What Frank Harris did NOT Say
Most of the online booksellers have an e-book for sale under the title of My Life and Loves. Should you purchase a copy, you will find you have, not the notorious, boastful four volumes that Frank Harris wrote, but an imposter: the dubious Volume Five.
In 1954, this volume was first published by Maurice Girodias's Olympia Press, its authorship credited entirely to Frank Harris. Then in the 1960s a new edition appeared, retitled What Frank Harris did NOT Say with the subtitle "being the tumultuous, Apocryphal Fifth Volume of My Life and Loves, as embellished by Alexander Trocchi, with an apologetic preface by Maurice Girodias".
Girodias's preface is both illuminating and amusing so I make no excuse for reproducing it in its entirety:-
This fifth volume of Frank Harris's memoirs has a history which must now be made public, although I cannot do so without admitting to a feat of truancy dramatically opposed to publishing ethics.
I have recounted elsewhere the unfortunate phase of my career when I lost my first publishing firm, in which the remains of the Obelisk Press had been incorporated. My father, Jack Kahane, had bought the publishing rights of my life and loves from Frank Harris in the early Thirties and since then the four volumes put out by the Obelisk Press had enjoyed a large and steady sale.
Many years later, after the Obelisk Press had become the property of my powerful rivals, Hachette - much against my will - they went on printing and selling My Life and Loves year after year.
I had first read the book when a boy, and I had been impressed by the ludicrous cheek of the little Irish adventurer. I was elated by his treatment of the reader, the half-amused, half disguised unconcern with which he fed his cock-and-bull stories to the gullible. The large layers of sexy episodes came between rich slices of literary and political souvenirs with model regularity; the cocksure, vulgar tone of the recital was quite wonderful. And yet, Harris had certainly been a sincere and courageous man in his own funny way. He had some generous ideas, and he had been a plucky fighter when it came to defending some rather interesting causes; alas, self-adulation had prevented him from being quite the universal hero he fancied himself to be in literature, sex, or politics. But he is certainly responsible to a large extent for the invention of modern journalism, whether he should be thanked for that or not.
When I started the Olympia press in competition with my ex-publishing firm, the Obelisk Press, I remembered that my father's contract with Frank Harris had contained a mention of a fifth volume to be added at a later date to the famous first four, but that Harris's death had brought an end to that project.
However, I decided to investigate and I went to see a lawyer who represented the interests of Harris's widow. He was a tiny old gentleman by the name of Adolph, living in a crepuscular apartment in the frugal fashion typical of the bourgeoisie of old. I crashed into several chairs on the way to his office as there was strictly no light, electric or otherwise, in the hall; then he prudently guided me to a chair and went to sit behind his desk. Gradually my eyes became used to the deep night and I began to perceive his frail contours. Then the uncanny negotiation began.
"Madame Nellie Harris", he explained, "is aware of your interest, but she values her husband's work very highly, and particularly that last unpublished book of his. Up to now she has refused even to envisage letting it be published. . . . . But now she is a very old lady, and perhaps I might use my influence on her to try to persuade her to change her mind. However, I am aware of the fact that your former business has been taken over by La Librairie Hachette and that you have now started a new company with very limited means. . . . . In those conditions we would require a rather substantial advance from you, young man, you must realize that."
I quoted a figure which I immediately knew was much too ridiculously high: 400,000 francs. I did not have the money, of course, but we would see about that later. The little man seemed pleased for the time being and made a few sniffing noises. Then I asked when I could see the manuscript.
"Ah, I expected that sort of question, young man", he retorted with mild impatience, "but why would you want to see that manuscript? You have just made an offer without having seen it: if I gave it to you to read now, what difference would that make? Your papa published the first four volumes of Monsieur Harris's world famous work, and I venture to say that he found that to be a profitable venture; and I daresay profit is also what you have on your mind, eh? So I must regretfully conclude: no, you cannot see the manuscript. But I promise to write to Madame Harris and plead your cause."
Listen to the old bird, I told myself; and felt like stealing his shawl and running away. Instead of which I stood up, bowed in the dark, and somnambulistically departed. A few days later I received a note from Mr. Adolph, who never used the telephone, asking me to visit him as he had an important communication to impart.
I had been five minutes late at our first interview and I had discovered that the old man had been standing behind his door since the appointed time and had waited there for the bell to ring. This time I arrived two minutes early to save him the trouble, and I rang the bell for two minutes before he opened the door. I was engulfed once more into the internal shades of his apartment, but I just had time to take in the discoloured pupils, the shaky pince-nez and the old-celery skin.
