Book Notice: “New Grub Street” by George Gissing

George Gissing published “New Grub Street” in 1891.  I picked it up for free on the Kindle store and read it on my ereader, initially just as something to pass the time whilst I waited for another book to arrive.   Gissing’s novel starts off fairly slowly and I almost gave up, but I am rather glad I continued through to the end.  I’ve since learned that Gissing wrote the book at 4,000 words a day – I wasn’t even reading it at 4,000 words a day.  What a prodigious output.

I won’t go into too much depth in my review.  There are numerous plot summaries online, The Guardian has it at Number 28 in its “100 Best Novels” and there is a George Gissing journal that publishes four editions a year.  Clearly, people have a lot to say about him, which is good because Gissing has a lot to say about people.  There’s some good context on the book here at the University of Iowa. The people that fill New Grub Street are a mixed bunch of scholars, hacks, writers, ladies and gentlemen.  It is a world that is in its nascency: the world of ‘professional’ writers and a world where one must have ‘a few thousand a year’ in order to live a life of comfort.  To get this money, people write novels, write about novels, write about people who write novels, or marry into even more money which then proceeds to make enough interest that they can live off it.  Gissing is piercing when talking about money, about lack of money, about what money does when it is both present and absent, and his chief vehicle of satire is the mercenary and rather smug Jasper Milvain.  Edwin Reardon plays the role of the tragic talent crushed under the wheels of the free market, and many other incidental characters suffer at the hands of a system that has to be played.

What I want to talk about is New Grub Street as a novel of escape.  On the one hand it is entirely about escape – about fiction, writing – and on the other, it is about how there is often no escape – for the Reardons, the Judes, the working class boys who dream big.  More stylistically, Gissing allows the characters much in the way of mental relief and clarity when they have finally made up their minds and are freed from difficult situations.  The writing is light and airy and the mental states of the characters are rendered extremely well.

There are numerous quotes I could use (and I won’t list them: you don’t want me to do all the work for you, do you?) but here is perhaps one of the most telling.  It is the suicide of Biffen, towards the end of the book.  As soon as the ‘will to live’ that Biffen possesses is gone, his mood settles into something approach rhapsody.  You can find lots of these little eddies of ‘clarity of purpose’ in the book.

His mood was one of ineffable peace.  Only thoughts of beautiful things came into his mind; he had reverted to an earlier period of life, when as yet no mission of literary realism had been imposed on him, and when his passions were still soothed by natural hope.  The memory of his friend Reardon was strongly present with him, but of Amy he thought only as of that star which has just come into his vision above the edge of dark foliage – beautiful, but infinitely remote.  Recalling Reardon’s voice, it brought to him those last words whispered by his dying companion.  He remembered them now.  “We are such stuff  As dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”

And her effort, overcharged

“All the life of Miriam’s body was in her eyes, which were usually dark as a dark church, but could flame with a light like a conflagration. Her face scarcely ever altered from its look of brooding. She might have been one of the women who went with Mary when Jesus was dead. Her body was not flexible and living. She walked with a swing, rather heavily, her head bowed forward, pondering. She was not clumsy yet none of her movements seemed quite THE movement. Often, when wiping the dishes, she would stand in bewilderment and chagrin because she had pulled in two halves a cup or a tumbler. It was as if, in her fear and self-mistrust, she put too much strength into the effort. There was no looseness or abandon about her.. Everything was gripped with a stiff intensity, and her effort, overcharged, closed in on itself.” [my emphasis]

D. H. Lawrence, “Sons and Lovers”

Book Review, “Intermission” by Owen Martell

I recently finished Intermission by Owen Martell (William Heinemann, 2013).  I read the title as an ePub proof on NetGalley.  The publishers have struck gold with Martell, as long as they don’t push him to write a Dan Brown style thriller.  Think of Jon McGregor’s If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things but add a beautiful attempt at an American literary vernacular that’s straight from DeLillo and Didion.  He’s written two books in Welsh, and this is his first in English.  It is astoundingly, annoyingly well-written and the sheer attention Martell pays to every sentence is the real marvel here.  The book is for fans of meticulous, brilliant prose – lavish swathes of pinpoint description.  I looked up Bill Evans (I hadn’t heard of him but quickly realised he is kind of a big deal in the jazz world) but the novel isn’t so much about Bill Evans as about life and living, with Bill Evans as an interesting central figure – it is about the quotidian, the feelings we experience in our dealings with other people and how a life is lived in proximity to other lives being lived.  The cover and the blurb hint at a writer from the Don DeLillo school and as big DeLillo fan some of the descriptions in this book made me think fondly of great passages from White Noise, or Underworld.  Martell has some way to go but the reviewers that dismiss this is ‘humdrum’, ‘boring’ or ‘irrelevant’ (Amazon reviewers) just aren’t getting what the book is trying to do.  A brilliant English language debut novel that I’d genuinely encourage you to read.