Thomas van Grafhorst maakte ons attent op het onderstaande stuk, oorspronkelijk gepubliceerd in The Gissing Journal van januari 1993. De auteur is gepensioneerd docent Engelstalige letterkunde aan de Universiteit van Amsterdam.
Geerten Meijsing, a Dutch Gissing Enthusiast
University of Amsterdam
When the Dutch publishers, Arbeiderspers, in 1989 brought out in their prestigious series of biographical works, Privé-Domein, a new1) translation of Gissing's Private Papers (George Gissing: De Intieme Geschriften van Henry Ryecroft ), 2) the name of its translator was quite familiar to those readers who are trying to keep up with the latest developments in the field of Dutch prose fiction. Geerten Meijsing (b. 1950) is one of Holland's most productive and intriguing young writers. His early work, characterized by a slightly precious style and the conscious adoption of a romantic decadent's pose, was published under the pseudonym of Joyce & Co and his fondness for mystification was later confirmed by the adoption of another pseudonym for his novel Een Meisjesleven (A Girl's Life, 1981), which he published under the (female) name of Eefje Wijnberg.
After winning the prestigious AKO prize for fiction (roughly equivalent to the English Booker Prize) in 1988 for his novel Veranderlijk en Wisselvallig (Changeable and Fickle), his name was recently on everybody's lips again after the publication of his roman à clef, De Grachtengordel 3) (The Ring of Canals, 1992). In De Grachtengordel he gives a penetrating and satirical sketch of the literary scene in Amsterdam, with its in-crowd of publishers, publishers' readers, aspiring and established authors, and the whiff of scandal surrounding its publication has contributed not a little to Meijsing's name becoming a household word in Dutch contemporary writing. His frequently professed identification with Gissing in this novel about the world of pushy authors jockeying for position takes the form of two Gissing quotations he has prefixed to it: “A Trade of the Damned” and “The Art of Fiction has this great ethical importance that it enables one to tell the truth about human beings in a way which is impossible in actual life” (Gissing's Commonplace Book ). From them one thing emerges clearly – Meijsing will be taking the measure of literary Amsterdam with a yardstick borrowed from Gissing. Two particular instances of Meijsing's more incidental allusions in De Grachtengordel to Gissing’s oeuvre must suffice. There is the inversion of the well-known story (Private Papers, Spring XII) of Ryecroft's acquisition of a first edition of Gibbon, which it takes him two long journeys to carry home: “In the last few days he had begun to sort out his books; he had almost broken his back in carrying the heavy, complete edition of his precious Gibbon to the second-hand bookshop at the Leliegracht; twice up and down and half a day wasted for a few quid.” 4) And then there is the more straightforward (but sadly mistaken!) reference in which the protagonist compares himself to “Will Warburton, who voluntarily gave up his brilliant university career when a distant cousin of his started a grocer's shop in the university town.” 5). Surely, Meijsing was thinking of Godwin Peak's uncle setting up Peak's Dining and Refreshment Rooms in Kingsmill in Born in Exile .
The extent to which Meijsing recognizes his own values and experiences in Gissing's may be gauged from the blurb of his translation of The Private Papers : “I have come to identify myself so much with this unhappy man, I understand him so well in all of his fatal decisions and enthusiastic impulses, that I shall continue to be engrossed in the details of his biography.”
More specifically Meijsing acknowledged his debt to Gissing in an interview for the Dutch weekly magazine HP/De Tijd . 6)
After commenting on the relative scarcity of books in Meijsing's Italian home, the interviewer writes: “The few books that are to be found on his shelves Meijsing lovingly calls his books of consolation, like the works of the late nineteenth-century English author George Gissing. He hands me a novel by Gissing: 'This is New Grub Street , the book I had in mind when I was writing De Grachtengordel . Gissing writes about similar literary feuds and he describes the duality between fame and money on the one hand and drudgery and art on the other.'”