"Madame Harris", he declared with a tone of ominous satisfaction, "has not reacted too badly to your proposal, my dear monsieur, but she is of the opinion that it would be rather unseemly to entrust the publication of her husband's book to a young publisher like you without surrounding herself with all the proper guarantees. Furthermore, she has instructed me to inquire whether La Librarie Hachette not be interested in purchasing those publishing rights themselves, eh . . . . . Well, I have approached the firm and they did not hesitate to offer 600,000 francs. so, I regret to say that the book will go to them . . . . . Unless of course you can make a better offer yourself . . . . And when I say a better offer, I mean a much better offer. Because if such an illustrious publishing house as La Librairie Hachette offers fifty per cent more than you, what should I conclude? . . . Firstly, no doubt, that you were trying to take advantage of Madame Harris's good will. And secondly, that in view of your desire to make substantial profits, that property should be worth much to you than what you have offered, eh?"
That tirade was delivered in a tiny, gasping voice. I asked if Hachette had seen the manuscript.
"My dear young man", Mr. Adolph retorted with finality, "I do not consider it convenient to answer that question. but I do understand that in your strained circumstances it will be impossible for you to do better than La Librairie Hachette."
"Not at all", I countered, "I am ready to pay one million francs. Now, do I see the manuscript?"
He chuckled softly. "Not so hasty, not so hasty, my dear young Monsieur. Madame Harris will no doubt approve me if I tell you that once we have signed a contract and received the agreed advance, then you can have the manuscript. First you pay, then . . . ."
"All right", I interrupted. "When do we sign?"
"Ah, that is another question. First of all, does Madame Harris accept your new offer? I have to ask."
At the next interview, he told me a little sheepishly that Madame Harris had said yes. I interpreted that as Hachette had been approached again but had said no. I was nearly sorry to see that the deal was working out. I had no idea where to find all that money. And that unseen, untouchable manuscript was fishy in the extreme.
However, I was interrupted in my daydreaming by the old man who was saying in a surprisingly clear voice: "But if I have so aptly defended your cause to Madame Harris, you must understand that I have done so only because I always like to help young people like you and encourage them in their undertakings. I am an old man, as you can see, and I do those things with no thought of reward. In your case I will content myself with 5 per cent of the agreed sum - to be added to that million francs, naturally."
It took me two weeks and some rather rather demented manoeuvring to raise the ransom, and when I saw my old friend for the last time, he had lighted a candle on his desk to facilitate the perusal of contracts, the signing thereof, and the accounting of banknotes. that gave an extra-ghostly appearance to the room, revealing the appurtenances of witchcraft: tall coffin-like furniture, musty clocks and a few ancient cobwebs.
When the ceremony was completed he opened a drawer slowly and fished out a slim package which he handed to me: "that is the manuscript", he asserted.
Stifling the beginning of a hysterical laugh, I took the so-called manuscript and sprang out of the room and into the healthy youthful street, peopled with vigorous cats and dogs. The manuscript was made up of a few sheafs of typed pages, yellowed by time; they were drafts of articles written by Harris for various bygone periodicals. He had no doubt put them aside to be incorporated into that projected fifth volume, but had never gone any further into the matter.
Never mind, I reasoned, I knew it all the time; and took a cab to Rue de Sabot to talk things over with Alex Trocchi. We decided that that fifth volume of Monsieur Frank Harris's world-famous memoirs should be made into a really sumptuous work of art, to make Monsieur Harris's name even more illustrious. Alex was madly excited by the very idea of it. We rehearsed a few harris idiosyncrasies: Never to write: she said in a dialogue, but always: she cried, etc.
When the brand new fifth volume was delivered about ten sleepless days and nights later, tingling with sex and fun, I felt that Frank Harris himself would have been proud of it. I have always held that versatility is one essential ingredient of literary genius, and Alex had administered the proof, in lightning fashion, that he was able to do just anything with perfect grace and power. Even the odd twenty per cent of real Harris derived from Monsieur Adolph's time-stained papers appear rejuvenated and revitalized in that new context.
Since those happy days, the first four volumes have come out in the clear. after nearly forty years of Continental clandestinity, they were brought out first in New York, and then in London, in line with the habitual procedure. Their publication was presented to the public with austere guarantees, in an atmosphere of professorial dignity presumably meant to accredit the notion that My Life and Loves is one of the greatest works of literature in modern times to have been saved from the barbarian censors. I think not: Harris was a self-confessed fraud and nobody of sane mind has ever taken those memoirs of his seriously, apart from a few English schoolboys who may have been inspired in their daydreaming by the erotic resources they offered.
But the book itself has a charm which is attached to the period and people described; and Harris himself, a Renaissance hero wearing Queen Victoria's corsets, has created a wonderfully bombastic image of his own person which is certainly worth preserving. And that's where Trocchi's exercise achieves greatness, as comedy and character impersonation: he gives Frank Harris the dimension of a myth.
I dare the most sombre reader to resist total hilarity while going through this Fifth Volume, and not to expostulate after only a few pages, with the accents of one of Harris's lovely victims: "Oh! I can't stand it. Oh! Stop please or I shall go mad. Oh! Oh! Oh!"