Thursday, February 24, 2005

New Grub Street, by George Gissing

This book comes on recommendation from George Orwell. The Modern Library Classics edition I picked up even has a blurb from Orwell hovering at the top of the book. I recognised the quote immediately. It's from one of his letters. Orwell did not get to read all of Gissing's novels, and was always scrounging around trying to locate out of print editions. My Yarra-Melbourne library chain only has two of his novels, New Grub Street and the Emancipated.

'The most impressive of Gissing's books,' Orwell writes of this novel. Anyone who has read Keep the Aspidistra Flying, and to a lesser extent A Clergyman's Daughter and Coming up for Air, will see why. Gissing's main preoccupation is money, money, money. And sex and money. In Keep the Aspidistra Flying, the main character bemoans how you can't have a good love life without money, you just can't survive as a respectable member of society without it. Indeed, I wonder if Orwell read New Grub Street before writing that second novel. It seems almost like a mini-version of New Grub Street.

Anyhow, onto New Grub Street. You'd have to almost describe it as a loser's bible, which makes it pretty much a literary one off. The book's main theme, gone over in agonising, humiliating detail, is the drudgery of getting money (especially by writing), the race to attain social standing, and the many who fall by the wayside. There is one death (Edward Reardon), one suicide (Harold Biffen, a realist author) and a host of other miseries.

The main hard, cruel lesson of New Grub Street is that selfish go-getters who don't put a premium on morality are the ones who will get ahead in society and be lauded to he skies. One of the main characters, Jasper Milvain, exemplifies this ethos. Indeed, on the first page he cheerfully announces, 'There's a man being hanged in London this moment'! He then goes on to describe how his fellow writer Edward Reardon is not doing too well. This pretty much sets up the plot - Edward Reardon is a doomed man, and you know that Jasper Milvain will go from strength to strength.

To make matters worse, Edward Reardon has married a woman who believes he, as a writer, is on the up and up, and it is this belief that cements (at least for her) the marriage. Yet Reardon has difficulties completing his novels, until eventually he gives it away and lowers himself by taking on menial work. This his wife finds intolerable and leaves him. Later, as further events take place, she re-marries, choosing this time the more worthy Jasper Milvain.

The book is written in a fresh, open style, with terrific economy. It begs to be read quickly. Gissing wrote it in some two months, at about the age of 34 (as far as I can make out), which is quite astonishing, considering its maturity and subject matter. You'd expect some jaded burnt-out in their sixties to have written it.

New Grub Street is much the life that Gissing led as someone who lived by their writing. He was poor, and made several disastrous marriages. The pointless drudgery of writing for money is beautifully exemplified in this quote, describing Marian Yule's job of going to the library everyday to help work on her father's 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.'

Or here is Gissing's take on the nastiness of not having money. He describes a woman who treats her staff like crap:

'In dealings with other people whom she perforce employed she was often guilty of incredible meanness; as, for instance, when she obliged her half-starved dressmaker to purchase material for her, and then postponed payment alike for that and for the work itself to the last possible moment. This was not heartlessness in the strict sent of the word; the woman not only knew that her behaviour was shameful, she was in truth ashamed of it and sorry for her victims. But life was a battle. She must either crush or be crushed.'

Surely, no Australian writer would write of middle-class life in such a manner today.

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