And how long, I asked myself, as the first volume of Professor Pierre Coustillas’s monumental life of George Gissing tumbled out of its Jiffy bag and fell with a smack upon the kitchen table, have I been waiting for this book? Twenty years? Twenty-five? In fact, it was first advertised in a Harvester Press catalogue – the dimensions then put at a modest two volumes – as long ago as 1981. Since that time, at any rate among the intent and starry-eyed world of Gissing aficionados, the project has acquired an almost mythical status. At one point it was rumoured that Coustillas had composed a work of such paralysing exorbitance that not even an American university press was prepared to take it on. Then it was alleged that the whole thing was merely a chimera, and that despite all manner of encouraging progress reports, Coustillas had not written a line, and did not intend to. Finally it was suggested that the rigours of his lifelong obsession with Gissing had driven Coustillas mad and that with the end of the book in sight he had disdained to complete it, on the grounds that once a life’s work is complete then that life ends with it.
But however long it took to finish The Heroic Life of George Gissing, or to arrive at an intellectual position in which he was able to write it, Coustillas has not, in the course of this thirty-year stakeout in the rumpus rooms of late Victorian England, otherwise been idle. There