Hearing Giggles in the Vatican

By Keates, Jonathan | The Spectator, September 11, 1999 | Go to article overview

Hearing Giggles in the Vatican


Keates, Jonathan, The Spectator


WITH GISSING IN ITALY: THE MEMOIRS OF BRIAN BORU DUNNE edited by Paul F. Mattheisen, Arthur C. Young and Pierre Coustillas Ohio University Press, 40.30, pp. 207

Running away is something writers do from time to time. The famous note saying `Gone to Patagonia' that Bruce Chatwin is said to have left on his desk has a distinguished ancestry. Everybody from Auden and Isherwood to Byron and Shelley has felt the need at some stage to decamp in search of longer perspectives or a more indulgent moral climate. A few of us, indeed, believe that Shakespeare felt the need for a manoeuvre of this sort. Far from spending all those famous lost years hanging out with recusants in Lancashire (the currently fashionable theory) he may have passed some of them in northern Italy absorbing the appropriate backgrounds for Romeo and Juliet and The Taming of the Shrew.

George Gissing too ran away to Italy, though his reasons for doing so were probably more complicated than Shakespeare's. By the mid-1890s his life had begun to borrow features from his novels. Writing offered the only relief in an existence soured by poverty, the onset of consumption and the demands of a wife unsympathetic, in the classic manner of a certain kind of consort, to his artistic ambitions. He needed a holiday, he needed dry, smokeless air, but above all he required a world which conspicuously wasn't any of these realms of suffering, shabbiness and neglect staked out by his imagination. The Italian sojourn begun in 1897 was intended to put miles between him and the business of literary drudging to support crabby, selfish Edith Gissing and their two sons. More important still, it was designed to separate Gissing from a career as a novelist which he seems to have felt had run its natural course.

The impact of the trip is partially reflected in the travel book By the Ionian Sea, not the best of its author's achievements but more promising than the historical novel Veranilda, left unfinished at his death, which sprang from research into the Italian Dark Ages. Neither work, however, is as effective in revealing Gissing's moral and spiritual recovery as the notes taken by a young American who happened to be staying at the same Sienese pensione, jottings which later formed the basis of several projected though unpublished essays and articles. All of this material now appears as With Gissing in Italy, annotated and introduced by the indefatigable trio of American and French scholars whose recently completed nine-volume edition of Gissing's letters is the ideal monument any halfway decent writer might dream of.

Brian Boru Dunne, Gissing's fellow boarder in `quiet, classic, lazy Siena', was the kind of versatile, omnivorous enthusiast unimaginable a century later, when anybody straying beyond a limited field of expertise becomes suspect as a lightweight. …

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