FROM THE PULPIT
D J TAYLOR
whose lives are worth reading about has shrunk to the point of extinction. By and large the group of British writers whose careers appealed to the book buyers of the late twentieth
L I VES LESS ORDINARY
I DON’T SUPPOSE the Gissing Journal (a snip at £20 for a twoyear subscription) has a particul ar ly extensive c i rculation. Nonetheless, to anyone beguiled by the work of this most austere of late-Victorian novelists, it is the spiritual equivalent of a copy of Ruff’s Guide to the Turf laid before a prospective backer of the Derby. And so it was with a twitching hand that I turned its sedulous (and occasionally rather combative) pages the other month to discover that an event fondly anticipated these past twenty years, and so often postponed as to provoke grave doubts as to whether it would ever happen at all, is finally about to take place: nothing less than the publication, in three mammoth volumes, at exorbitant cost, by Picker ing & Chatto, of Professor Pierre Coustillas’s definitive biography of the great man.
Do I exaggerate? No. For Gissing-fanciers – a select but tenacious band – it is the consummation of a longcher i shed dream. Coustillas, you see, i s the doyen of Gissing studies, the man who, as long ago as the 1960s, kick-started the Gissing revival with a series of new editions of his novels, before hastening to edit his compendious diaries, his commonplace book, a sumptuous nine-volume edition of his letters, a 600-page bibliography and much else besides. ‘Gissing,’ Professor Coustillas might reasonably proclaim, ‘c’est moi.’ It is a safe bet that no book published this year is going to give me as much pleasure as this account of gloomy George’s storm-crossed childhood in Wakefield and his literary apprenticeship in the garrets of the Tottenham Court Road.
And yet Coustillas’s half-century long endeavour reaches its climax at a time when the genre which it ornaments – literary biography – is popularly supposed to be in crisis. As with the widely canvassed decline in educational standards, evidence for this cataclysm is sadly anecdotal, but put half-a-dozen titans of the trade together in a room, usually at one of the ‘life-writing’ conferences sponsored by university English departments, and they will generally agree that fewer literary biographies are published these days; that publishers seem much less keen on sponsoring them and paying decent advances to their authors; and that a reading public which in the past was prepared to be entertained by books about Shaw, Greene, Waugh and the Bloomsberries has either ceased to exist or moved on to something new. Major figures are still saleable – next year, for example, will bring a wave of Dickens books to mark his bicentenary – but any literary agent trying to convince a publisher of the need for a new life of C P Snow, Angus Wilson or Hugh Walpole might just as well not bother to send the email.
A glance at the recent history of literary biography suggests that each of the above is a symptom rather than the explanation itself. It is not that people don’t want to read writers’ lives any more, merely that the number of writers century were born in the period 1900 to 1910. They included, to name only the obvious ones, George Orwell (five full-length biographies), Evelyn Waugh (three), Graham Greene (at least four) and Auden, Spender and Isherwood, each of whom has been positively smothered under biographical or autobiographical blankets. The point about the members of this golden generation is that they became writers in an age before their craft had been fully professionalised – a time at which it was possible to lead lives that weren’t exclusively focused on the business of writing. Orwell, Waugh and Greene, for example, could claim to be ‘men of action’ in the Malraux sense – travelling extensively, fighting in wars and spending large parts of their existence beyond the not terribly exciting boundaries of the study.
From the biographer’s point of view, a comparison between the life of a writer born, say, in 1950 and one born in 1900 is always going to be deeply injurious to the babyboomer. Just as the ghosted life story of the Premiership soccer player Lee Fredge will always be constrained by the fact that he follows the same career-path as his coevals – grows up, gets picked for Fulchester FC, meets the lovely Mrs Fredge, ‘has words’ with ‘the gaffer’ and moves on either to celebrity or notoriety – so the modern novelist merely takes his A-levels, studies creative writing somewhere and then sits down to begin a lifetime at his or her desk. There may possibly be the odd frisson in the private life, but that, essentially, is that. It is no disparagement of such modern grandees as Ian McEwan or William Boyd to wonder what, exactly, you would put in their biographies. Even Richard Bradford’s for thcoming life of Martin Amis – a genuine public figure in an age when most novelists are not much more than tangential irritants – looks as if it will have trouble surmounting this hurdle. Meanwhile, there remains a tiny handful of literary lives that are crying out to be written up for the public edification but whose appearance is stymied by disobliging estates – the most obvious being J R R Tolkien, whose solitary biography, by the late Humphrey Carpenter, was blue-pencilled into coyness by Tolkien’s heirs whenever it strayed into the vexed territory of ‘Tolkien the man’. To go back to the subject of Pierre Coustillas’s three fat volumes, Gissing endured poverty, married a prostitute, and devised an exacting personal mythology based on his ‘exile’ from late-Victorian society. His modern equivalent, who teaches at the University of North Staffordshire, doesn’t possess a tithe of his resonance. Not his fault, of course, but as with so many other aspects of contemporary life, we get the biographies we deserve. ❑
LITERARY REVIEW May 2011