Phobia and mania remain inexplicably internalised conditions. Such was my dilemma as I stood at the crossroad one Saturday morning waiting for my friend as she undertook her Saturday errands in Purley, Croydon, outside London. To my left, stood the Cat Protection Society outlet. Such charity fundraising shops remain part and parcel of the British High Street commercial scenario; one of the earliest and most well-known being Oxfam. Promoting a particular cause; be it autism, cancer, dementia - such charitable organisations solicit knick-knacks, trivia and treasures as donations for purchases by those who see a treasure in someone else’s trash. And there I was debating whether to enter the Cat Protection Society given the fact that I am prone to feline phobia. Simultaneously, being a bibliophile and knowing that such outlets remain a rich source of ‘gently used’ books for book lovers with ample time to browse; I was in a bind.
A snap decision had me enter the premises and swiftly survey the surrounding for any felines. There were none. Walking past clothes and curtains, pots and pans, shoes and serving dishes — a veritable trove of vintage objects — I headed straight for a cane shelf offering books at the back of the store. And my eyes fell on a soft yellow-hue paged paperback with a stain on its cover. The intriguing and challenging title settled the selection. “The Fine Art of Literary Mayhem: A Lively Account of Famous Writers and Their Feuds” by Myrick Land. The price? 99 pence! Surely an ultimate bargain buy for a 273 page book. I gave One Pound at the counter. Received a pence in change. Quickly dropped the one pence into the donation box and walked out; a cat’s whisker of a purchase. A wet wipe of the stain left the cover in fine condition. A spill of a sip had left its mark. I would like to imagine the previous owner sitting with a cuppa tea as an appropriate accompaniment to a unique book title.
What we have is a lively collection of anecdotes from the war of words and battle of books between a host of literary giants; Dickens, Disraeli, Norman Mailer, George Bernard Shaw, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and innumerable others. The author long-time Senior Editor of Look magazine, a writer and teacher of journalism has compiled an amusing and revealing scenario of the literary feuds and bitterness that so consumed writers whom we revere as “Immortals.” Placed on pedestals by us mortals, we are now provided glimpses of human frailties and their vulnerable feet of clay. Literary icons express acerbic words, sarcastic wit and painful puns; exposing fault-lines that penetrate the lofty reserve. And Land has brought to light such little known and remarkable revelations in a compelling narrative.
“My best advice is don’t read it; my second best is don’t drop it on your foot” is the declaration voiced by a Newsweek magazine reviewer regarding James A. Michener’s 865-page novel Chesapeake novel in 1978. The fate of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, now universally recognized as a literary masterpiece met scorn and misjudgment when it appeared in 1925. One Springfield in Republican was fiercely dismissive: “A little slack, a little soft, more than a little artificial, The Great Gatsby falls into the class of negligible novels.” Five short words wiped out the literary output of Jack Kerouac, who never looked back after committing words to paper. In a powerful punch Truman Capote famously declared: “That’s not writing - that’s typing.” The stand-off between two Russian literary icons - Turgenev and Doestoevski involved some financial assistance extended by Turgenev to his fellow compatriot. Through long-drawn out exasperating and emotional years; Turgenev finally cries out in despair: “I beg you....to forget my existence.” Such pathos is inevitably disconcerting for a reader. On an infinitely lighter note: George Bernard Shaw boldly and impishly attacked Shakespeare by declaring: “It would positively be a relief to me to dig him up and throw stones at him.”
The author in his closing chapter ‘Gentlemen! Let’s not call names’ offers us a memorable instance of a fallen friendship. For over a decade Vladimir Nabokov sent many of his works to the renowned critic Edmund Wilson for his comments. This custom did not take place with Nabokov’s novel Lolita. Nabokov himself was hesitant about publishing it for as Myrick Land writes: “...he (Nabokov) thought it might be best to publish the book under a pseudonym because of his fear that the story of the pursuit of the nymphet Lolita by the obsessed Humbert might by judged pornographic by narrow-minded readers, and that this might endanger his career as a lecturer at Cornell.” Lolita was eventually published in 1958 and the rest remains literary history. However, the slight developed into a chasm of mistrust and eventual fall-out in their once close personal and professional relationship.
Given a mentor/mentee, successful/struggling, older/younger relationship between writers, critics, publishers and reviewers; certain aspects of human behaviour rears its ugly head, notes Myrick Land in his various exposes of the rage and rift that emerges between two earlier amiable personalities. Case in point often being the scenario involving Nabokov/Wilson. The author observes: “He (Wilson) liked the obscure and struggling Nabokov, but he may have been first surprised and then baffled by the extraordinary change in the writer’s (Nabokov’s) fortunes.” There does exist numerous literary spheres out there - all between two covers.
Raana Haider is a literary pilgrim.