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David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: misery (page 3 of 4)

Thomas Bernhard: Extinction

This, Bernhard’s last novel, does not, I think, deliver on its title. It may be intentional. It is the title of the novel the narrator, Murau, wishes to write but cannot, and it is what he wishes for his Nazi-poisoned family estate, which he has somewhat unhappily inherited after the sudden deaths of his parents and brother. The word “extinction” promises an uncategorical end and cessation, and a finish in type, not just in instance. It is something that Murau seeks even as he leaves his own tainted legacy.

Bernhard’s career divides into three rough, overlapping segments. There are the early, more surreal works like On the Mountain and Gargoyles; the hermetic, philosophically engaged works like Correction, The Lime Works, and perhaps The Loser; and the late works such as Woodcutters, Old Masters, and Extinction which take place much more specifically in the real world. Extinction, Bernhard’s last novel, fits squarely in the last category, and Murau shares with the other late narrators his complaints about modern Austria and Catholicism, as well as an alternately comical and nightmarish tone of incessant ranting. Where Old Masters and Woodcutters were content to examine the objects of their narrators’ wrath (painters and actors, respectively), Extinction is Bernhard’s attempt to transmogrify the anger of his late work into an elusive, self-reflective statement. Because the fury is mostly unrelenting, and because Bernhard is hellbent on letting no one, readers or characters alike, take the easy way out, Extinction‘s depth is not obvious, but there is far more method here than in any other late Bernhard work.

Murau has cut himself off from his family and sought to establish an intellectual life as a tutor in Rome. In the first half of the novel, he reflects on the spiritual, intellectual, and moral impoverishment of his family to his student Gambetti. He only has respect for his Uncle Georg, who similarly cut himself off from the family and helped Murau to save himself. In the second section, he returns to his family’s estate, Wolfsegg, for the funeral, as well as to determine the disposal of the estate, which is now in his hands.

Murau’s intense dislike of his family is immediately apparent, but even as Murau complains, he employs a strategy of postponements. It is not until the end of the first half that we learn that he thinks of his family (and indeed, all of Austria) as Nazis, and even here he is vague and rhetorical:

For the National Socialism of my parents did not end with the National Socialist era: in them it was inborn, and they continued to cultivate it. Like their Catholicism, it was the very stuff of their lives, an essential element of their existence; they could not live without it…By nature the Austrian is a National Socialist and a Catholic through and through, however hard he tries not to be. (144)

The generalities, the conflating of Catholicism and Nazism, the uncategorical dismissals: it is not until he arrives at Wolfsegg that we find out what he neglected to tell Gambetti. He is irritated with his sisters and brother-in-law, but then he changes tack:

The people I was afraid of were the two former Gauleiters who I knew had announced their intention of attending the funeral, and the fairly large contingent of SS officers, whom I had once believed to be long dead or at least to have received their due punishment, but who, as I learned some years back, had gone underground and remained in contact with my family for decades, with my parents and many other relatives. They’ll use this funeral, I thought, to appear publicly again for the first time…I was actually afraid of the Gauleiters, not knowing how I should greet these friends of my father’s–first of all his school friends, or lifelong friends as he called them, and then those he remained in close touch with after the war, knowing them to be informers and murderers. Despite this knowledge he supplied them with a hiding place and food and everything they needed to make ends meet, as he would have put it. For years, it seems, he hid them in the Children’s Villa, though at the time we children had no inkling of this. I later recalled that for years we were not allowed in the Children’s Villa. There was a simple explanation for this: in the postwar years our parents used it to hide their National Socialist friends. (221)

For a few pages Murau drops Catholicism, drops the rage, and lets through fear and claustrophobia, and a good deal of specifics. The funeral turns out to be magnificently ghastly, Nazis in full regalia saluting their brethren, with Murau’s mother’s lover, a high-ranking archbishop, delivering empty words of praise. Murau is powerless and complicit. The wish for extinction is not met; rather, Murau has been avoiding truths and associations which discomfit and frighten him. The funeral is not so much an extinction as a coming-forth, as the Nazis and Nazi governors spring forward from Wolfsegg once more, out of hiding. For all the complaints of Murau, he has only touched on the horror of this climactic scene.

