The notorious first volume of Harris' autobiography was published in a private edition in Paris, in 1922. In keeping with Harris' oft-stated intention to be candid about sexual matters, this edition came complete with a number of photographs of naked women. Perhaps by this device Harris hoped to attract more of the one-handed type of reader than he might otherwise, but it only served to bring the book to the attention of the French and German Customs, who might otherwise have failed to notice its lubricious content.
Given the mores of the time it was surely inevitable that 'My Life and Loves' would become a byword for the graphical description of sexual encounters, even without all the publicity generated by Harris' struggles with the law of several countries. It was too forthright, too unambiguous, not to be noticed. This is not 'the love that dare not speak ...' - this is the love that announces itself in a booming voice.
Re-reading it after a number of years, what comes across more than anything else is a genuine sense of youthful enthusiasm. It resembles some bizarre boys' adventure story, going from a boarding school setting to the Wild West, with plenty of 'kissing and fighting' along the way, but centred round a hero who combines his derring-do with an unboyish taste for Greek literature and Swinburne. The sexual episodes are not at all out of place in this world - for those of us who can remember the fantasy life of a teenage boy.
Unfortunately Harris' ego and his obsessions too often get in the way of the reverie: his need to tell us a little too much about the genital dimensions of his conquests, his odd beliefs about contraception, or - murkier still - the dread perils of masturbation (for a book destined to be on the library shelf of self-abusers everywhere, it is curiously negative about the practice - in the Harris personal creed masturbation is a mortal sin whereas full sex - with a woman of course - amounts to a positive virtue. The occasional wet dream is a venial lapse, but recurrent nocturnal emissions apparently lead to dissipation and even death).
Near the end of the volume, Harris describes how he attended a lecture in Paris by Hippolyte Taine (1828-93), the French philosopher and critic, on the 'Ideal in Art'. From this he takes the following illustration:-
" a lion was not a running beast, but a great jaw set on four powerful springs of short massive legs. The artist...seizing the idea of the animal may exaggerate the size and strength of the jaw a little, emphasize too the springing power in his loins and legs and the tearing strength of his front paws and claws; but if he lengthened his legs or diminished his jaw, he would denaturalize the true idea of the beast and would produce an abortion.".
Here is perhaps one of the keys to Harris - that he felt he only exaggerated the nature of the truth, not denied it. The stories he told were the truth as it should have been: if he did not actually defeat the school bully in a fight, if he were not actually a cowboy, if he did not actually seduce quite so many young women - well, he could have done, he was that sort of an animal. Better then to be true to the nature of the Harris-beast, in all its glorious boldness, than diminish it by a too-literal attachment to the facts.
An audio book edition of this volume has also been produced.
On first reading, the first chapter of this new volume seems set to continue the adventurous tone set by its predecessor. Harris tells how he sought out the great Russian general, Skobelof, during the Russian-Turkish war of 1877, and befriended him. Skobelof's daring exploits are described, his military genius exhibited and the tragic tale of his eventual demise is recounted, all with Harris skilfully eliding between what he might have seen as an eyewitness and anecdotes he got from others. His skill is all the greater given that he was not actually there and never met the man: in fact at the time he was lecturing at Brighton College.
What is rather more surprising than Harris' fabrication of this episode is his omission of something else from this period: in 1878 he got married for the first time, to one Florence Ruth Adams. Little is known about her, and she died less than a year into their marriage.
As I said, this opening seems at first to continue the note of adventure, but there is a significant change here, which reflects the way that Harris' life changed, and consequently his own view of himself. No longer is Frank the protagonist, instead he is an observer. He is a friend of great men, their chosen confidante, he is present when great deeds are done, he encourages, advises, cautions; but he looks on, he does not act.
In the first volume, Frank told us how he became the world's greatest hotel clerk, just before he turned into its champion cowboy. This time he explains how he got to be the world's finest newspaper editor, and turned the Evening News from a loss-maker into a success. Some of this material reads like a parody of the sort of nightmare autobiography in which long dead trivialities are endlessly reanimated:-
"I reduced the expenses there two thirds, saving another fifteen pounds a week and increasing the efficency incredibly. At once, the time occupied in casting plates for one machine fell from an hour to the best American time of twenty minutes; but Maltby gradually reduced it to twelve minutes with astonishing results as I shall soon relate."
Another difference from the first volume is in the matter of sex: there are still sexual encounters but they are frequently unconsummated. Harris has decided that sexual intercourse is just as bad as masturbation for its detrimental effect on one's work rate, so he no longer goes all out for it at every opportunity. And for the first time, he discovers love, in the person of Laura Clapton. Laura, by Harris' account, was a great beauty but unfortunately saddled with a fat, ignorant mother and an indolent, wastrel father. Her other disadvantage in Harris' view was the great jealousy she inspired in him, which he found very difficult to bear, and which he gives as the reason that he never married her.
Harris as a successful editor went out into London society, and he paints a vivid picture of it. Notwithstanding his sexual appetite, he was no glutton, and the social scene of the time, in which huge many-course dinners were commonplace, were frequently nauseating to him: he depicts hellish suppers, where grossly overweight eaters sweat and fart their way through course after course of gamey meat.
A more congenial aspect of his entry into these circles was making the acquaintance of notable figures of the day. During this time he met Bram Stoker, Oscar Wilde, Randolph Churchill, Guy de Maupassant, Matthew Arnold - to mention just a few of the better-known names. According to Harris both Churchill and Maupassant were mad by the end, in Maupassant's case with syphilis. Apparently, Maupassant was possessed of the ability to have an erection at will (did Alfred Jarry have him in mind in Le Surmâle?) - and was even more sex-mad than Frank himself.
