Some people regard this as one of the classics of English literature. For me, it shows the distance between the very best - Austen, Eliot, Conrad, etc. - and the next best.
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.
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