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Bernard Shaw

an unauthorised biography based on firsthand information \ 1ste druk

Harris, Frank
Victor Gollancz, 1931, hardcover, 408 p.
Engels

Antiquariaat

with a postscript by mr Shaw

Frank Harris' life of Bernard Shaw was his biggest-selling book when first published, but was it actually written by him? In fact no less than four authors had a hand in it, but while an examination of the text may provide some evidence of the literary skullduggery involved, most of the clues were destroyed by Shaw himself.

Living in Nice in 1930, Harris was desperately ill and in need of money. Either he himself, or his secretary Frank Scully - of whom more shortly - came up with the idea of writing a biography of Bernard Shaw. Some materials were already to hand, principally Harris' portrait of Shaw from his earlier work <cite>Contemporary Portraits, Second Series</cite>, published in 1919, together with a number of letters from Shaw that Harris had received over the years. If Shaw and others could be persuaded to provide further material, Harris and Scully would have the makings of a potentially profitable book; so on that basis numerous letters were sent to Shaw and anyone else who might help, soliciting anecdotes, recollections and opinions of the great man.

Frank Scully, to whom the book would eventually be dedicated, was an American journalist living in Nice, who at some time previously had misreported Harris as dead and thus caused his obituary to be printed in several American and English papers. Despite this rather macabre association, Scully became Harris' secretary some time around 1930. Scully later claimed in his book <cite>Rogues' Gallery</cite> to have ghost-written both the biography of Shaw and Harris' book of cowboy life <cite>On the Trail</cite>. Sheila Hodges, in her <cite>Gollancz, the Story of a Publishing House</cite> (1978) also says that Scully ghosted the Shaw biography.

Scully alleged that Harris was too ill to write the book himself, that in fact his memory was so poor he could not remember what he had written from one day to the next, so he, Scully, had to take on the job himself. He also said that he did not receive any money for his enterprise, but since according to his version of events Harris was at the time practically ga-ga, it is hard to accord Scully much sympathy: it was he who negotiated the contracts and therefore rooked himself, it would seem.

Now there comes into the story another figure: in her <cite>biography of Harris</cite> Philippa Pullar notes the following intriguing snippet from Nellie Harris' diary for January 17, 1931:

Scully wants to employ labour - a competent man who knows how to write because now they have all the 'material'.

Pullar did not identify the 'competent man', but it seems likely that he was in fact the anarchist Alexander Berkman. In a letter, Berkman writes:-

... the book on Shaw, published by Frank Harris after his death last year, had also my hand in it. It was the secretary of Harris, one Frank Scully, an American journalist, who was to help Harris write the book. Harris wrote about 40,000 words and could not go on. His memory failed and he repeated himself. So Frank Scully took the book in hand and invited me to help him, as he himself is no author, just a journalist. Some of the chapters in the book have been written by me from beginning to end.
[Reproduced by permission of the International Institute of Social History]

Berkman's claim is supported by the fact that the examples of Scully's prose I have seen are in a waggish, juvenile style which could hardly be passed off as that of Harris.

The success of the project was threatened by the actions of Shaw, who had at first promised that Harris could use his letters verbatim, but then withdrew his permission and insisted that they must be paraphrased. Then, while this wrangling was still going on, Harris died. Shaw, perhaps regretting his intransigence and doubtless moved by Nellie's situation, took over the final preparation of the book. He wrote to Gollancz:

The book falls off badly at the end. There are two chapters (one of them commercially libellous) so bad that I think he must have left them to Scully to write.

Shaw corrected many factual errors and largely rewrote sections which were in an unsatisfactory state, then destroyed the galley proofs to hide the extent of his reworking, concerned to protect Harris' reputation and his own: a biography largely rewritten by its subject was unlikely to be warmly welcomed by its potential readership. George W. Bishop, a friend of Shaw's, described in his book of memoirs <cite>My Betters</cite>, what happened to the proofs:

If it existed, one of the most interesting and valuable, pieces of Shaviana would be that proof copy of <cite>Bernard Shaw</cite> by Frank Harris. At Shaw's request Victor Gollancz had a page-proof bound up with blank sheets interleaved and he let me look at it with Shaw's corrections and revisions. Page after page had been entirely rewritten by G.B.S., who, as he stated, had piously preserved 'all the criticisms, jibes, explosions of passing ill-humour and condemnations'.

