When Ian McEwan got famously feuding once-friends Paul Theroux and VS Naipaul to shake hands and make up at the Hay lit-fest, it became a photo-op gleefully captured by publications that had nothing to do with literature, much less to do with any of the dramatis personae involved in the 15-year-old joust. But Theroux and Naipaul’s blazing row – over, what else, suspicions and women – had all the ingredients of the kind of salacious stuff that makes headlines across the world in distinctly unliterary publications. There were barbs, very public ones, and the two cerebral writers behaved like kindergarten kids. It was delicious.
What came out of it, apart from some well-documented tongue-lashing, was a book – Sir Vidia’s Shadow, Theroux’s revenge on Naipaul for trying to auction off a personally inscribed copy of his book dedicated to the Nobel laureate and his first wife. Sir Vidia’s Shadow, an ode to Naipaul’s “elevated crankishness”, though, is hardly the only product of a literary row. The good thing about cerebral fights is that they sometimes spawn stuff other than intemperate outpourings of a creative mind.
Take English poet John Dryden’s famed faceoff with fellow poet Thomas Shadwell. It resulted in Mac Flecknoe, Dryden’s mock heroic satire that was a not-too-veiled attack on Shadwell. Dryden and Shadwell famously sparred on their inspiration Ben Jonson and the structure and nature of comedy. Their differences were also political – one being a whig and the other a staunch royalist.
Had he been alive, Jonson would certainly have enjoyed the faceoff given how well he handled his own quarrels. He once invited critic John Sylvester to a repartee session. “I John Sylvester, Lay with your sister,” came the barb. Jonson’s reply was cutting, “I Ben Jonson, Lay with your wife.” “That is not rhyme,” said Sylvester. “No,” said Jonson. “But it is true.”
More recently, Salman Rushdie and John Le Carre had a delightfully bitchy slanging match via letters to the Guardian newspaper. Rushdie called his bete noire “ a pompous ass”. Back in the 80s, when Rushdie was in hiding after the fatwa on his life following the publication of Satanic Verses, the two writers locked horns on the question of freedom of speech and whether even literature needs to draw a line sometimes. It seems it all began when Rushdie trashed The Russia House in his review.
Years later, the quarrel resurfaced when Le Carre was left battling accusations of anti-Semetism in his writing. Le Carre wrote that his “purpose was not to justify the persecution of Rushdie, which, like any decent person, I deplore, but to sound a less arrogant, less colonialist and less self-righteous note than we were hearing from the safety of his admirers' camp.”
Rushdie replied, “I’m grateful to John le Carre for refreshing all our memories about exactly how pompous an ass he can be”….(his letter) “suggests that anyone who displeases philistine, reductionist, radical Islamist folk loses his right to live in safety.”
The pompous ass invective isn’t the only colourful endearment from Rushdie. When John Updike did a catty one on Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown for the New Yorker sometime in the mid-2000s, Rushdie retorted with a vicious below the belt attack. “Why, oh why, did Salman Rushdie in his new novel call one of his major characters Maximilian Ophuls?” said Updike. Rushdie’s reply: “A name is just a name. 'Why, oh why .. ?' Well, why not? Somewhere in Las Vegas there's probably a male prostitute called 'John Updike'.”
The review row is of course also as old as the hills. One of the most famous literary friendships turned sour also has a review angle. Albert Camus and Jean Paul Sartre were philosophers, thinkers and novelists. The two men appreciated the sameness in each other and after a slightly awkward introduction went on to become firm friends. Camus’ review of Nausea was both appreciative and critical. Sartre’s review of The Stranger, on the other hand, seemed to drip an “acid tone”. The joust, stuff of literary lore, has been captured in a splendid book by Ronald Aronson titled Camus & Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel That Ended It (Chicago 2004).
Of course any post on literary quarrels can go on and on. I haven’t yet mentioned the Norman Mailer-Gore Vidal faceoff or the Mary McCarthy-Lillian Hellman legal catfight. But then again, this is only a post….and I do need to keep some tidbits aside for my friends to enlighten me…so keep writing in and adding to the list I have mentioned here. I promise not to use this as a trigger for a word war…