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 table at the Lord Mayor’s banquet in 1883 ate and drank so hoggishly that “the stench was insupportable”? There is no prima facie reason for disbelieving any of this—no reason at all except that Harris, in his whole style, tone and manner, radiates dishonesty as pungently as a rotten lobster, until one’s very stomach cries out against touching it.
Why? Harris was a man of undeniable energy and talent, his other books have won him warm and discerning admirers, he personally enjoyed, for forty years, the affectionate regard of Bernard Shaw. Why, then, does one react to My Life (mistakenly, perhaps, but from the very first pages inevitably) by writing the whole thing off as a tissue of falsehood, laughable in the rare places where it is not contemptible?
There are, I think, three reasons. First, the bad writing and the wooden dialogue: nobody could have had conversations like these and the obvious inference is that he didn’t. One may defend Harris on the ground that he was an old man beset with worries and writing in a hurry to get bread; if he had had more time and comfort, one may say, he might have done more justice to his material, some of which must be genuine. The plain fact remains that he has written what he has written and it won’t wash.
The second cause I would suggest for his disrepute is his indulgence in sickening passages of piety. Great glutinous paragraphs about Jesus Christ and His appreciation of Frank Harris do not sort well with the worldly pretensions, let alone with the sexual bombast. Either this whining is sincere or it is not: if it is not, then Harris was an insufferable hypocrite, and if it is, he was an insufferable fool.
And this brings us to the third and perhaps greatest reason for mistrusting him: the sheer, overwhelming, almost ethereal silliness to be found on every second page. Although I could find five hundred instances, one must suffice.
In the course of a typically artificial conversation with a fashionable doctor, Harris was informed that very few Jews get syphilis. Anxious to hear more about this convenient immunity, he was told that after circumcision the cuticle toughens and can therefore resist the intrusions of the spirochete. I should have thought the objections to this theory were too obvious to need stating, but Harris (“I felt sure, too, that the hardening of the cuticle would prolong the act”) went rushing off to get himself circumcised—with the result that he found love-making extremely painful for the next year, and serve him right. The point of this tale lies less in the incident than in Harris’s manner of recounting it. With solemn self-regard, with asinine absorption in his own welfare, he cannot allow one hint of comedy to enter the affair, and instead reads us a po-faced lecture on how his enforced chastity endowed him for a while with intense energy, which he had at first attributed to the climate but later discovered, after a wet dream, to be due to the “pentup semen.”
For once I see no reason to question his sincerity, and either way the inference is plain: Harris was in large part a clown whose endless importunities and real abilities enabled him to push his way, time after time, into a serious act. Sooner or later the clown within would assert himself and ludicrous disaster would follow. Exit Harris, to come bouncing up somewhere else a few weeks later. (Whatever one may think of him, he was heroically irrepressible.) Naturally enough for one of his self-importance he cannot bring himself, while recalling his life and loves, to reveal his own clownishness (if, indeed, he is aware of it), and so everything must be twisted and falsified, whether consciously or unconsciously, to give apparent dignity to the clowning. Never once in a thousand pages does Harris knowingly present himself as ridiculous; but for all his lies, he cannot disguise this one fundamental truth, and herein lies the charm of this autobiography:—an ass seeking to promote himself by braying has indeed done so—first into a portentous ass and finally into a quintessential one.
January 9, 1964