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This report is taken from PN Review 176, Volume 33 Number 6, July - August 2007.

The Eternal Officers Frank Kuppner

To discover that the novelist George Gissing (1857- 1903) had also written a travel-book took me somewhat by surprise - but a self-confident instinct assured me it would be well worth reading and I therefore plucked it down from the shelves (By the Ionian Sea, 'New and Cheaper Edition', 1905), paid a modest couple of quid for it, and took it home. And it did indeed help things along nicely for the next few days. In fact, even knowing almost nothing about Gissing had its advantages here. Ignorance wonderfully equalised out the cast of characters. There was far less of the usual sense of following a colossus about through a cloud of by and large comical unknowns and existential failures. No. This time at least, everyone was pretty much the same, normal size.

And such names! Cassiodorus. Alaric. Sybaris. Metapontum. (With, at Controne, a hotel proprietor - Coriolano Paparazzo - who seems to hover magically between the past and the future.) 'The pathos of immemorial desolation; amid a silence which - ' Eh? Just a moment. Sybaris? So this is where Sybaris was, is it? I had occasionally wondered. 'I was strongly reminded of the Essex coast - grey, scrubby flats, crossed by small streams, spreading wearily seaward.' Not the normal idea, certainly, of the sybaritic life.

A schoolboy is reading in the train carriage somewhere after Catanzaro. (All those trainfuls of annihilated schoolwork!) Eventually they start talking and Gissing is impressed ...


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