Murau’s guilt and repression and its relation to Austria and his parents is the central theme of the novel, but I want to focus on only one aspect of it, which is how Bernhard analyzes his own writing techniques to reveal their own evasions. As far as I know, Bernhard did this nowhere else in his work. And his foremost technique is that of exaggeration. After a rant about the utter falsity of photographs:

Without the art of exaggeration, I told him, we’d be condemned to an awfully tedious life, a life not worth living. And I’ve developed this art to an incredible pitch, I said. To explain anything properly we have to exaggerate. Only exaggeration can make things clear. (65)

It seems like a throwaway line, but later–much later–it returns. After the funeral, he stops by the open grave, and, now speaking to himself instead of Gambetti, he confronts himself:

The Children’s Villa affords the most brutal evidence that childhood is no longer possible. You have to accept this. All you see when you look back is this gaping void…You actually believed that your childhood could be repainted and redecorated, as it were, that it could be refurbished and reroofed like the Children’s Villa, and this in spite of hundreds of failed attempts at restoring your childhood, I thought. (302)

[Or read the whole thing.]

This then prompts him to remember two reflections he made to Gambetti (who has rarely been mentioned in the second half of the novel) in close succession. The first is a rant against three-ring binders. The second is a return to the subject of exaggeration.

We’re often led to exaggerate, I said later, to such an extent that we take our exaggeration to be the only logical fact, with the result that we don’t perceive the real facts at all, only the monstrous exaggeration. I’ve always found gratification in my fanatical faith in exaggeration, I told Gambetti. On occasion I transform this fanatical faith in exaggeration into an art, when it offers the only way out of my mental misery, my spiritual malaise…With some, of course, the art of exaggeration consists in understating everything, in which case we have to say that they exaggerate understatement, that exaggerated understatement is their particular version of the art of exaggeration, Gambetti. Exaggeration is the secret of great art, I said, and of great philosophy. The art of exaggeration is in fact the secret of all mental endeavor. I now left the Huntsman’s Lodge without pursuing this undoubtedly absurd idea, which would assuredly have proved correct had I developed it. On my way to the Farm, I went up to the Children’s Villa, reflecting that it was the Children’s Villa that had prompted these absurd speculations. (307)

Coming as it does after the funeral scene and his memories of the villa, this passage is easy to ignore, but it is the revelatory moment of the novel, when everything folds back upon itself. Murau has realized that he has been living in denial of his own implication in his family’s history, but here it dawns on him (but not on Gambetti) exactly how it has driven him to art, and poisoned him further. To Gambetti, and to Murau himself at the time, it must have seemed like another passing remark, an exercise in rhetoric, but Bernhard here gives it a far more sinister hidden meaning. Murau says, “it was the Children’s Villa that had prompted these absurd speculations”, and even in the double use of the word “absurd” he backs away from what he is saying. But he is talking about the void that he has created for himself, how, in the absence of confronting the activities of his family, his childhood has been made a void. And the technique he has used has been exaggeration combined with understatement. He has ranted about small things, about vague things, about petty things, and he has done it to survive, to spare himself the torture of his own self. Murau then incriminates all of art in this role of unjustified exculpation. To Gambetti, the “great” of “great art” was just that; when he thinks on the Villa, “great” comes to mean something new: criminal. I.e., art that has the power to make people pardon themselves for mortal sins. For example, an amusingly trivial rant about three-ring binders.

