With the passing of the Augustan figure and intellectual bruiser Gore Vidal, I’ve had cause to think about literary rivalry.
It’s well known to each and every keyboard hitter about the hostility between Vidal and Norman Mailer(youtube.com/watch?v=C8m9vDRe8fw). The Titans of Swing really had it in for each other in both the intellectual and literary ring. In some sense, their acerbic brawls overshadowed their literary outpouring — well almost. For me, they both seem marked, I think, by the immortality of posture that Milan Kundera wrote about.
As a young writer even I had my own bouts with writers. And it began with Hemingway. I never got what all the fuss over him was about. Yes, I got his use of economical language (but is writing solely about balancing the books?) and his great macho persona where each of his heavy testicles were raised high on the bookshelf of every poor male writer who seemed to have catkins between his legs in comparison. I never could bring myself to drink at Papa’s Hem’s animalistic trough of masculine greatness. I wanted to follow in the footsteps of a writer like Mervyn Peake, strolling around the Island of Sark in his cape and poet’s hat like he’d just stepped out from a Harry Clarke painting and was infused with the light of a pansexual being.
Oh, the spats I had with dead writers! You should have seen me, hidden away in my room, stomping the floorboards, shaking whatever writer’s book was du jour that day in my hand and railing against his or her departed spirit who I imagined took a break from the great library in the sky and popped down to have an argy-bargy with me. And I always lost the argument, callow writer that I was. Or maybe I made myself lose, cause who really could best the likes of Camus, Henry Miller, DH Lawrence, Tolkien, Peake, Ursula Le Guin, Simone de Beauvoir, Anais Nin, Satre, Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Lloyd Alexander, Knut Hamsun, Hesse, Dylan Thomas, Angela Carter, Jeanette Winterson, Tove Jansson, Kundera, Joyce, Blake, Byron, Shelley, Arthur Machen, Tennessee Williams, Ted Hughes, Black Adder, Del Boy, Basil Fawlty, Judge Dredd, Fungus the Bogeyman, Morrissey, Ian McCulloch, Mick Jones, Paul Weller… and the list runs ever on, and on, and on.
Writers are always going on about the importance of reading, and, yes, it is important if you want to write. But I would add it’s also important to get into intellectual scraps with the writers you love, even if you never ever meet them. And it’s especially important to rattle the bones of dead ones — if for no other reason than it keeps their work alive.
In fact, I have a secret rivalry of my very own, too. A bit of an Edwardian, gentleman’s feud with a writer that’s all imaginary cricket bats and cravats and smoking rooms and letter openers and spats and tops hats and stuffy libraries and port. But neither of us have ever admitted to the other that there’s anything between us but a book — if even that. It’s more a rivalry that’s all in my head with us two pygmies of the intellectual void wrestling and wrangling in muck like pagan fools both destined for a ritual killing. Writing about it now, the whole thing sounds petty, stupid, and enormously entertaining. Every writer needs distraction and the impulse to create. And god knows what we’d even spat about if we ever squared off with our six-shooter mouths and our saddlebags of favourite writers strapped to our hips. It would probably be over what flavour ice cream we prefer and insults that would probably go something like this:
Me: “Your book’s crap.
Him: “You haven’t even finished yours.”
Me: “I hate your hair. It’s like liver and onions.”
Him: “Shorn boy and sheep shagger!” (*)
Me: “And what’s with those testosterone tanks strapped between your legs? Do they give you a squirt?”
Him: “It’s better than your bottle of dandelion wine.”
Me: “Yeah, well, for all your hot oven of masculinity, why is it you turn out cupcakes.”
Him: “Pigeon breath.”
Me: “Hog anus.”
Him: “You write like a lobotomized squid.”
Me: “Is that the amount of your intellectual fireworks, a pathetic squid? You know what, I don’t even know why I have a rivalry with you. You’re a lousy writer who can only string together sentences that have been around the block so many times they’ve actually built a necropolis. Plus as a person, you register on the humanity scale as a single-celled organism. Go try another phylum or else pack up your DNA and take a holiday by the genetic deficiency gene pool. And one last thing: I just realized you’re not even worth the effort.”
Shit, I maybe on to something here.
*Author’s Note: For the record, I have never shagged a sheep. But I have eaten Sunday mutton.