Posted by: zhiv | April 13, 2012

New Grub Street, George Gissing

I had a wonderful time reading this book. Somehow it was completely engaging, like a thriller almost. Part of it was my own mood, as I was upbeat and reading and focusing well, and I had just finished a challenging slog through May Sinclair’s sometimes leaden but highly rewarding The Creators, which carefully examines and updates Gissing’s story and topic. I found New Grub Street positioned in just the right staging area on my shelves, and knew just enough about it to guess correctly that it is a rich and perfectly complementary predecessor to Sinclair’s novel, a better and more important book in many ways. A big part of that is that it’s energetic, with great characters and a strong narrative drive. Much, much better than the tidy positioning of this book for my own timely enjoyment was George Gissing’s own situation and necessity when he began composing this seemingly standard late Victorian three-decker. He was writing from his life and heart and using fiction and convention to explore the deepest levels of his personal struggle and art. There are indications that Gissing, like so many authors, and his own characters here as well, backed himself against the wall with a strong but perhaps mostly subconscious sense of purpose, setting the artistic and creative stage for the fight of his life, laying aside his gloves and wading bare-knuckled into the fray. Some of this book is magnificent, at least it was for me, and it was fun and compelling throughout, a virtually no-holds-barred battle of the literary artist with himself.

Working at a movie studio and in show business you are constantly attracted and repelled by the ultimate taboo subject, the business itself. The audience doesn’t want to see movies about making movies or the business of movies–or does it? Just a couple of days ago, as I was reading this book in fact, I had a conversation with a writer who said that she had been laying low and working on a script that everybody, including herself, would tell her is the one thing she shouldn’t write, a story about writing scripts. It’s interesting that the Hollywood Novel is a separate and seemingly acceptable pursuit, one form commenting on another. Literature and fiction present a different equation, with something like the same quotient: a coming of age story and bildungsroman, novels as a portrait of the artist, are readily embraced and even foundational, but books that are more concerned about the making of books are tricky territory, especially if they’re about the making of money on books, and the realities of living as an author. We want to put the entire enterprise into a separate and somehow more congenial category, the highly celebrated and enjoyable genre of literary biography, my own favorite perhaps, where the struggles and foibles and heroism and humanity of authors is studied and revealed. For the most part we read about the greats and immortals in literary biography, and part of the attraction of the genre is that it constitutes immortality within itself. The subject is worth remembering: we might not always read Samuel Johnson’s work, unlike Shakespeare, but we will always know and remember Johnson, thanks to Boswell. Boswell explains and reminds us that Johnson gave us his Dictionary, that he helped us begin to read Shakespeare, and he crystallized the genre in which he himself lives, by writing the Lives of the Poets. And it’s further evidence of Johnson’s immortality and deep understanding of literature and its intricate workings, that he wrote a brilliant early book about authorship and the literary life, about a writer who wasn’t great or immortal, in his Life of Savage. This book is about life, and about his friend, and about the business of books and patronage and the complexity of authorship and the artistic personality. It is about Grub Street.

Notes indicate that George Gissing could have made a good living writing for magazines and editing and taking the practical view of the first of his primary characters to be introduced, Jasper Milvain. Instead he chose the path of his struggling, creative, and doomed novelist hero, Edwin Reardon. Early in the book Milvain says that Reardon, for whom he has great respect and sympathy, doesn’t stand a chance, that he might keep going by getting 100 pounds for his next novel, but then he’ll just have to do it all over again. Apparently this was more or less exactly Gissing’s situation as he was writing New Grub Street. Gissing thus sets his imagination loose in a fascinating and slightly morbid way, as he studies Reardon succumbing to the pressure of creativity on demand, becoming blocked and unable to work at the level necessary to sustain and build on his early foothold and promise. Reardon intentionally makes self-destructive choices, as Gissing himself may have been inclined to do, and Gissing uses Reardon’s descent to examine the details and desperation of literary failure. In the meantime, however, Gissing charts a parallel story of steady application and success in his Milvain narrative, showing how the game is played to win. Gissing has a great detachment from Milvain, who knows his skills and limited talent and has no interest in writing novels, while Gissing himself is of course writing a novel.

And he is doing it superbly, I would say, showing mastery of the form in its contemporary 80’s guise, with rich plotting and characterization. This text, by the standards of the day, is spectacularly self-referential, wildly modern in its self-consciousness of form. And it’s also remarkably adept and acute in its psychological subtlety, as I’ve never read a book that examined so directly and carefully the workings and process of self-deception, using the term itself more often than I’ve ever seen. This is perhaps appropriate: does Gissing mean to suggest that the process of writing fiction is the ultimate, and possibly heroic, act of self-deception, while moreover it is also some sort of sickness unto death? Despite being a self-deception afficionado, I have never thought of things in quite those terms before.

