Books: A case of penis envy

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Faber Book of Writers on Writers

edited by Sean French Faber pounds 20

The first time I realised that literary giants had feet of clay was when Robert Lowell came to speak at my university in the early 1970s. At the reception afterwards a local poet-drunk poured the contents of his glass on the table housing some of Lowell's volume of verse and a riot ensued. Was this how literary types conducted themselves?

Lowell features prominently in Sean French's collection of writers on writers: poems on Pound and Eliot, pen-portraits of John Berryman and two portraits of the New Englander himself by no less than Arthur Miller and Norman Mailer. Most intimately there is Seamus Heaney on Lowell's acupuncture treatment: Heaney cannot stop himself "from turning that accidental moment into an image ... Gulliver in Lilliput, disabled, pinned down, yet essentially magnificent". It would seem that the image of the poet has won out over that of the man, for there is nothing in these abstracts which rescues Lowell from a rather starchy, diffident Bostonian fence- sitting.

In his introduction, French quotes Auden who said that "writers have no small talk" and so when they run into each other there is nothing for them to talk about except money. Of course he meant that writing is not a collaborative art, like painting when Monet and Boudin studied the effect of light side by side. Writing, like Samuel Johnson's view of Shakespeare, is a private, personal thing, and French makes the point that it is no small irony that Holden Caulfield, who thought how nice it would be to be friends with his favourite writer, was the product of J D Salinger, the ultimate in literary recluses.

This is a collection which runs the gamut of Western literature from Ben Jonson on Shakespeare to Paul Theroux being forced by V S Naipaul to pay for tea, and Martin Amis gnashing inwardly at Nicholson Baker's youth ("never before had I interviewed a literary junior") and physical stature ("fabulously and pointlessly tall, tall beyond utility, and waveringly plinthed on his size 14 shoes"). Much of it is gleaned from standard sources: Virginia Woolf's diaries, Boswell's Life of Johnson, Proust's letters, John Aubrey's Brief Lives, the latter being one of the first sources of information about authors which delved beyond the generalised and the abstract. Aubrey on Marvell: "He was of middling stature, pretty strong set, roundish faced, cheery cheeked, hazel eye, brown hair ... Some suspect he was poisoned by the Jesuits, but I cannot be positive."

Aubrey's mixture of description and gossip, anecdote, myth, and sheer fibbing made him something of a subject for jest in his lifetime but he was a precursor of Boswell, Johnson and Rousseau, all liberally represented here, who began to establish an important link between a writer's life and his art. Thus Boswell was regarded by many contemporaries, notably Macaulay, as a cruel betrayer, a plunderer of intimacy and friendship. More recently, similar accusations have been launched against Theroux for his sometimes acrimonious memoir of Naipaul, and Philip Roth whom Claire Bloom attacked for making ruthless use of their private lives. The growth of interest in the writer as a public and private figure has given employment to countless university dons and researchers, but is delving into all this too deeply rather like what Philip Larkin described as talking about how you make love to your wife? Does it really improve one's appreciation, asks French, to know that Vladimir Nabokov was wont to write his novels on index cards: "Since he had the entire novel in his mind, he could prepare this or that passage to any point in the novel and fill in the gaps in no special order."

Perhaps the most amusing meetings mentioned within these pages are the most suspicious and disastrous. When Marcel Proust met James Joyce in 1922, their conversation consisted entirely of "No". Neither had read each other's works, and when Joyce opened a taxi window, Proust, who was notoriously sensitive to draughts, abruptly closed it. Somehow there is something vaguely reassuring in all this, as reassuring as the lack of information about Shakespeare, something which sends us back to the writings unsullied and refreshed. For those who require more grainy fare, here you can find the full details of Hemingway's reassuring words to Scott Fitzgerald, saddened by Zelda's remarks about his penis size; Thomas Hardy refusing the term "pessimist" when offered it by G K Chesterton; and Mark Twain's surprising but passionate love of the works of Kipling.

Certainly the best on offer here goes beyond the journalistic and the personality-fed, most notably in the passages which reveal a genuine empathy between subject and author: Robert Graves visiting Thomas Hardy is warned against using the poetic cliche of "the scent of thyme" and against producing too many drafts of poems; Henry James's essays on R L Stevenson are a model of judicious elegance. Funniest of all is Kingsley Amis recalling an appearance alongside Jack Kerouac on an American TV programme about whether or not there is a Beat Generation. "I also wondered, and still do, just what it is that people anywhere in the world got out of attending discussions or lectures by literary persons. For the majority I imagine, one might as well be speaking in Choctaw; the visual appeal is what counts. For all his evident casualness, Mr Kerouac was shrewd enough to have grasped that."