Hugh Kingsmill's little book on Frank Harris (which I bought recently at The Bookshop in Wirksworth) certainly gets off to a lively start...
The time is a June afternoon in 1912, the place Dan Miller's bookshop off St Martin's Lane, London. Half a dozen regulars are in the inner room, including Kingsmill (Hugh Kingsmill Lunn), Middelton Murry and Katherine Mansfield. They are eagerly awaiting the arrival of Frank Harris, whom Murry is keen to introduce to Katherine Mansfield. What's more, the next issue of Murry's magazine, Rhythm, will carry an extravagant encomium of Harris, proclaiming him 'the spiritual equal of Shakespeare', 'acknowledged by all the great men of letters of his time to be greater than they; accepted by artists as their superior... a master of life,' his best short stories 'among the supreme creations of art', etc, etc.
What could possibly go wrong?
The answer soon came, in the form of a rampaging Frank Harris, in a towering rage with Murry for having published in the current Rhythm a piece wildly praising the poet James Stephens. Jabbing his finger at a passage from Stephens which Murry described as better than Milton, 'God's great fist!' roared Harris. 'And you call this better than Milton! You, Murry, put this drivel above Paradise Lost!'
Things got worse when Harris picked up the contents sheet of the next Rhythm, apparently unaware that he was being likened to Shakespeare in it, and began mocking the titles listed...
'He was beginning to improvise in Rabelaisian vein... when Murry burst into tears and ran out of the shop.
"Good God!" Harris stared round in amazement.
"Oh, he'll kill himself!" Katherine Mansfield cried, and rushed after Murry.
"What the...?" Harris gasped.
"That's Katherine Mansfield," I said.
"Katherine Mansfield!" He struck his brow with his hand. "Katherine Mansfield!" He turned to Harold Weston: "I thought she was a girl of yours."
Weston shook his head modestly.
"Why didn't any of you tell me?"
There was a long silence, and my next memory is of Harris and myself outside the shop...'
Eventually a reconciliation was brought about by Kingsmill, who sped by taxi to the Murry-Mansfield apartment and talked soothing words to the sobbing pair. Wiping their eyes, they returned to the bookshop and later went with Harris to the Cafe Royal. Murry's enthusiasm for 'the spiritual equal of Shakespeare' did not long outlast the unfortunate incident in Dan Miller's bookshop, but his encomium was duly published in the next Rhythm. In it, Murry hails 'a man whose word of praise can change the whole of life for me for months, and a word of condemnation make me cry till I think my heart would break. Even if Rhythm achieves nothing else that is ultimately permanent, it shall be rescued from oblivion by this alone, that it told the truth about Frank Harris.'
By golly, you don't come across that sort of writing in the London Review of Books, do you?
As for 'the truth about Frank Harris', that is soon eluding Kingsmill's best biographical efforts, as he discovers that almost nothing about Harris's life - even his date and country of birth - can be established with any certainty, and that Frank's copious autobiographical writings are the least reliable source of all. Still, Kingsmill remains good-humoured and indulgent, happy to follow the factual trail - such as it is - in parallel with the fantasy.
For example, when the young Harris took his leave of America (whither he had emigrated at the age of 14), he almost certainly made his way East and took ship for England. However, by his own account, he travelled West with a beautiful and adoring mulatto called Sophy, who was desperate to go with him on a journey round the world, as his servant if need be. Harris, however, manfully resolved that they must part, and so they did, in floods of tears, at San Francisco, whence Frank passed alone through the Golden Gate and into the Pacific.
Kingsmill drily summarises: 'Harris travelling westwards across the Pacific and Harris travelling eastwards across the Atlantic met again in Paris', where he resumes the story.
They don't make them like Frank Harris any more. They don't even make them like Middleton Murry. From that febrile literary scene, only Katherine Mansfield emerges as a genuine artist, whose works have deservedly lasted and become classic. However, thanks to his monstrously outsized 'character' and boundless gift for self-dramatising fantasy, the figure - if not the works - of Frank Harris will continue to loom large. And, to be fair, his My Life and Loves is something of a comedy classic.