The presence of Gambetti, who laughs at his words and jokes with him, is crucial. Gambetti is Murau’s collaborator. His presence provides the mirror to the society of his parents, and reveals that Murau too has established an audience for himself (Gambetti says very little over the course of the novel) that unknowingly endorses his obfuscatory tactics. He stops speaking to Gambetti in the second half of the novel because Gambetti has been an agent in Murau’s self-deception, and it is at the very end of the novel that Murau realizes this, in reflecting on his past conversations with Gambetti. And this in turn allows Murau to write his Extinction, which is the book we are reading. In the light of this paradox, Murau’s very final gesture in the novel concerning the disposal of Wolfsegg (which I will not reveal), is a conflicted afterthought.

2.2.4 Place-Names: The Place: Albertine

I don’t have a great deal to say about the girls of Within a Budding Grove. Young Marcel’s impressions of them have as much to do with what he is looking for at that point in his life as with their individual personalities, and so he draws them coarsely and simply. Albertine is obnoxious, Andree is smart, and so on…it doesn’t make them unbelievable, but it places as much weight on Marcel’s impressions as there was on Swann’s fantasies of Odette in Swann’s Way.
The process repeats between Marcel and Albertine as it did with Marcel and Gilberte and Swann and Odette. After he first sees her:

Since my first sight of Albertine I had thought about her endlessly, I had carried on with what I called by her name an interminable inner dialogue in which I made her question and answer, think and act, and in the infinite series of imaginary Albertines who followed one after the other in my fancy hour by hour, the real Albertine, glimpsed on the beach, figured only at the head, just as the actress who “creates” a role, the star, appears, out of a long series of performances, in the first few alone. (917)

Albertine’s real presence, which is hardly overwhelming or even likable, eliminates a lot of his dreams, yet they have no deterrent effect on Marcel. On the contrary, he takes pleasure in the trivial discussions and cruelties of the girls, yet here is Proust talking about the loss of his rich image of Albertine:

As I drew closer to the girl and began to know her better, this knowledge developed by a process of subtraction, each constituent of imagination and desire giving place to a notion which was worth infinitely less. (933)

Proust’s analysis becomes so kaleidoscopic that it all but overshadows the main climax of the action, when Marcel makes a physical advance on Albertine and is rejected because she’s not that kind of girl. It’s meant as an indication of how Marcel’s own image of Albertine could not predict how he would act around her, nor did her own past actions and appearances give a foreclosed prediction of how she would react. Yet the moment-by-moment relativism is pushed to the point where this significant plot point recedes instantly, as, it is implied, Marcel retreats into his head.
His reaction after his advances are rebuffed is not that of the more emotional Swann, but detached reconsideration:

It was perhaps because they were so diverse, the persons whom I used to contemplate in her at this period, that later I developed the habit of becoming myself a different person, according to the particular Albertine to whom my thoughts had turned; a jealous, an indifferent, a voluptuous, a melancholy, a frenzied person, created anew not merely by the accident of the particular memory that had risen to the surface, but in proportion also to the strength of the belief that was lent to the support of one and the same memory by the varying manner in which I appreciated it. For this was the point to which I invariably had to return, to those beliefs which for most of the time occupy our souls unbeknownst to us, but which for all that are of more importance to our happiness than is the person whom we see, for it is through them that we see him, it is they that impart his momentary grandeur to the person seen. To be quite accurate, I ought to give a different name to each of the selves who subsequently thought about Albertine; I ought still more to give a different name to each of the Albertines who appeared before me, never the same, like those sees that succeeded one another and against which, a nymph likewise, she was silhouetted. (1010)