With his final chapter, "The Foretaste of Death from 1920 Onwards" Frank has a morbid turn. For some reason, he decided to jump forward in his story to the time of writing and describe his old age and loss of powers. In particular he sets out the regimen he evolved when his digestion became weak, of 'moderation in eating and drinking', supplemented with the use of the infamous stomach-pump, the 'infallible and blessed remedy' which he claims gave him back perfect health. This narrative jump forwards gives him the opportunity to grouse about how unfairly his first volume was received, and place himself alongside Shakespeare and James Joyce in the battle against puritanism. Poor Frank! - always misunderstood!
By this third volume, Harris has abandoned any real attempt to tell his life-story. Although he does say something of his unhappy marriage to Mrs Clayton, most of the book is taken up with anecdotes of the famous and powerful: Heine, Randolph Churchill, Bismarck, Tennyson, Parnell, the Prince of Wales, to pick out only a few examples. Many of these anecdotes are third-hand and only shed light on Harris himself by the fact or manner of their inclusion, or by how he interprets them.
The section on Edward, Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, is perhaps the most revealing. Harris was no royalist and declared himself an egalitarian. But it is clear that while, briefly, he was taken up by Edward - largely because of his fund of risqué stories, it appears - he was flattered by the Prince's attention. When inevitably he was dropped it no doubt stung him, although as Harris tells it, it was he who got the blow in first:-
"Once later at Monte Carlo I was talking to Madame Tosti, the wife of the well-known London musician, when the Prince came directly across the room to speak to us. I don't know why, but I felt sure that he meant to be rude to me, so I took the bull by the horns and copied Beau Brummel's famous word to King George: 'Now I leave you', I said to the lady, 'to your stout friend'. And I turned away, but I could see that the Prince was furious."
Volume 4 is something of a return to form for Harris after its rather dull predecessor. The first chapter 'How I began to write' is tremendous: only briefly on-topic, it soon turns into an essay on the subject of writing in English, and who were its greatest practitioners, with needless to say, the implication that Frank is up there among them.
Following chapters cover Frank's time on The Saturday Review, the Jameson Raid - which led to the Boer War, and Frank's 'African Adventures', up the Zambesi to Victoria Falls. The latter is reminiscent of the Cowboy episodes of Volume 1 - another boy's tale of derring-do which Phillippa Pullar summarises brilliantly as follows:-
"His tent flap was interfered with by a lion; he fell ill from malaria and blackwater fever; was deserted by his bearers - with one of whom a baboon had fallen in love - after they had smashed the medicines and stolen everything except for one tin of soup and six of sardines. He wandered about for a month with a raging temperature, shot a hippopotamus and ate its tongue, together with berries, leaves, the sardines, a small boiled snake and a disgusting caterpillar. He travelled in a canoe to a Portugese settlement, through which he walked carrying a kettle, so terrifying the inhabitants that they ran away. After spasm upon spasm of indigestion he returned to London.".
Other choice offerings in this volume include his musings on why he never fancied black women, the true confessions of a lesbian that someone had sent to him, his dealings with the millionaire E.T.Hooley, his series of orgies in San Remo, his thoughts on Jesus, and more ramblings about sex.
He finishes with a self-righteous account of his prosecution for the publication of Volume 2 in France. The last paragraph must surely stand alone for its barmy grandiosity:-
'"He has written naughty passages", says one, and my friend replies "so did Shakespeare in Hamlet and with less provocation". "His life is the fullest ever lived", says my disciple, and they all stand shocked, for this is plainly the truth and they all realize that a supreme word has been spoken and that such a man is among the great forever.'
This volume was never finished by Harris. When his wife Nellie was desperate for money she sold his notes for it to the publisher Maurice Girodias of the Olympia Press. He gave them to the writer Alexander Trocchi, who reduced the discussions of politics and contemporary portraits and expanded the sex scenes. It was published in 1954 with no mention of Trocchi's 'editing'. Nellie died, aged sixty-eight, a year later. [An e-book version of Trocchi's text has been published by Renaissance E Books, as 'My Life and Loves' by Frank Harris, with no mention of Trocchi nor of the fact it is only one volume of five.]. Girodias confessed his guilt in a preface to an edition of this volume.
An allegedly more authentic Volume 5 is found in the Grove Press 1963 edition of My Life and Loves (and most other sunsequent editions), edited by John F. Gallagher, which is supposed to have been reconstructed directly from Harris' notes.
In either form, this volume is not very satisfactory - there is evidence that much of the material is left-over from other volumes, such as some oddly repetitive stuff about Rhodes and Krueger which seems really to belong to Volume 4. There is even a reference to this volume as 'the Fourth', which is explained by Gallagher in a footnote as due to Harris' 'forgetfulness'.
'kissing and fighting' - Describing his approach to the Evening News, Harris said he 'edited it as a boy of fourteen ... my obsessions then were kissing and fighting; when I got one or other or both of these interests into every column, the circulation of the paper increased steadily.'
'Le Surmâle' (In English, 'The Supermale') Published in France in 1902, this novel by Alfred Jarry, the author of Ubu Roi, has as its principal character a man whose athletic and priapic feats are, um, super.
Scribbled by Alfred Armstrong 8 years 6 months ago