Monday, December 10, 2012
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.
“NEW GRUB STREET” by George Gissing (first published 1891)
Reading Bianca Zander’s novel The Girl Below, I’m reading a novel that presents London in very ambiguous terms. Perversely, this leads me to present as “Something Old” a novel that presents London in downright depressing terms.
On this blog, I have already drawn attention to the work of the late nineteenth century social-realist novelist George Gissing (1857-1903) [look up Will Warburton on the index at right].
Gissing’s masterpiece is generally taken to be New Grub Street. Specifically set in the 1880s, this is a novel about the toils and drudgery of hack-writing and authorship for the marketplace. Its simple plot essentially contrasts the careers of three men.
Edwin Reardon is the conscientious novelist who tries to support himself by writing, but knows that he is forced to write rubbish to meet popular demand. To crank out a commissioned novel costs him pain and misery. His father-in-law Alfred Yule tries to earn a living by writing scholarly literary articles for high-toned reviews, his daughter Marian doing much of his research for him. Jasper Milvain is the younger, cynical and largely unscrupulous journalist who will pen anything on demand and whose one aim is to gain a profitable editorship. He sets his two sisters, Maud and Dora, to writing popular children’s works or whatever will sell.
Plot, such as it is, contrasts the decline and ruin of the conscientious Reardon and the fastidious Yule with the rise of the conscienceless Milvain. Alfred Yule goes blind and dies in obscurity. Edwin Reardon is reduced to such poverty by his lack of success that his wife Amy (nee Yule) separates from him. Jaspar Milvain proposes to Marian Yule when she seems about to come into a legacy, but breaks off the engagement when the legacy is not forthcoming. Instead he ends the novel prosperous, having won his editorship and married Reardon’s widow, who has herself inherited property. Obviously, in the New Grub Street, the unscrupulous prosper and the conscientious men of letters go down to penury.
At any rate, all this is what Gissing intends his novel to say, although its effect on readers is not necessarily what he intended. One difficulty is that while we are given, in heart-breaking details, Edwin Reardon’s difficulties in grinding out a three-volume novel for the market, we are never told what the novel is about (apart from the fact that Reardon regards it as rubbish) and we are never shown what types of things Reardon could write if he had the desire to do so and was not constrained by the marketplace. In other words, we are never fully convinced that a real literary talent is being strangled here. Sometimes Edwin Reardon comes to seem just another hack, albeit a more unhappy and unsuccessful one than Milvain.
Morally despicable though Milvain is, his very activity almost makes him an attractive figure. He knows how to look after his own material interests, while the scrupulous and correct Reardon is fatally passive – a victim of fate.
The atmosphere of the novel consists of the misery of London fog (what we would now call smog); paraffin lamps in the bare or under-furnished cramped accommodation that the hack-writers rent in dirty backstreets; headaches, sore throats and the sweaty delirium of writing to deadline regardless of circumstances.
There is no doubt that – as in many of Gissing’s novels – there is a huge dose of autobiography and not a little self-pity in this novel. The poverty Gissing knew personally. He recorded iy more than once in his work. His most devastating depiction of urban poverty is in the novel I would regard as his second-best, The Nether World, published in 1889. As for the self-pity, it gets full rein in another of his better novels, Born in Exile (1892), which is really a thinly disguised account of Gissing’s own failure to make a profitable career even after receiving a university education.
The point is, New Grub Street was originally ground out for publication under the very system that it condemns. Gissing had to write for money and to publishers’ deadlines, cranking out so many pages a day. In a way, knowledge of this adds to the pathos of the novel – so much of the flatly piled-up detail and the scrupulously-detailed dialogue was simply intended to pad out the volumes for which the publishers had contracted.
Yet the cumulative effect of this flat, realistic style befits exactly its subject-matter. The style is part of the novel’s meaning. Gissing does not do irony very well, though he tries for it. After Reardon has endured foggy London misery, Gissing has him die down in Brighton among happy holiday crowds. Then there is the irony of the literary encomia that are written on Reardon, once he is safely dead, by people who never helped him in life. There are also some jerks of melodrama that are almost welcome amidst the encircling gloom. There’s a scene where Marian faints dead away when she receives a letter saying she has no legacy. There’s another scene where an author rescues a manuscript from a house-fire by scrambling and leaping across the neighbouring house-tops.
Those au fait with Gissing will have the fun of recognising those passage that are echoed in other of his novels. New Grub Street has a very minor character called Harold Biffen who wants to write a completely realistic novel about an “ignobly decent” grocer – which is exactly what Gissing did some years later when he wrote Will Warburton (published posthumously in 1905). Then there’s the scene (in Chapter 5) where Edwin Reardon visits the home of a wealthy popular writer and reflects:
“He had had his first glimpse of what was meant by literary success. That luxurious study, with its shelves of handsomely-bound books, its beautiful pictures, its warm fragrant air – great heavens! What might not a man do who sat at his ease amid such surroundings.”
This passage, and the passage in Chapter 10 where Reardon has to sell his battered collection of second-hand books to pay the rent, very much foreshadow Gissing’s fantasia of old books and the easy literary life The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (1903).
More than anything, though, New Grub Street intrigues us by what it says about the book trade, much of which is just as true a century later. There is, for example, exposition of the way books are padded out by authors to make them look more considerable and hence more marketable, a process which a publisher-friend tells me is now called “bulking-up”:
“Description of locality; deliberate analysis of character or motive…. He kept as much as possible to dialogue. The space is filled so much more quickly, and at a pinch one can make people talk about the paltriest incident of life.” (Chapter 9)
Then there is this insight into the reviewing racket, where a character reflects:
“The struggle for existence among books is now as severe as among men. If a writer has friends connected with the press, it is the plain duty of those friends to do their utmost to help him. What matter if they exaggerate, or even lie? The simple sober truth has no chance whatsoever of being listened to, and it’s only by volume of shouting that the ear of the public is held.” (Chapter 33)
Most dispiriting of all, however, and in a way emblematic of the whole novel, is this sadly true passage, where Marian Yule, researching one of her father’s articles in a library, reflects on the pointlessness of writing books just for the sake of writing books:
“She kept asking herself what was the use and purpose of such a life as she was condemned to lead. When already there was more good literature in the world than any mortal could cope with in his lifetime, here was she exhausting herself in the manufacture of printed stuff which no one even pretended to be more than a commodity for the day’s market. What unspeakable folly! To write – was not that the joy and privilege of one who had an urgent message for the world? Her father, she knew well, had no such message; he had abandoned all thought of original production, and only wrote about writing. She herself would throw away her pen with joy but for the need of earning money. And all these people about her, what aim had they save to make new books out of those already existing, that yet newer books might in turn be made out of them? This huge library, growing into unwieldiness, threatening to become a trackless desert of print; how intolerably it weighed upon her.” (Chapter 8)
“Making books out of books”. Oh dear. I just have to enter a modern bookshop, a second-hand bookshop, a public or university library, and exactly the same sentiment overwhelms me.