Thoughts After Reading George Gissing's 'New Grub Street,' May 5th 2006
New Grub Street, George Gissing’s stinging novel about desperate writers of Late-Victorian London is probably not the healthiest recommendation if you want to hold onto your deep-seated conviction that hard work pays off. Especially if you read it during the winter, and you are 36, and you are in your more-shabby-than-chic apartment with serious water damage and diseased pigeons that are nesting in your roof and make scratchy noises while you try to sleep, and you have had four pieces killed by magazines in two weeks. You will nod in recognition and those conspiratorial, fuming steam pipes in your brain will clang into activity.
You will relate a little too well to Edwin Reardon, the hard-working, saturnine novelist, as you watch the delicate equilibrium of his self-confidence dissolve after a series of rejections, financial blows and bad decisions until his wife leaves him and he gets tubercular. And you will find yourself grunting in coffee shops like a bitter old man while you follow the effortless, heartless ascent of his colleague Jasper Milvain, a self-confident Kaanya Vishnathan type who convinces the public that his bottomless ambition is a kind of artistic integrity.
Reardon toils away for hours on a book he loathes but he thinks will “sell” and then he is essentially driven insane when it doesn’t while Jasper works about an eighth as hard, making repulsively marketable career moves that echo in today’s literary circles with Pro-tools clarity. He stirs up a literary dogfight and then strategically retreats to the outer edge and quietly watches everyone damage eachother’s careers. He helps a friend start up a easy-to-digest magazine called “Chit-Chat” for “the quarter-educated.” He gets his sisters work writing pious stories for women – the chick-lit of its time. His boundless energy and gladhanding good nature makes you want to light his hair on fire. This ill-will is confirmed when he begins treating women with the same opportunistic remorselessness he treats literature. He flirts and courts Marian Yule, an intelligent, virtuous and daughter of a blustery and beleaguered critic, and then leapfrogs over her lower-middle class head when offered more lucrative social advancement.
Gissing knows you are waiting for even the slightest hint of retribution, and provides absolutely none for neither Reardon nor his even more sympathetic and even poorer friend Biffen, who lives in a one-room hovel, has one coat and spends years on a book about a vegetable stand owner. Of course his novel bombs too. At the end of New Grub Street, the characters you so wish would at least step in horse dung or suffer a minor burn, don’t. Instead they relax in their luxurious home, and happily agree “isn’t the world a glorious place…for rich people?”
I don’t know why exactly I needed to read about all this when I can just open up the paper and find another success story about a machinating Mark Burnett-style entrepeneur making bank. But as bleak as it is, there is something comforting in knowing that the market has always been craven. New Grub Street airs out those dark, spiteful parts of yourself that you try to contain with modern-day self-help affirmations about “staying positive and good things will come to you! Tee hee!”
Unless you are as remorseless as Milvain himself, by the end you will be forced to admit to your own ambitions, how you secretly tally your small successes, hoard those little casino chips of accomplishment, and fantasize you will cash in someday and live fabulously tan and half naked like Paul Bowles or WS Merwin. Then, emptied of all these expectations, you will, hopefully, still realize that you have something to say, and your hands will somehow still want to type them out, regardless of how many kill fees
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