Arts & Books: Bitch, snipe, carp, wail
Literary feuds are rare. But when they happen, they can last a lifetime. The pen is always nastier than the sword.
Saturday 05 December 1998
It is, in other words, a classic literary row, and one that takes its seat at the Top Table of bookish spats that will be remembered when the books written by the principals are no longer read. At a launch dinner on Monday evening, Theroux proudly told the company gathered that his book is unique; nobody else has written a disobliging memoir of a fellow- writer while the victim is still alive. Whatever the truth of the claim, you can understand Theroux's glee. It is rare to have a decent writers' vendetta, row or feud, actually chronicled and immortalised in print.
Which is strange, since writers are a cantankerous bunch. Bitch bitch, snipe snipe, carp carp. Professionally hypersensitive to words, to semantic shadings and silken ironies, they communicate among themselves with wary paranoia. Since words are the currency of both creativity and criticism, writers live on a hair-trigger of sensitivity, jealously guarding their word-hoard, worrying about its value and worrying how highly their fellow- writers estimate it; even worrying about how much their own utterances give them away or turn them into "characters" in someone else's future novel. When they fall out, words are often responsible. And the eloquence of the writers' mutual dislike is what can turn a mere difference of opinion into a literary feud.
The most spectacular writers' row ever, between Vladimir Nabokov and the American critic Edmund Wilson, was over the latter's carping review of Nabokov's translation of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin. One focus of their mutual antipathy was a translation of the Russian phrase "slushat' shum morskoy" as "to listen the sound of the sea". You could argue that a 25- year friendship collapsed over nothing more than a missing preposition.
Rows have sometimes broken out over disputed coinages. When the American super-minimalist, Nicholson Baker, was praised by critics for using the word "strumming" as a synonym for masturbation in The Fermata (it's the action of the plectrum-holding hand while playing air guitar, if you'd care to try it), Martin Amis wrote a letter crossly pointing out that he'd coined the usage in London Fields. Baker retaliated to say that he had used it, ooh, ages before that novel was published - in U and I, for instance, his tribute to John Updike, he had shamingly confessed to strumming like a madman to some of the more intense moments in Iris Murdoch's novels.
The act of fictional representation is also a good source of rows: behind Edith Sitwell's long-standing fight with Noel Coward was her pique at being lampooned on stage as "Hernia Whittlebot". Amanda Craig's A Vicious Circle was withdrawn from publication when ex-boyfriend, David Sexton, now the literary editor of the Evening Standard, objected to the irreducibly biographical portrait of him as a moral polecat.
Simple insults also cause trouble: AS Byatt lost her place on Martin Amis's Christmas card list when she accused him of "turkeycocking" and demanding such huge advances that there was nothing left for less bumptious scribes to live on. Frederic Raphael and George Steiner, friends for many years, fell out when Steiner criticised the talents of Raphael's artist daughter, Sarah. More recently, Will Self savaged Robert Harris during the televised coverage of the 1998 Booker Prize, considering him to be anti-Semitic: in a review of one of Self's books, Harris had described the novelist as "basically just a nice Jewish boy who's read too many books".
Marsha Hunt once had a row with Joan Brady over which of their ancestors was more authentically a slave. The two Americans, one black, one white, clashed in February 1994 on a platform at the Dartington Literary Festival over Brady's novel, Theory of War, a fictional re-telling of how Brady's grandfather was bought for US$15 at a slave market in 1865. According to Ms Hunt, the former singer turned novelist and polemicist of Like Venus Fading, you could hardly call it "slavery" in the true, black sense, as Hunt's own great-great-grandmother was a slave. Theory of War was, she said, "a tale of indentured slavery". So there.
Literary rows can, of course, continue down the generations. Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald were friends among the influx of entre deux guerres Americans in Twenties Paris. Their modern supporters are less friendly. The Ernest Hemingway Society and The Scott Fitzgerald Society eye each other warily, the former keen to promote the image of a sweet, tender- hearted Papa; the latter unable to forgive or forget a mortifying episode related years later in A Moveable Feast (1960). In the book, Hemingway recalls a conversation at Michaud's restaurant on the Left Bank, in which Fitzgerald confided to the grizzled maestro his concern over his penis. Zelda had told him it was too small to interest or satisfy any woman. Hemingway and Scottie visit a water closet, Papa inspects his friend's member, pronounces it perfectly OK and advises him "on the use of a pillow etc". This kindly, if patronising reassurance, enrages Scott fans and the Fitzgerald Society who have for years been at pains to discredit it.
The trouble with all the above traumatised relationships is that very few of them qualify as genuine literary feuds - a term invariably applied to fights between people who own a word processor, but which is wildly over-used. The best was that between Truman Capote and Gore Vidal, who first met in 1945. They started life as friends, hanging out in gay bath- houses and Harlem dance-halls in the late Forties. They bickered about each other's work in 1948 and were still at it 30 years later. A pair of competitive prima donnas, each determined to be reigning literary celebrity, they kept up a long and public war, sniping at each other's reputations through mutual friends and fashionable magazines.
The only real contemporary feud - in the sense of a chronic and mutual loathing that grumbles like a dormant volcano and bursts into vivid life every so often - is that between Salman Rushdie and John Le Carre. It goes back to when Le Carre effectively told Rushdie he had brought the Iranian fatwa upon himself; he also said it was unwise to bring out the paperback version of The Satanic Verses in case the staff of bookshops got blown up. This followed the publication of Le Carre's The Russia House, which Rushdie had reviewed dismissively, saying Le Carre simply wasn't a "serious writer". It all flared up again just a year ago, when Le Carre was accused of anti-Semitism by PC American critics and Rushdie wrote to The Guardian saying, effectively, "So now he knows how it feels", and accusing le Carre of having "joined forces with my assailants". Le Carre hit the roof and called Rushdie "an arrogant colonialist". The row went on for a week in The Guardian's letters page, ending with Rushdie's scything peroration: "If he wants to win an argument, John Le Carre could begin by learning to read. I simply happen not to feel that priests and mullahs, let alone bombers and assassins, are the best people to set the limits of what it is possible to think." Whew.
Into this distinguished company steps Paul Theroux, a seasoned in-fighter and veteran of rows (most spectacularly with his novelist brother, Alexander) and a book which pulls off a spectacular closing coup de theatre - revealing that a friendship of 30 years turns out to have been a kind of feud all along.
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