And it’s shortly after that note of disintegration that the second volume ends. Albertine is reduced to a specter, and everything that has just passed is the product of a character who is about to change, with his return to Paris. All that has gone on with Saint-Loup and Bloch, with Francoise and his grandmother, and with the young women, is left behind, as is the environment and the persona of Marcel that participated in creating the situations.
Again, what’s surprising is how subtly this despair and nostalgia creeps in, as well as the suggestion that attempting to hang on to those moments and recreate their circumstances that causes the deepest unhappiness. Superficially, he leaves Balbec peacefully, but the accumulating misery as he loses all that he gains, and as his later self in turn contextualizes it as though it were a dead specimen, gradually builds up into a terminal melancholy leavened only by the beautiful prose descriptions of past images.
That’s about it. While Swann’s Way ended with an inexplicable shocker revelation, Within a Budding Grove ends at the point where nothing could come as a shock any longer because everything is up for renegotiation. It’s not an auspicious point from which to launch 2000 more pages, and The Guermantes Way does retreat from these extremes in its early pages (what other choice was there?), but still, Proust’s terms from this vantage point look very bleak.

1.3.1 Swann in Love: Images

Paris, years earlier, as Marcel (the narrator and the author are nearly undifferentiable in this section) recounts the story of Swann’s unpleasant affair with Odette, a not-terribly-deep woman who is as incapable of returning his affections as she is of understanding them. So say Proust and Swann, in baroque language Odette probably couldn’t understand. Odette herself plays up her ignorance, calling herself “an ignorant woman with a taste for beautiful things.” Swann, unsurprisingly, falls for her and confounds himself with jealousy, and generally makes himself miserable over her long after she’s lost interest. This goes on for a while.
Despite the fact (it’s presented as objectively as can be) that Odette is beneath him, intellectually and socially, Proust presents Swann’s attraction to her as explicable, if only because the explanation takes up a good chunk of the two hundred pages of “Swann in Love.” Despite some editorializing that makes it clear that Proust is most in sympathy with Swann, the sympathetic air mostly arises from the description of the tiny details that captivate Swann, that keep his obsession going even as it wrecks his social standing.
It’s not a rational response that Swann has, obviously, but I’ve rarely read such a detailed itemization of the particulars that cause an irrational response. Part of this is my own bias: I’ve never been interested in stories that grow out of two characters’ de facto attraction to each other and consist of little but the misery they make for each other. Maybe I’ve been lucky to avoid experiences that would make me empathetic. Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together (the title is ironic) spends two hours showing a couple repeatedly breaking up and getting back together as soon as they forget why they broke up. They forget fast. The movie bored me. So the “hopeless love” angle isn’t one that I’m going to touch.
Elias Canetti’s Auto-da-Fe spends five hundred pages talking about how a bookish older man and his library are destroyed by his incredibly base housekeeper, whom he falls in love with and marries. It’s supposed to serve as a symbolic representation of nihilism destroying the cultured mores of the educated classes, but the book doesn’t work: the characters aren’t convincing, and the relationship less so.
Proust is better than that. Swann is foolish, he’s arbitrary, and he’s inconsistent, but for all the details, he seems sui generis; there’s never been someone who fell for another person quite in the way he does, though I’m sure some have come fairly close. Even when Proust goes off into theorizing, it is always about the particulars of Swann’s pathology, not about the sorrows of humanity. So Swann is as large to readers as he is to himself. There is so much detail about his particular tastes and preferences, particularly his attention to a single, small passage of music that he comes to associate with his love for Odette, that he’s not just another “mad love” character out of Ariosto behaving stupidly, but someone for whom his every action is justifiable, and someone whom I find reasonably comprehensible. He makes a mental image of that passage, knowing little about music or even about the piece’s overall structure:

He had before him something that was no longer pure music, but rather design, architecture, thought and which allowed the actual music to be recalled. This time he had distinguished quite clearly a phrase which emerged for a few moments above the waves of sound. It had at once suggested to him a world of inexpressible delights, of whose existence, before hearing it, he had never dreamed, into which he felt that nothing else could initiate him.