Meijsing first revealed himself as a Gissing apologist and enthusiast in a contribution to the Dutch literary monthly Maatstaf in October 1988. 7)
The issue was especially concerned with the theory and practice of the autobiographical genre, and it contained articles on the autobiographies of Franz Grillparzer and Alma Mahler, Paul Léautaud and John Cowper Powys, Oswald Spengler and Benjamin Robert Haydon, Goethe, Gibbon and Gissing. Meijsing's article for the greater part consists of a selection from and translation of Gissing's Diary . 8)
To Meijsing Gissing's life is exemplary – of all the misery, struggles and disappointments of a writer's existence, of the regret about a way of life turned away from social conventions, of the clash between physical desire and the lofty image of the noble love for an intellectual woman – exemplary too, in a positive sense: of his perseverance and endurance, his great erudition and wide-ranging interests, his restless movements, and above all his keen sense of perception and his cynical phrasing. Meijsing characterizes the Diary as consisting largely of factual, a-literary entries about the weather, the various complaints that Gissing the hypochondriac suffered from, the progress of his work, the food he ate or rather how it did or did not agree with him, his visitors, the letters he received and the books he read. Meijsing is struck by the fact that Gissing rarely failed to mention the price of anything and usually complained that it was too high.
He is disappointed in his hopes of finding details about Gissing's sexual life and concludes sadly that we are still forced to speculate about the precise nature of Gissing's relationships with Mrs. Williams, Miss Curtis, Edith Sichel and Connie Ash. He comments on the discrepancy between the passionate love letters to Gabrielle Fleury and the minimal reflection of the affair in the Diary. Also he makes a stylistic comparison between Gissing's diary entries on his journeys to Italy and Greece and his travel-book By the Ionian Sea, and argues that the stylistic terseness of the Diary contrasts strikingly with the emotional intensity found in, eg, the final sentence of By the Ionian Sea. Perhaps we should not be surprised that Meijsing, a (born?) Dutch exile in Italy, regards the accounts of Gissing's travels in Greece and Italy as “the unquestioned pinnacles of his Diary.”
Towards the end of the HP/De Tijd interview Meijsing formulates what amounts to a literary manifesto: “With me literature comes first. Should anyone call me to account, I need not feel ashamed at any rate of my artistic conscience. Loyalty to friends or to art, whoever cannot keep these apart, confuses two different sets of values. You may say tell your friends straight to their face, but that is not the way it works for a writer. He must look at the world without scruples and use anything, however miserable, as material for his art. It is a dreadful observation, but ultimately I put the pact with art over the pact with my friends. I may end up in utter loneliness, completely abandoned by wife and friends ... that will be the price I may have to pay.
In any case nobody could accuse me of indolence.” How those sentiments remind one of Gissing's as expressed in a letter to Algernon: “When I am able to summon any enthusiasm at
all, it is only for Art. – How I laughed the other day on recalling your amazement at my theories of Art for Art's sake! Well, I cannot get beyond it. Human life has little interest to me – on the whole – save as material for artistic presentation. I can get savage over social iniquities, but even then my rage at once takes the direction of planning revenge in artistic work.” 9)
Despite a provocative (only half facetious?) definition of authorship, which may reveal more of his own than of Gissing's views on the subject – quite alien as it is to Gissing's world – (“Don't forget that a genuine writer would never use public transport”), one feels that the Dutch should be grateful to Meijsing for proving himself the ideal Gissing reader and mediator of Gissing's ideals and values that have been unfashionable for too long.
1. The first Dutch translation appeared in 1920: Uit de Nagelaten Papieren van Henry Ryecroft, translated by A. Gorter-De Waard (Arnhem: Van Loghum, Slaterus & Visser, 1920).
2. George Gissing: De Intieme Geschriften van Henry Ryecroft, vertaald en van een nawoord voorzien door Geerten Meijsing (Amsterdam: Arbeiderspers, 1989).
3. Geerten Meijsing, De Grachtengordel (Amsterdam: Arbeiderspers, 1992).
4. De Grachtengordel ; p. 126.
5. De Grachtengordel , p. 65.
6. Ad Fransen, “Onder de Gordel,” HP/De Tijd , 21 August 1992, pp. 38-43.
7. Geerten Meijsing, “De Dagboeken van George Gissing,” Maatstaf , September-October 1988, pp. 129-41.
8. London and the Life of Literature in Late Victorian England: The Diary of George Gissing, Novelist, ed. Pierre Coustillas (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1978).
9. Letter of 12 June 1884, The Collected Letters of George Gissing, vol. II, 1881-1885, edited by Paul F. Mattheisen, Arthur C. Young and Pierre Coustillas (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1991), pp. 223-24.