New Grub Street (Oxford World's Classics) Paperback – 11 Dec 2008
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'his naturalism has an excoriating veracity; relentless in its judgements but fine as well in its attention to detail ... I have never learnt so much from a novel about the actual day-to-day life texture of life in late 19th-century London.'Janet Daley, The Times
New Grub Street (1891), generally regarded as Gissing's finest novel, is the story of the daily lives and broken dreams of men and women forced to earn a living by the pen. With vivid realism it tells of a group of novelists, journalists, and scholars caught in the literary and cultural crisis that hit Britain in the closing years of the nineteenth century, as universal education, popular journalism, and mass communication began to leave their mark on the life of intellectuals. Projecting a strong sense of the London in which his characters struggle, Gissing also illuminates 'the valley of the shadow of books', where the spirit of alienation that created modernism was already stirring.
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In many ways, it is a very good book. The milieu, clearly one with which Gissing was intimately familiar, is perfectly realised and, as documentation of the lot of a workaday author in late nineteenth century London, it would be hard to better, assuming we can trust the prejudices of the author.
Judged as a novel, however, it falls well below Middlemarch, Vanity Fair and The Way We Live Now. Its focus is extremely narrow, dwelling on the tiny contemporary population of London based novelists and literary journalists. Perhaps, I missed it, but there was little attempt to extrapolate from the lives of these members of the intellectual proletariat to those lived outside this charmed circle.
The main protagonist, Jasper Milvain, is beautifully drawn and I loved the way the author presents his shameless opportunism and casual betrayal of his fiance without moral judgement. In the author's eyes Milvain simply could not help himself, any more so than Aesop's scorpion. But Amy Reardon, who is crucial to the plot, is no more than a cipher and I could not believe in her transformation in the last pages of the book.
And then there's Reardon himself. In some ways, he is the jewel at the centre of the book, but he also incarnates its major weakness. Reardon is a caricature, a satire of art for art's sake. But it is a pusillanimous satire; Dickens or Thackeray would have taken the joke much further and to much greater effect.
Heaven knows the book could do with more humour! It's a very depressing tale, with many deaths and even more defeats. Gissing, being of the second rank both intellectually and in terms of literary quality, allows himself to wallow in this. I would like to see the rewrite by Oscar Wilde which, with greater lightness of touch and intellectual insight, would have had much more fun with the apparent dichotomies of the inaccessible literary masterpiece and the populist prose of the professional writer, of the over-educated and under-financed and the over-moneyed and the under-educated, and of those that aim for posterity and those that settle for the here and now.
If you have already read most of Dickens, Thackeray and Trollope (and/or Balzac and Zola for that matter), then this is a book for you. If not, I would start with the European Super League of Austen, Eliot, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Conrad and James, before moving on to the First Division of Dickens, Thackeray et al, and only then start on Second Division players like Gissing.
There is great competition to obtain a permanent post, hopefully an editorship, of one of the most prestigious publications, and climbing the greasy pole sometimes reveals the less appealing side of their characters. Selfishness, vanity and self-delusion frequently lead to feuds and squabbles over obscure literary matters, as well as strained personal relationships. (Not dissimilar to the petty squabbles that break out from time to time amongst some Amazon reviewers!) It is not always a pretty sight. Despite this, they remain faithful to their ideals as they see them and continue to write, even when they are living close to poverty in some cases and the future looks grim.
`New Grub Street' is usually considered Gissing's finest work and it is not difficult to see why. All the characters, their interactions, and the social conditions in which they work, are very well described. The story is developed in a calm way using a beautiful clear style that makes the reader have sympathy with the even the least likable characters. It is a depressing story, but also ultimately uplifting. Read it slowly and enjoy.