Diary

Ian Hamilton

Frank Kermode’s review of the new Gissing biography (page 9) brings to mind a project which I have long thought someone ought to tackle: a fearless update of New Grub Street. The job wouldn’t be too taxing – indeed, in many cases, it would be all too easy to attach contemporary names to Gissing’s sunken literary types: his principled dullards as well as his sleek chancers. And then there are the grim trappings of Gissing’s version of the Literary Career – the foundering periodical, the doomed synopsis, the already spent advance. All in all, the book’s whole world of seedy, profitless endeavour is worryingly up-to-date.

Even so, a Gissing of the 1980s would have to make some alterations. The curse of the three-volume novel, for example, sits heavily on Gissing’s greying hacks. In the 1890s the circulating libraries favoured three-volume editions of novels because readers who wanted to read on to the end would thus have to fork out three subscriptions. The publishers in turn put pressure on their authors to stretch out their plots. ‘Real money’ would be offered for a three-decker (enough maybe to keep your average scribbler for six months) whereas a one-volume offering would yield almost punitively dreadful rates of pay. In those days, a novel consisted of ‘920 pages with twenty-one and a half lines on each page and nine and a half words on each line’, and that was that. If you wanted to get all experimental, you could starve. Today, of course, with Public Lending Right, it might be that novelists will start getting their own back on the libraries – a resurrection of the three-decker could triple the author’s rake-off under this compassionate new scheme.

Two of the most touching moments in New Grub Street are when Reardon is forced to sell his books in an attempt to make ends meet – well, not meet, exactly, but at least set up some distant, mocking contact. In Gissing’s day, it seems, a dealer would visit the impoverished author at his by then semi-furnished lodgings and, for a handful of guineas, bear off the best of his prize leather-bounds – the only things the poor devil really cared about: real books, not like the rubbish he and his colleagues were obliged to churn out day by day.

Here again, I think, things may well have changed for the better. For most modern Reardons, these rending scenes will instantly evoke images of Chancery Lane – or, more precisely, that small alley off the Lane where generations of book reviewers and literary men have known the confused pleasure of securing the price of their next drink(s) in exchange for a mint copy of Giles Goatboy, or of swopping some multi-volume reissue of John Cowper Powys for a night out on the town.

The Chancery Lane idea is (or used to be) that you can sell off review copies for half their published price. The books had to be in really good condition (hence the loving care with which one would sometimes see a reviewer handling a text which that same day he had damned as ‘worthless’ in the public prints) and they had to be less than four months old. In the mid-Sixties, I remember, it was even possible to take poetry down the Lane, but I understand this is no longer so. In fact, rumour has it that things are altogether stickier now and that it is not unknown for a dealer to turn down some quite nicely priced volumes on the grounds that they are ‘boring’.

In the days when I used to go down there, though, he would take almost anything. And on Fridays the Lane would be alive with reviewers struggling in from Blackheath with their holdalls, or nipping round the corner from the Telegraph with a fistful of Robert Hales or Arthur Barkers. One esteemed figure at the Times used to order a taxi for noon on Friday and when it arrived he would have a flunkey load it up with art books and American encyclopedias. He would then squeeze in beside his booty and, with twinkling eye, instruct the driver to stop off in the Lane en route for Garrick Street, or Paddington. To the novice bookman with only a Catherine Cookson and a Roland Barthes between him and the workhouse this was indeed a stirring image of literary success. Gissing would have loved it.

Now and then, of course, one pondered the doubtful morality of these Friday expeditions. After all, these books were – presumably – sold off to public libraries for less than their published price. This meant that the author would not collect his 10 per cent (again, this was all pre-PLR). Thus, in the case of a book you had already savaged in the prints, here was an additional chastisement. Could this be just? But then, more creatively, it could be argued that the Lane simply provided an opportunity for one limb of the industry to help another, that pennies lost to the novelist brought pounds to the reviewer and that a healthy criticism could only mean a healthy ... and so on.

Of course, many novelists are themselves fiction reviewers, and several of the Lane’s best anecdotes are to do with novelist A catching novelist B attempting to sell A’s latest book. Along these same lines, I know of at least one reviewer who could not bear to take his swag along in person because this would mean him once again having to view a shelf-long stock of his own most recent publication: ‘It had such good reviews,’ he’d wail, ‘but now I know they didn’t mean it.’ A greenhorn, he had clearly not heard the one about the hapless scribe who was once seen shuffling down the Lane with a carrier-bag containing six ‘author’s copies’ of his brand-new ‘breakthrough’ novel. When quizzed, he said he wanted to celebrate publication day ‘in style’. Each of these yarns, it seems to me, could be gruesomely fleshed out by the author of my new New Grub Street. And if he cares to get in touch, I can tell him a few more.