The phrase is not just music but is itself sui generis, as is Swann himself, as presented. The arbitratiness of his tastes, as with the choice of musical notes, is akin to the establishment of a private reality, not just the whims of an aristocrat. Whether his tastes are explicable is not meaningful, since they govern him like natural laws.
This approach accomodates one other crucial thing, which is inconstancy. Generally, even in someone like Flaubert, when a character changes a core opinion, it’s presented as a fulcrum, something that tips the balance and causes the novel to progress. That doesn’t happen here; inconstancy is made part of Swann’s being. He changes his mind about Odette several times; he gets fed up with her, he falls back in love with her, he allows himself to forget what she’s done, he replaces her with his ideal. The changes are rapid, but the constantly (and drastically) evolving mental processes of Swann don’t change much in his relationship with Odette; it’s only by the microscopic examination of his thoughts that you’re aware that his opinions are changing as much as they are. This could come off as arbitrary or inexplicable, but again, rationality is not the order of the day. Natural law is.

The Return of Philip Latinowicz, Miroslav Krleza

This novel is not what it appears to be. The pretty language and calm, depressed reminiscing give no idea of the grotesque violence that will end the story. Out of context, it seems pointless, but no, there is a reason to it. Krleza just waits a very long time to tip his hand.

Six years after The Return of Philip Latinowicz, Miroslav Krleza wrote On the Edge of Reason. Reason is an excursion into the tyranny of society that anticipates Camus’s The Fall: its style is lean and forcefully direct, and until the end, when it turns into a Communist polemic, it is a balanced indictment of the forces of justice in high society, and the tacit complicity of refined culture with the unseen brutality that feeds it. The Return of Philip Latinowicz is written in a drastically different style. The political and ethical content disappears, replaced by an obsessive, measured chronicling that owes much to Proust. The styles appear incompatible, not just contrary but totally independent. The answer is that Krleza is working against the style of Return even as he writes in it; the book undermines its seeming pretenses. Adopting Proust’s methods and talents, Krleza eventually uses them to mount an assault on him.

Philip is a morose, sedentary painter who returns to his provincial hometown in Croatia to search for inspiration. There is little that is actively bothering him, but there is nothing to suggest joy or involvement. The first third of the book is little more than a detailed chronicling of Philip’s senses as he wanders through the town. There are undercurrents of misery, nostalgia, and disgust, but they remain shadowed by the immanence of the description.

The detachment persists in the middle third, which is a series of detached childhood and adolescent memories with no clear direction to them. One acquaintance is followed for a while, then dropped, and another is picked up and dealt with. The lack of emphasis or acuity in the narration gives the writing a gauzy quality. It resembles Krleza’s contemporary Bruno Schulz, but while Schulz embraced a child’s view of illogical cause and effect, Krleza strips the rationality out of the text. The descriptions of childhood cruelty and classism don’t have any reaction at all associated with them, so the effect is disinterest, not pathos.

The ironic component is that a more “objective” description of the events, without Philip’s distancing tactics of attending to the smallest physical sensation, would be more traditionally provocative and more empathy-provoking. Even in translation, the style in The Return of Philip Latinowicz evokes Proust, but the goals are opposing. Proust wants to recreate the past as present through his writing; Philip is trying to remove himself from it. He thinks, in one of the rare moments that he lapses into generalization:

His idea of the infenalization of reality. This idea, doubtless a diabolical and unhealthy conception, was that in life phenomena have in fact no internal logical or rational connection! That life’s manifestations unfold and develop one beside another, simultaneously: with the sort of infernal simultaneity of the visions of Hieronymus Bosch, or Bruegel…The tall, grimy steeples with dragon’s heads, whitened waterspouts and marble behinds; and the fat Carolina; the English horses, bon jour, Monsieur, the voice of a caged jay,–and everything melting like the chocolate wrapped in silver paper, everything dragging along like Joe Podravec’s coach, everything foolish and swamplike as Pannonia itself!

It’s not a new sentiment, but it’s one that is difficult to pull off in fiction that has basic demands of narrative and interest. It’s even more difficult when the author (Krleza) does not agree with it. The first two thirds of the book are a beautifully written depiction of an attitude that Krleza finds poisonous, and a great attack on apolitical modernists from the inside. I don’t know to what extent Krleza uses Philip’s style in his other work, other than that it is totally absent from On the Edge of Reason, but his disapproval of its intent and its effects makes his mastery of it rather anomalous.

