. He had just enough recollection of the face to desire to do that.
 
Living room, bedroom. Both as they should be.
 
Nobody under the table. Nobody under the sofa. A small fire in the grate. Nobody under the bed. Nobody in the closet. Nobody in his dressing gown, which was hanging up in a suspicious attitude against the wall. Old shoes, washing-stand, and a poker for the fire.
 
Quite satisfied, he closed his door, and locked himself in --- double-locked himself in, which was not his custom. Thus protected against surprise, he took off his tie, put on his dressing gown and slippers and his nightcap, and sat down before the fire.
 
As he leaned back in his chair, his glance happened to rest upon an old, forgotten bell. Once it communicated with another suite in the building; that purpose was long forgotten. So it was with great astonishment, and with a strange, inexplicable dread, that as he looked, he saw this bell begin to swing. It swung so softly in the outset that it scarcely made a sound; but soon it rang out loudly, and so did every bell in the house.
 
This might have lasted half a minute, or a minute, but it seemed like an hour. The bells stopped as they had begun, together. They were followed by a clanking noise, deep down below, as if some person were dragging a heavy chain. And Scrooge remembered that he had heard ghosts in haunted houses were described as dragging chains.
 
The door at the building’s entrance flew open with a booming sound, and then he heard the noise much louder, on the floors below; then coming up the stairs; then coming straight towards his door.
 
“It's humbug still!” said Scrooge. “I won't believe it.”
 
Without a pause, a ghost came through the heavy door.
 
It had the same face --- Marley in his pigtail, usual waistcoat, tights and boots. The chain he drew was clasped about his middle. It was long, and wound about him like a tail. His body was transparent. Scrooge could look through his waistcoat and see the two buttons on the back of the coat.
 
He could not believe what he saw. Yes, that was Marley standing before him. And he felt the chill from its death-cold eyes. But he was still incredulous.
 
“What do you want with me?” Scrooge asked.
 
“Much.” Marley's voice, no doubt about it.
 
“Who are you?”
 
“Ask me who I was.”
 
“Who were you then?” said Scrooge.
 
“In life, I was your partner, Jacob Marley.”
 
“Can you …can you sit down?” asked Scrooge, looking doubtfully at him.
 
“I can.”
 
“Do it, then.”
 
The ghost sat down on the opposite side of the fireplace, as if he were quite used to it.
 
“You don't believe in me,” observed the ghost.
 
“I don't,” said Scrooge.
 
“'Why do you doubt your senses?”
 
“Because a little thing affects them. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There's probably more of gravy about you than the grave.”
 
Scrooge was not much in the habit of cracking jokes, nor did he feel, in his heart, by any means jolly. The truth is, he tried to be smart, as a means of fighting off his terror, for the ghost's voice disturbed the very marrow in his bones.
 
The ghost sat perfectly motionless. Then it raised a frightful cry, and shook its chain with such a dismal and appalling noise that Scrooge held on tight to his chair, to save himself from falling in a swoon. But how much greater was his horror when the phantom unwound the bandage round its head --- and its lower jaw dropped down upon its chest.
 
Scrooge fell upon his knees, and clasped his hands before his face.
 
“Mercy!” he said. “Dreadful apparition, why do you trouble me?”
 
“Man of the worldly mind,” replied the ghost, “do you believe in me or not?”
 
“I do,” said Scrooge. “I must. But why do spirits walk the earth, and why do they come to me?”
 
“It is required of every man,” the ghost said, “that the spirit within him should walk among his fellow men, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit does not do that in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world and witness what it cannot share but might have shared on earth and turned to happiness.”
 
Again the ghost raised a cry, and shook its chain and wrung its shadowy hands.
 
“You are chained,” said Scrooge, trembling. “Tell me why.”
 
“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard. I created it of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?”
 
Scrooge trembled more and more.
 
“Or would you know,” pursued the ghost, “the weight and length of the strong chair you carry? It was full as heavy and as long as this, seven Christmas Eves ago. You have labored on it, since. It is a very weighty chain!”
 
