Friday, January 19, 2007

George Gissing

Why read anything but George Gissing? One can’t read genre fiction all the time. If one isn’t reading a mystery or a science fiction novel, one might as well read Gissing. Not a likable writer. Too gloomy, too depressive. But one can’t put his books down. Unlike Dickens, he shows unrelenting poverty and the daily grubbing for money. New Grub Street is a masterpiece about writing junk for money. The Odd Women and In the Year of Jubilee portray women who must work for their living or starve. Marriage doesn’t prevent starvation. Men drink and are estranged from their wives, who struggle to raise children and sometimes also drink. These three novels are underrated like many notable realistic novels of the nineteenth century. Realism wasn’t quite the thing. Dickens was comic. Gissing has no sense of humor. The British weren’t happy about Zola, one of Gissing’s cherished writers. What novel did I read in which a Zola novel is taken away from a young woman? Something by Colette, perhaps My Mother's House. And Gissing reminds me so much of Zola.

Having spent the day in Gissing’s thrall, reading The Nether World, a novel about working-class London, I am pondering the editor Stephen Gill’s suggestion that the novel is based on Great Expectations. it seems so much more complicated. The characters include slum dwellers, orphans, alcoholics, factory workers, barmaids, actresses, and one wealthy old man who hopes to use his money to help the lower classes. No one can fight his or her way out of the Nether World. I am not reminded in any way of Dickens. There are no caricatures. Dickens could be dark, but not like this. Dickens was an entertainer. Gissing wants to educate.

Gissing began The Nether World after being called to see his estranged wife, who had died of alcoholism in a bare room. In his diary her wrote: “Henceforth I never cease to bear testimony against the accursed social order that brings about things of this kind.”

In the twenty-first century most American novels seem to be about the upper classes. Some American writers assume there is no class. One exception is Richard Powers’s The Echo Maker, largely set in Nebraska, about a working-class man who suffers from a rare neurological disease after a car accident. But Powers doesn’t quite capture the tone of working-class men in dialogue. The dialogue about sports and women could take place among any men. He can’t do class.

It’s very hard to do.

That’s why we might as well read Gissing.

Check out George Gissing Website

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