On the topic of ‘the knocking-shop’ – as the Lane vendor was once widely known – I still can’t quite suppress a flicker of excitement when I come across a book like The Oxford Illustrated Guide to the United States. It has all the qualifications for a quick and unashamed dispatch to EC4: it is expensive, lavishly but boringly illustrated, virtually unreviewable except by someone as madly knowledgeable as its two editors, and almost entirely without point. Without point, that is, unless you really want to know that Thomas Wolfe rented a cottage in Boothbay Harbor in July 1929 or that Rex Stout wrote four short stories in a boarding-house in Burlington, Vermont or that in Bridgewater, Connecticut on 1 July, 1949 ‘Van Wyck Brooks and his wife moved to a house on Main Street in which they were to entertain many literary visitors. A Sunday supper they gave in 1957, for example, was attended by Norman Mailer, Katherine Anne Porter and William Styron.’ The authors call people who want to know this kind of thing ‘literary travellers’ and they plead that such travellers have in the past been handicapped by the lack of a guidebook that covered the whole of the United States. Well, I’m not sure how literary travellers travel, but they should perhaps be warned that for a guidebook of this size they should also pack a portable lectern. It’s about a foot square and almost five hundred pages long.

I wonder how the editors imagine their book will be used. Will the literary traveller work by place or by author? That is to say, will he happen to find himself in Blowing Rock, set up his lectern in the market square, then discover from his literary guide that yes-indeedy in this vurry town John Hersey wrote his Hiroshima? Or should we envisage a more dogged, gumshoe type – one who picks an author and then tracks him all the way from New Sybaris to Purgatory Pond? In either case, it is hard to fathom the rewards. I mean, what does one say or think on finding oneself outside the front gate of 61 Maeaug Avenue, New London, Connecticut: is it enough simply to know for certain that John Hollander lived there from 1957 to 1959? And what of the Auden sleuth who drag himself from campus to campus (‘W. H. Auden also taught here’ is the Guide’s usual formulation) and finally ends up at Swarthmore, only to be told: ‘He lived at various addresses, including 16 Oberlin Avenue, and often took his lunch at the Dew Drop Inn now the Village Restaurant, at 407 Dartmouth Avenue? No problem about where to eat, but even so ...

Leafing through the Literary Guide is rather like gawping impotently at the For Sale pages of Country Life, and it would be easy to get the impression from this book that American writers live only in mansions which are situated in spacious, leafy grounds, or pillared brownstones which look as if they’ve been borrowed from the mayor. Page after page of enviably huge residences are on show throughout. There are no garrets, no mental institutions. There are no obvious fleabags – although, since most of the pictures seem to have been taken with an estate agent’s camera, it is not always possible to slap a fair price on individual properties. The thinking here seems to be that, in addition to his thirst for history, the literary traveller will usually prefer staring at real estate that is worth staring at. A reminder, though, that even to this day, an American New Grub Street is not all that easy to imagine.

A final word on a book which, a few years ago, might have seemed a natural for the knocking-shop: a collection of weekly TV reviews, no less! I don’t think any punter worth his salt would have lost time shifting that kind of material along the Lane. After all, who wants to watch the stuff, let alone read about it a year later? If this view of the television critic has at all softened – and I think it has – then the chief credit must surely be given to Clive James. Glued to the Box[*] is the third and final collection of his Observer pieces and, along with its two predecessors, it will stand as a once-only critical phenomenon: ten years’ worth of high intelligence and wit scrutinising ten years’ worth of (in the main) ... well, you know what. James will think this is a snooty way of putting it, but there are few occasions in his book when he reveals himself to be in awe of the material he’s judging.

For myself, I read James more for the laughs than for the lectures on why Hot Gossip ought not to cavort in Nazi gear. I read him, too, for his lovable obsessions – with Barbara Woodhouse, with Sue-Ellen’s mouth, with David Vine, and with all things Japanese – and for his willingness to admit that vulgar stuff is best watched fairly vulgarly: ‘You would have to be dead not to be thrilled to bits by her.’ There is a good joke about every fifth page of this volume, and the best of them come when James is focusing on genuine, established trash. As a farewell tribute, one might ask: what critical account of The Poseidon Adventure could be more finely discriminating, more tirelessly thorough, more throbbing with felt life than the one James delivered back at Christmas, 1979?

Though at first it might appear to be an ordinary story about a luxury liner turning upside down and killing all its passengers except a handful of actors, The Poseidon Adventure (BBC1) has a solid connection with Christmas. The actors climb a Christmas tree in order to reach the floor of an inverted ballroom. I watched the film all over again just to count the number of times that Gene Hackman assisted the girl with the pretty behind by holding her hand, putting a protective arm around her shoulders, firmly gripping her waist or all three simultaneously. He copped 1,247 separate feels.

[*] Cape, 280 pp., £7.95, 25 November 1982, 0 224 02066 8.