Scrooge glanced about him on the floor, in the expectation of finding himself surrounded by some fifty or sixty feet of iron cable. But he could see nothing.
 
“'Jacob,” he said, imploringly. “Old Jacob Marley, tell me more. Speak comfort to me, Jacob.”
 
“I have none to give,” the Ghost replied. “Comfort comes from other regions, Ebenezer Scrooge, and is conveyed by other ministers, to other kinds of men. Nor can I tell you what I would. A very little more is all that is permitted to me. I cannot rest, I cannot stay, I cannot linger anywhere. My spirit never walked beyond our office --- in life my spirit never wandered farther than our bank. Now weary journeys lie before me.”
 
“Seven years dead --- and traveling all the time?”
 
“The whole time,” said the ghost. “No rest, no peace. Incessant torture of remorse.”
 
“You travel fast?” said Scrooge.
 
“On the wings of the wind,” replied the ghost.
 
“You might have got over a great quantity of ground in seven years,” said Scrooge.
 
“Yes. But no regret can make amends for a lifetime of missed opportunity. Such was I! Oh! Such was I!'
 
“You were always a good man of business, Jacob,” said Scrooge.
 
“Business!” cried the ghost, wringing its hands. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business --- charity, mercy and benevolence were my business. The dealings of our company were but a drop of water in the ocean of my business!'
 
The ghost held up its chain at arm's length, as if that were the cause of all its grief, and flung it heavily upon the ground again.
 
“At this time of the year,” the ghost said, “I suffer most. Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men? Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me?”
 
Scrooge was very much dismayed to hear the ghost going on in this way, and began to quake exceedingly.
 
“Do you know,” the ghost said, “that I have sat invisible beside you many and many a day?”
 
It was not an agreeable idea. Scrooge shivered, and wiped the perspiration from his brow.
 
“I have come here tonight to warn you, that you still have a chance to escape my fate.”
 
“You were always a good friend to me,” said Scrooge. “Thank you.”
 
“You will be haunted,” the ghost said, “by Three Spirits.”
 
“Is that the chance you mentioned, Jacob?” he demanded, in a faltering voice.
 
“It is.”
 
“I…I think I'd rather not,” said Scrooge.
 
“Without their visits,” said the ghost, “you cannot hope to avoid the path I tread. Expect the first tomorrow, when the bell tolls one o'clock.”
 
“Couldn't I take them all at once, and have it over, Jacob?” 
 
“Expect the second on the next night at the same hour. Expect the third upon the next night when the last stroke of twelve has ceased to vibrate. Look to see me no more; and for your own sake, remember what has passed between us!”
 
When it had said these words, the ghost took its bandage from the table, and bound it round its head, as before. Scrooge dared to raise his eyes again and found his supernatural visitor confronting him with its chain wound over and about its arm. The ghost walked backward from him, and at every step it took, the window raised itself a little, so that when the ghost reached it, it was wide open.
 
It beckoned Scrooge to approach, which he did. When they were within two paces of each other, Marley's ghost held up its hand, warning him to come no nearer. Scrooge stopped.
 
He stopped not so much in obedience as in surprise and fear, for on the raising of the hand, he became aware of confused noises in the air, wild sounds of anguish and regret. The ghost, after listening for a moment, joined in the mournful dirge, and floated out upon the bleak, dark night.
 
Scrooge followed to the window and looked out.
 
The air was filled with phantoms, wandering in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley's ghost; a few were linked together, none was free.
 
Scrooge had personally known many of these phantoms when they were alive. He had been quite familiar with one old ghost, in a white vest, with a monstrous iron safe attached to its ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant. They all wanted to do good --- but they had lost the power forever.
 
Whether these creatures faded into mist or mist enshrouded them, Scrooge could not tell. But they and their spirit voices faded together. And the night became as it had been when he walked home.
 
Scrooge closed the window and examined the door by which the ghost had entered. It was double-locked, as he had locked it with his own hands, and the bolts were undisturbed. He tried to say 'Humbug!' but stopped at the first syllable. And then, much in need of rest, he went straight to bed without undressing, and, almost immediately, fell asleep.
 
Tomorrow: Part 2
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