Italy and George Gissing: A Geocritical Approach
From Firenze University Press Book: Rewriting and Rereading the XIX and XX-Century Canons
Luigi Gussago, La Trobe University, Australia
Readers and commentators are often tempted to pry into the works of their revered authors in search of hints that may disclose their intimate lives. George Gissing is no exception, to the point that his personal misfortunes have often overshadowed his undeniable literary talent. As a matter of fact, he produced remarkable works that cast new light on urgent social issues such as the pitfalls of both industrialism and social reforms (Demos, 1886), the advent of a literary body corporate that crushes artistic talent (New Grub Street, 1891), or the condition of single women painfully aspiring to obtain emancipation (The Odd Women, 1893). Still, Gissing’s fate as the “spokesman of despair” (Findlater 1904, 733) accompanied him throughout his life and beyond. At times dismissed by his contemporaries as “drab and dreary and depressing”1 , his novels were partly rediscovered half a century later thanks to George Orwell’s short but memorable sketches devoted to the author in 1943 and 19482 . Following these assumptions, the present chapter intends to contrast Gissing the man and novelist with his fictional world.
In fact, although autobiography features largely in his narratives, fiction succeeds in taking new directions, almost beyond the author’s own expectations. It even provides an existential added value through the characters’ experiences. In other words, Gissing’s works, even his non-fiction, are far from simple autobiographical mises-en-scène. Rather, they evidence how narrative places — especially Italian ones — are much more than paratexts, or sketches taken from real locations. Quite the opposite: the textual depiction of recognisable locations even adds new elements to the appraisal of place itself. To this purpose, the analysis will focus on the representation of Italy as a geocritical entity in both Gissing’s life and writings. First of all, the adjective “geocritical” needs to be clarified. Westphal coins the term “geocriticism” to explore the multiple connections which texts establish with the physical surroundings they describe, and how the human gaze constantly recreates and reshapes the “real” through texts.
Robert T. Tally Jr, the English translator of Westphal’s La Géocritique, defines geocriticism as a discipline that “attempts to understand the real and fictional spaces that we inhabit, cross through, imagine, survey, modify, celebrate, disparage, and on and on in an infinite variety” (Tally 2011, x)3 . The object of geocriticism is then to investigate how even the supposedly referential world, the “real”, is an object of representation: in line with Vattimo’s “pensiero debole”, Westphal affirms that, since the second half of the 1900s, “sembra che si sia accorciata la distanza fra reale e finzione” (ivi, 266). In contrast with the structuralists’ view of a self-contained text, geocriticism aspires to trespass this limitation, starting from the assumption that even the real world around us is often fictionalised, as much as the fictional world is “made real” through symbols, simulacra, intertextuality, and so forth. The consequence of this requalification of the real is that literature is allowed to draw closer to the real itself. Westphal maintains that “[…] il n’est plus dit en pleine ère postmoderne, que le monde de ciment, de béton ou d’acier soit plus ‘vrai’ que le monde de papier” (2007, 13).
Keeping in mind the fluid separation between real and fictional spaces, what kind of connection subtends the literary representation of a place and its “referent” in reality? Westphal identifies three kinds of relationships: a literary space can transpose the real in a sort of “contrat toponymique” (2000, 20); transfigure it; create an “alien” place that denies any real one. He specifies that the links between texts and places are variable and fluctuating like sandbanks around the islands that form an archipelago. What is more, defining the basis of the geocritical discipline, he points out that “une nouvelle lecture de l’espace devra avoir pour condition l’abandon du singulier; elle orientera le lecteur vers une perception plurielle de l’espace, ou vers la perception d’espaces pluriels” (ivi, 18).
He argues that the object of geocriticism is therefore the trinomial “espace-littérature-espace”, in which “l’espace se transforme à son tour en fonction du texte qui, antérieurement, l’avait assimilé” (ivi, 21). In other words, even the referent of place, the “real” object, never stays the same, and is never what we expect it to be. A similar point can be made about the rendering of Italy in Gissing’s works, not only in terms of space covered, but also in terms of time and narrative structure. In many passages of his travelogue, Gissing clearly expects to see real historical sites as a faithful materialisation of their ancient foundation myths. He searches for an identity between imagined and referential spaces which cannot happen. At times, he realises the vanity of his efforts and confesses a sense of unjustified superiority, of “tourist vulgarity” (Gissing 1996, 82). He seems to be unaware that, through his texts, he has contributed to define a new point of reference in reality4 . In other words, this sets the theoretical foundation for a discussion on the relationship between Italy as a physical, referential place and its fictionalisation in George Gissing.