Recently I asked Victor Gollancz if he still possessed that unique page-proof. He told me that shortly after the Frank Harris book was published, G.B.S. strode into his office in Henrietta Street and asked to see him. Shaw was shown into his room and he said he wanted the proof back. 'I went to the safe, where it was kept, and handed it to him to take away and destroy,' Victor Gollancz said somewhat ruefully.

Despite Shaw's exertions there are still traces of the book's origins. Here is part of one passage as it appeared in <cite>Contemporary Portraits</cite>, describing Shaw's appearance at the time when Harris recruited him to write for the <cite>Saturday Review</cite>:

Shaw at this time was nearing forty; very tall, over six feet in height and thin to angularity; a long bony face, corresponding, I thought, to a tendency to get to bedrock everywhere; rufous fair hair and long, untrimmed reddish beard; gray-blue English eyes with straight eyebrows tending a little upwards from the nose and thus adding a touch of Mephistophelian sarcasm to the alert, keen expression. He was dressed carelessly in tweeds with a Jaeger flannel shirt and negligent tie; contempt of frills written all over him; his hands clean and well-kept, but not manicured. His complexion, singularly fair even for a man with reddish hair, seemed too bloodless to me, reminded me of his vegetarianism which had puzzled me more than a little for some time. His entrance into the room, his abrupt movements - as jerky as the ever-changing mind - his perfect unconstraint - all showed an able man, very conscious of his ability, very direct, very sincere, sharply decisive.

Now, from the first chapter of <cite>Bernard Shaw</cite>:

My first acquaintance with him was listening to him forty years ago at a Socialist gathering in the East-end of London. He spoke under the auspices of the Social Democratic Federation of Hyndman and he spoke as a Communist, as a confirmed Marxian. He made a certain impression on me: he was very tall, over six feet in height, and thin to angularity: a long bony face, corresponding, I thought, to a tendency to get to bedrock everywhere; rufous fair hair and long, untrimmed reddish beard; gray-blue English eyes with straight eyebrows tending a little upwards at the outside and thus adding a touch of the familiar Mephistophelian sarcasm to the alert keen expression. He was dressed carelessly in tweeds with a Jaeger collar over a conventional tie; contempt of frills hands clean and well-kept, but not manicured. His complexion, singularly fair even for a man with reddish hair, seemed too bloodless to me, reminded me of his vegetarianism which had puzzled me more than a little for some time. His abrupt movements - as jerky as the ever-changing mind - his perfect unconstraint: all showed an able man, very conscious of his ability, very direct, very sincere, sharply decisive - and above all a charming talker with enough brogue to make women appraise him with an eye to capture.

Who, I wonder, added that last clause? Here is another extract, this time from chapter nine of <cite>Bernard Shaw</cite>:

Shaw was at this time over thirty-nine and thin as a rail, with a long, bony, bearded face. His untrimmed beard was reddish, though his hair was fairer. He was dressed carelessly in tweeds with the inevitable Jaeger collar. His entrance into the room, his abrupt movements - as jerky as the ever-changing mind - his perfect unconstraint, his devilish look, all showed a man very conscious of his ability, very direct, very sharply decisive, though a good deal of this may have been put on for my benefit.

This is clearly the same passage edited by another hand; and again, a clause of somewhat derogatory import towards Shaw has been added. There are plenty of other examples of such gratuitous abuse, the most likely source being Scully, who himself admitted that at this time he bore a grudge against Shaw.

A thorough textual analysis might reveal more, but my tentative conclusion is that Scully took Harris' meagre first draft and added a few insults to Shaw, then, finding the work too onerous, got Berkman in to finish it off. Whether Berkman had finished his efforts when Harris died is unclear, but whatever state the book was in at this point will never be known because of Shaw's final transformation of it into what we have today: an unsatisfactory, muddled work that is more interesting for what Shaw said about Harris in his postscript than for anything the unhappy team of Harris, Scully, Berkman and Shaw said, about Shaw.


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