Saturday, November 24, 2007

The New "New Grub Street"

I read mostly crime books -- by choice or occupation. But once a week or so I make time for something with no crime at all in it. "Grub" is my current flame, an updating of George Gissing's classic about Victorian era publishing that is beautifully written (a large number of scenes beg to be read aloud, even if you're alone) and brilliantly faithful to the original.

Here's what my edition of New Grub Street says on its back cover: "The once despised commercial hacks of Grub Street are now in the ascendant, and there is little call for writing of artistic merit. Sensitive novelist Edwin Reardon thought his reputation was safe, but poverty undermines his temperament and he finds it increasingly difficult to produce anything marketable. As his fortunes dwindle his marriage founders, and the future belongs to such as Jasper Milvain, a self-seeking writer of facile reviews who has no real interest in literature as an art form but thrives by manipulating public opinion..."

Elise Blackwell, who acknowledges her large debt to Gissing, moves the scene to present-day New York, where Reardon becomes Eddie Renfros, Milvain turns into Jackson Miller, Eddie's wife Amanda is not only increasingly disillusioned by his failure but driven (very hard and very fast) to become the most original character in the novel. Writers will recognize themselves in every character -- even the obsessive Henry Baffler who jumps from a burning building to save his only copy of an unreadable novel.

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