My Life and Loves
by Frank Harris, edited and introduced by John F. Gallagher
Grove, 1008 pp., $12.50
The autobiography of Frank Harris was originally published in five volumes; collected here into one, it runs only just short of a thousand pages, amounting, like everything else about Harris, to just ten times too much. It was written, of course, to provide money for the wretch in his old age, so that it is possible to excuse him by saying that so long as Harris went on his autobiography had to as well. Just so—and just like his infernal cheek to live so long anyway. Given his habits and behavior, he should have been dead by the age of thirty, a generation before this book was even started. But if so, we should have been, I suppose, the poorer: better a thousand pages of Harris on his Life than none at all.
There are times, however, when even these scant thanks appear excessive. Can there ever have been, since St. Paul, such a pompous, conceited, opinionated, patronizing ass? Patronizing Ruskin, Emerson, Carlyle, Whitman, Wilde, and the Prince of Wales; patronizing the Parthenon or the whole continent of North America; patronizing the arts, patronizing philosophy, patronizing God. Prose stodgy and repetitious; moralizing at once trite and windy; and as for the celebrated sex, orgasms going off as noisily and monotonously as a twenty-one gun salute—to Frank Harris, of course.
As a writer he has only one infallible talent: whatever the topic, he reduces his reader to instant incredulity. This does not matter so much when he is discussing his powers as a lover (we are all allowed to tell lies about that) but it is pitiful, it is maddening, when he is on to something of real interest or importance, as indeed he very often is. For Harris really did meet the great men of his time, he really was received (if not often welcomed) in distinguished circles and made privy to secrets high and low; but what on earth is the good of this when a single sentence earns him an immediate vote of no confidence—even on those occasions when we know he is telling the truth? Take his career as a journalist: it is, for example, a matter of historic fact that Harris was for some time a successful editor of The Evening News; but the complacency and egotism, the sheer unreality, of his account is such that it reads like the daydream of an adolescent half-wit. How much less, then, is one likely to believe Harris when his matter is not subject to verification. Can one really believe that Longman offered to bring out Harris’s juvenilia on the strength of a mere glance and the recommendation of Froude? Can one really believe (how dearly one wishes to) that Lord Randolph Churchill discovered a primary chancre on himself while sitting at dinner with Jowett? That General Skobelef was rendered impotent by youthful excesses with his serfs? That Ruskin discovered and then burnt a cache of obscene paintings by Turner? That those on the high …