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The Private Life of Frank Harris


Of all the biographies of Harris this is probably the most worthless; worse, even than Evergreen Adventurer. Though it is better-written than Linda Morgan Bain's schoolgirlish fantasy of Harris' life, Roth's wild disregard for the truth places it in a class of its own.

It opens with an account of how Roth met Harris, when in 1919 a man (unnamed by Roth but probably Guido Bruno, to judge by the description given of his resemblance to Oscar Wilde) brought Harris to Roth's bookshop in Greenwich Village. According to Roth for a while thereafter they were friends, but lost touch when Roth moved to London to avoid his creditors; then when Roth returned to New York he found that Harris had gone to France. Some four years later the first volume of My Life and Loves appeared. Roth describes it as 'layers and underlayers of incredible rubbish' which led him to think Harris had 'gone out of his mind'. He had to discover 'the truth ... from people who knew Harris'. It would take 'much, much time'. But what he found, he thought 'makes a great story'.

'A great example of brazen chutzpah', is likely to be one's reaction on reading further, given that Roth has just told us how awful Harris' book is. His first few chapters will engender a curious sense of déjà vu in anyone who has read My Life and Loves, as they are no more than a blatent, unacknowledged, rewrite of the most notable episodes from Harris' own version of his early life: the schoolboy, the bootblack, the hotel clerk, the cowboy, the law student, the schoolmaster.

Once he has got Harris to London and established as a journalist, Roth permits himself to lift his material from other books: from the Contemporary Portraits, from Oscar Wilde and, more openly, from Hesketh Pearson's Modern Men and Mummers. An indication of the depth of his research is that he describes Harris' imprisonment for contempt, which is referred to in passing by Pearson, as a 'mysterious matter'. Anyone who knew of Harris in London at the time could have enlightened him.

Where his reading leaves gaps in Harris' life, Roth is happy to invent details. For example, he claims that Harris had 'met and married' Nellie in about 1914, whereas he had been living with her since before 1900 and did not marry her until 1927. What is more amazing is his ability, given that he admits he never spoke to Harris after 1919, to know what Harris was thinking, for example, when he chose Nice as his home: 'He must leave America. But where should he go? Ireland? His nose wrinkled disgust. Not for a cultivated Englishman: such he held himself to be. Pigs and poverty and potatoes, riots and rude ribaldries...'

But it is with the history of My Life and Loves that Roth finally takes off into the realms of fiction. A mysterious American publisher with 'an overtone of tiny horns and unseen hooves and a faint whiff of Gehenna' persuades Harris to write his life as pornography, to incense the puritans and make lots of money at the same time. Harris, who until then had planned a conventional autobiography, is inspired by the publisher's enthusiasm and sets to work.

Harris' brilliant idea, as he explains to 'a retired colonel from the Indian service', is to make the book 'a colossal josh' full of racy anecdotes taken from all over and retold with Harris as protagonist. And more, he'd put in every perversity known: 'In this book he'd have revulsion from nothing. Necrophilia. Ferophilia, Coprophilia, he would be panphilic. What a book!'

What a book, indeed: certainly nothing like My Life and Loves as published. Why Roth, who was obviously very familiar with the actual content of Harris' suppressed work, should have chosen to exaggerate its licentiousness like this is not clear. That he had a sincere dislike of frankness in sexual description would not seem likely, given Roth's record of publishing and distributing explicit material. Anger at Harris seems a more likely motive, though we can only guess at its basis - perhaps the fact that he was left out of Harris' story of his life? A cynic might also suspect that by playing up the smut content, Roth hoped to shift a few more copies of it from his under-the-counter stock.

Roth's account of the post-publication failure of My Life and Loves, though factually highly inaccurate, does at least succeed in capturing the spirit of what happened, with an unhappy Harris being ripped-off and persecuted at every turn.

Then Roth presents us with Harris making an entirely imaginary last visit to England, evidently written with a street map of London open in front of him, in which Harris wanders around aimlessly on his own for a day through most of the central areas of the city. (Roth's lack of equivocation in identifying not just Harris' route but his stray thoughts along the way is uncanny: even the most half-asleep reader must wonder where he obtained his information.) Finally, Harris collapses in a hotel bedroom. Shaw comes to hear of his plight and, taking pity on him, suggests that Harris should write his biography.

Roth continues his incredible mind-reading act into the final chapter where the dying Harris works on his life of Shaw, while musing on death, his past adventures, and his favourite foods. Roth even knows that Harris had a vision of his long-dead mother's smile on his deathbed. What a book! What an author!

Selected editions
William Faro