It’s in the last third that the book both falls apart and explains itself. Some of the earlier characters show up and play parts in a little psycho-drama. Philip casually gets involved with Bobocka, the wife of the miserable businessman Balocanski, and strings her along without realizing it (he comes to believe she’s manipulating him). A Greek named Kyriales shows up to assault Philip and anyone in range with Cioran-like nihilism. All of this ends very badly. The shock of the violent ending doesn’t sit well with Philip’s detached observations, Kyriales’ pompous meanderings, or even the melodrama of the love triangle, but that’s the point.

Krleza was a dedicated Communist, and his aim is to strip away the harmlessness and the intimate nature of philosophically-tinged bourgeois novel and replace them with brutality, which he considers to be more honest. In his speech and manner, Kyriales is a caricature of Naphta, from Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, full of piss and vinegar, spewing Hobbesian and Malthusian arguments to shut out all comers. Mann treated Naphta’s views with respect; I don’t think that Krleza does. They both meet the same suicidal fate, but in The Return of Philip Latinowicz, it seems more pointless than fitting, a waste of a good brain. Likwise with Bobocka and Balocanski and Philip himself, whose defects originate in an unwillingness to confront the basic artificiality of their existences. In this respect, it is closer to Szerb’s Journey by Moonlight than to any so-called “novel of ideas.”

Krleza ends the book with blood on the floor and all that has gone before torn up and dismantled. It is shamefully satisfying, especially to those who are tired of the much-vaunted life of the mind, but deeply disturbing.

New Grub Street, George Gissing

New Grub Street does not, as you would expect, justify its five-hundred page length, which gets padded with detours and subplots about inheritances and the melodramatic deaths of several characters, but it is very finely etched when it focuses on its two fundamental incompatibles: writing and money. Gissing is so relentlessly materalistic in his focus that the writer’s life looks inconceivably horrible by the end of the book: his characters exercise their meager talents towards prostitution or invisibility.

Gissing is similarly impersonal in discussing the rationales his characters give for writing, and the effect is savage, even when Gissing pleads for compassion. The overall impact is similar to George Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying, but that book’s Gordon Comstock is able to renounce writing for a happier career and existence, as Orwell himself did for a short period. Gissing is utterly fatalistic about people saddled with an artistic temperament.

It’s late 19th century London. Jasper Milvain writes witty crap for slick weeklies while Edwin Reardon toils in obscurity on unpopular, uncommercial novels before trying his hand unsuccessfully at hackwork. His friend Harold Biffen works on his self-proclaimed revolutionary work of social realism, Mr. Bailey, Grocer. Meanwhile, the elderly Alfred Yule writes academic literary essays that no longer appeal to the magazines, for which he recruits the uncredited help of his daughter Marian, who, it is implied, is the most talented writer of the lot, not that anything ever comes of it. All of them follow painfully predictable trajectories, enlivened by the unceasing machinery of thought, justification, and bitterness around their particular situations.

Gissing is so attuned to the peculiar and not entirely attractive self-indulgences of the decent, uncommercial writers that, fairly late in the book, he delivers a straight-up apologia for them:

The chances are that you have neither understanding nor sympathy for men such as Edwin Reardon and Harold Biffen. They merely provoke you. They seem to you inert, flabby, weakly envious, foolishly obstinate, impiously mutinous, and many other things. You are made angrily contemptuous by their failure to get on; why don’t they bestir themselves, push and bustle, welcome kicks so long as halfpence follow, make place in the world’s eye–in short, take a leaf from the book of Mr Jasper Milvain?