As I mentioned in my last post on May Sinclair’s gender-conscious rewriting of this book, Gissing covers all sorts of ground as far as writing and creativity are concerned, but his inclusion of women in the equation is only a prototype and rather primitive, ripe for revision by Sinclair and other feminists. Gissing is more concerned about the proper mate and intellectual companion for a literary man, and he does a good job of staking out this initial view of the territory. He picks up on the frustration and cross purposes of the Lydgate-Rosamund relationship of Middlemarch, and applies it to the world of literature, authorship, and educated women. This is a strong companion text to MM. There are lots of striking women characters and subtle moments, and considerable range between Reardon’s wife Amy Yule and her cousin, Milvain’s fiance Marian Yule, and Milvain’s own sisters, who he turns towards scribbling as means of supporting themselves. All of these women encounter severe economic challenges, which it seems for a time that they might write themselves out of like the men in the book are trying to do, but the men aren’t really even close to being successful (aside from Milvain), and Gissing refrains from giving any of the women a path to literary success either.

The greatest sympathy, it seems, goes out to the most benighted workers at literature, Edwin Reardon and Marian Yule. Gissing has deftly created a dark cross on George Eliot’s mismatched Middlemarch plotting, where Dorothea and Lydgate seem so well suited and close to each other, but always so far apart, and the happy young scribbler Ladislaw, needy in his own memorable ways, appears and generates moral choice. Remembering Ladislaw and his profession (vaguely, in my case) helps one realize how carefully Gissing is rewriting George Eliot, while going into a darker and more dangerous urban mileau, and trying to add the next generation’s extra layer of realism. There are deep echoes of Casaubon in both Edwin Reardon and Gissing’s aging man of letters, Marian’s father Alfred Yule. It’s only when one ponders Middlemarch, however, that it’s possible to realize that the sympathetic side of the Dorothea-Lydgate relationship in this case isn’t Milvain and Amy Reardon, which provides the novel with its conclusion, interestingly enough. Instead, most subtly, it’s Edwin Reardon and Marian Yule, a perfectly-matched pair that never even occurred to me as I was reading, and a couple that never meets or crosses paths, despite the virtually incestuous proximity of the principal characters in the story.

Marian Yule’s attitude and fidelity, to her father and mother and her errant fiance, is a contrast to the line of poverty that Amy Reardon refuses to cross as her husband Edwin descends into the darker alleys of Grub Street. Gissing does a good job of mixing our sympathy, as Amy is supportive of Edwin and helps him to have a final opportunity, raising enough money for him to go away to an isolated spot to write a worthy book. But destitution and Grub Street itself seem to have a hold on Edwin, and his inability and unwillingness to try to continue writing is rather profound and meaningful. He resists feeding the literary machine any further, even though he knows this course will lead to his doom. He’s also despairing because Amy won’t join him in poverty; it’s as if he needs her prodding and understanding to incite, support, and sustain his creativity. Marian Yule, in contrast to Amy, draws no distinctions about poverty and economics. Jasper Milvain, on the other hand, is completely independent, or at least he is after receiving the support of a sacrificing and dying mother, necessary to making his start. Milvain and Amy Reardon are in perfect agreement and sync, and the novel’s plot seems to be a grand engine running on the suffering and sacrifice of other characters in order to bring them together at the end.

Gissing’s book has all sorts of good details about the world of literary actrivity, and a number of telling and engaging characters. My personal favorite was Reardon’s Grub Street mate Biffin, who has a Dickensian charm and pluck in the midst of great adversity. Biffin is both the poorest of the poor and purest of the pure, and his solidarity and sympathy for not just Reardon, but also his own worship of Amy Reardon, is touching. His realist literary project, the composition of “Mr. Bailey, Grocer” is both amusing and serious, and he even plays the unlikely hero in a thrilling and telling third act sequence when he saves his precious, just-finished manuscript from a fire. Biffin’s rescue of his manuscript both drives the novel towards its ironic conclusion and makes a grand statement about literary production and authorial identity and meaning: Biffin’s manuscript, he knows, has a much greater value to him than his own life, which he is more than willing to sacrifice in order to save it.

So yeah, this was a rich, great, highly enjoyable and thought-provoking book, perfectly timed for my own reading satisfaction. It has definite late Victorian design and lineaments, but if you’re willing to accept those or perhaps enjoy them, it’s a very worthwhile read. I’m eager to learn a bit more about Gissing and the criticism and standing of this book, as zhiv’s introduction to my Penguin edition is from 1985 and a bit thin and dated. NGS is also a player in the discussion of realism, a companion to W.D. Howells without the teacups, seemingly well-aware of Flaubert and Zola, but unwilling to press quite so far, while fascinatingly making the composition of realist fiction an important element of the text itself. All of that would seem to me a theoretical goldmine well-worth exploring. Lastly, despite setting some key limitations on the gender side of authorship, NGS contains a rich and even stunning example of a specific deeply engendered literary relationship, in the case of father and daughter Alfred and Marian Yule. As my own daughter and I are studying, and even enacting and writing about this topic, I’ll save my notes and thoughts on it for a separate post.

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