Frank Harris

The Life and Loves of a Scoundrel
Year: 
1959

In this, the first 'modern' biography of Harris, Brome boasts of his unprecedented access to numerous private papers, leading the reader to expect some unique revelations of Harris' life. The text itself shows little evidence of this deep research however, and largely consists of long passages quoted from readily-available published sources, in particular Kingsmill and Tobin / Gertz, always scrupulously acknowledged, but giving a constant sense of deja lu to those familiar with them. Here and there, after quoting one of his sources' harsher judgements he attempts to ameliorate it with comment on the complexity of Harris' character, but as he goes on to repeat all the most damning matter, including the allegations of blackmail, these softening impulses do not have as much effect as perhaps their author intended.

Brome's book must be judged not on the uniqueness of the material he displays, but on what he makes of it. His strengths are in the account of Harris' later years when the powers of mind and body were failing, which - though considerably indebted to Frank Scully's Rogue's Gallery - is especially touching and evocative; and in his unflamboyant and sensitive analysis of the psychology of Harris. For all that, the abiding impression is that of an opportunity missed: in the list of papers consulted by Brome there appears an intriguing reference to two letters to Harris from Henri Matisse, frustratingly never so much as mentioned in the biography itself, and even less justifiably he ignores the presence in Harris' life of the 'Great Beast' Aleister Crowley, though his Confessions of a Drug Fiend is included in Brome's bibliography.

If this is the only biography of Harris you can find, it is not a bad one, but you could more profitably use it to make a sort of literary sandwich, placing the first two and last two chapters on the outside and taking the whole of Kingsmill as the filling.

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