But try to imagine a personality wholly unfitted for the rough and tumble of the world’s labour-market. From the familiar point of view these men were worthless; view them in possible relation to a humane order of society, and they are admirable citizens. Nothing is easier than to condemn a type of character which is unequal to the coarse demands of life as it suits the average man. These two were richly endowed with the kindly and the imaginative virtues; if fate threw them amid incongruous circumstances, is their endowment of less value? You scorn their passivity; but it was their nature and their merit to be passive. Gifted with independent means, each of them would have taken quite a different aspect in your eyes. The sum of their faults was their inability to earn money; but, indeed, that inability does not call for unmingled disdain. (425)

To underscore his point, he then kills off both of them, Reardon by sickness and Biffen by pathetic suicide. He pleads compassion for these as others did for Little Nell, Tess, Sister Carrie, and the Rudkus family, which is not an unusual technique except that it is rarely deployed towards someone as seemingly gifted and spoiled as a rational, workaday writer. Gissing’s apologia is compassionate without being wholly supportive; he seems to realize he’s fighting a losing battle. And conspicuously absent from his case is any appeal to the utilitarian benefits of books and creativity, or to the transcendental nature of art. These virtues are, evidently, private. After a genuinely beautiful passage where Reardon describes a sunset in Athens, he says:

I am only maintaining that [this contemplation] is the best, and infinitely preferable to sexual emotion. It leaves, no doubt, no bitterness of any kind. Poverty can’t rob me of those memories. I have lived in an ideal world that was not deceitful, a world which seems to me, when I recall it, beyond the human sphere, bathed in diviner light. (370)

It is the paradox of the book that this, even next to Jasper’s craven instincts, is a more convincing case for Reardon than Gissing’s apologia, but only to people already inclined to be sympathetic to him. Many, even after reading both passages, will still feel more of an attraction to Jasper’s aims:

My aim is to have easy command of all the pleasures desired by a cultivated man. I want to live among beautiful things, and never to be troubled by a thought of vulgar difficulties. I want to travel and enrich my mind in foreign countries. I want to associate on equal terms with refined and interesting people. I want to be known, to be familiarly referred to, to feel when I enter a room that people regard me with some curiosity.

And how reasonable his aims seem. Reardon’s momentary bliss is the exception rather than the rule; mostly he is caught up in unceasing misery in which he writes more out of compulsion than for any pleasure. (Gissing spends a good deal of time discussing the almost physical anguish that he undergoes while attemping to write more commercially.) Following from the apologia, much of the book is an attempt to justify the fatalist view that Reardon, Biffen, and even Yule were destined to end up in their unhappy situations. The afflicted made no conscious sacrifice; they had no choice in their fates, so there is no tragedy. When he is the only one left standing, Jasper sounds a melancholy note of social Darwinist triumph, destined for moderate success and moderate fame, and the book ends, as though by default.

The most striking thing is how New Grub Street doubles back on itself, striving to become as unsentimental a tale of the arbitrarily unfortunate and fortunate as anything by Hardy (or Mr. Bailey, Grocer), but adding in melodrama and other plot machinations to keep things rolling. Gissing’s motives seem fairly uncontaminated, but his case is difficult: social realism and writers are an incongruous pairing, because, as Gissing mentions repeatedly, the average person will think the writers aren’t acting in good faith. Gissing counteracts this inclination through focusing in fine detail on finances and making occasional explicit pleas for mercy. But he has to let in some of the writers’ rationales, frivolous as they may seem, and he paints Jasper as a bad man to help elevate the unfortunates. Gissing’s strategies to maintain the balance between soaring, useless artistic success and hard social realism are at least as fascinating as the gloomy pronouncements on the London writing scene and the literary tastes of the plebes.

Ironically, New Grub Street is finally more effective than what I’ve read of his other, more Hardy-like books. While the particular Victorian miseries have transmuted and migrated, the self-deceptions and self-inflations of artists remain universals, as does the public’s lack of sympathy for those who sustain a Reardon-like existence off of the dole and arts council grants.

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