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Pierre Coustillas and Patrick Bridgwater. George Gissing at Work: A Study of His Notebook "Extracts from My Reading." The 1880-1920 British Authors Series, No.. Greensboro: ELT, 1988. 187 pp. $25.00.

In its plan this work falls somewhere between a critical edition and a booklength study. The authors have edited an item from Gissing's unpublished miscellany, a new addition to previously published manuscript materials such as Gissing's diary (1977), his Commonplace Book (1962), and several volumes of correspondence. Gissing's excerpts from his reading, over 166 usually short passages recorded mostly between 1880 and 1885 (during the earliest phase of his novel writing career), have been numbered and annotated, not, however, with conventional footnotes but with unusually full commentaries, some of them short essays of four closely-printed pages that interrupt at intervals the list of quotations. Each commentary furnishes all that can be known about Gissing's sources, his use of them in his works, or references to them in his letters, and explains furthermore the significance of the quotation or author (or both) to Gissing's changing outlook. The authors are even able to supply the dates on which a few quotations were recorded. Their helpful Introduction assesses the relationship of these extracts to Gissing's writing habits by way of a suggestive contrast to Hardy's often inept use of his reading. The excerpts contain no surprises: Gissing is preoccupied with existential views regarding life, love, and death, and with the role of art and the artist. He preferred writers (not surprisingly, given his own negative, depressive sensibility) who embraced [End Page 792] "the whole of life" and yet were engaged much as he was by high ideals and moral issues. The magisterial Goethe, who meets both requirements, was one of his favorites: he is the most frequently cited author (twenty-six entries). Carlyle, whose chronic discontent makes him Gissing's kindred spirit, is another. Significantly, Schopenhauer is not quoted, nor is that life-embracing favorite of his, Charles Dickens. The extracts, Coustillas and Bridgwater conclude, representing authors such as Ovid, Schiller, and Landor, reflect the considerable extent of Gissing's "literary culture."

Much labor has gone into this study; Coustillas and Bridgwater have been systematic, thorough, and at times exhaustive, perhaps at times too much so: it is difficult to imagine how the study could be more complete. They have enshrined what is, however, a very slight and not particularly useful piece of memorabilia. Not every word a writer utters has value or deserves such minute exegesis. In justification of their undertaking, the authors explain that with such materials as the Extracts we may "overtake the novelist" and "determine how the book was put together. . . ." The argument is familiar. However, the belief on which it rests, that we can indeed retrace the evolution of a novel or the creative process in general, is surely an illusion, and that we should attempt the task is therefore by no means self-evident. Coustillas and Bridgwater, in any case, do not overtake their novelist. When they depart from recording information, they interpret the appositiveness of a citation or its author to Gissing's known views. In this they are guided by their endorsement of these views (those of an uneasy positivist socialist) and their sense of Gissing's personality, which they defend. Obviously, in his choice of authors Gissing reveals certain predilections and interests: Gissing was attracted to Ruskin and Carlyle, Coustillas and Bridgwater explain, because of their bookish idealism, not their metaphysics. On the other hand, they are not certain why Gissing should turn to Pascal's Pensées from which two citations were copied. Again, the extract, "Character is Fate," reappears in one of Gissing's sketches. But whether it was copied from Novalis or an English treatment of Heraclitus is unclear; the aphorism nevertheless reflects Gissing's settled view on the subject. In thus commenting on the significance of these extracts, the authors are not so much reconstructing a creative process as identifying the intellectual currents to which Gissing was attracted and from which he sometimes drew for inspiration. Because he was a novelist of ideas and clearly...

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