Literary history

Literary friendships that lead to better books (but also ferocious fights)

When authors befriend one another, there can be love and there can be hate.

In the 1998 movie, Shakespeare in Love, one particular scene depicts William Shakespeare talking to Christopher Marlowe. Shakespeare is writing what is then Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter. Marlowe offers the name Juliet and the tragic events that were to be at the heart of the plot. The writers are on easy terms addressing each other as Kit and Will.

Experts and scholars believe the two probably never met in real life, though some conspiracy theories see Marlowe as the actual author of Shakespeare’s oeuvre. But the point is that it shows two writers talking to each other about their work and craft, and one benefiting from the other’s ideas. Such literary friendships have existed in real-life too – as have bitter enmities.

Tagore and Yeats

In 1913, Rabindranath Tagore became the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. While Tagore had written a great deal already, the basis for that prize was more or less a single work, Gitanjali. This work had been brought to worldwide attention by the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, who had not only written the introduction to the collection, but had also championed it on the London cultural scene where he was a prominent figure. In fact, he referred to the London meeting with Tagore as “one of the great events of my artistic life”.

In his Introduction, Yeats had waxed lyrical about the effect Gitanjali had on him: “I have carried the manuscript of these translations about with me for days, reading it in railway trains, or on the top of omnibuses and in restaurants, and I have often had to close it lest some stranger would see how much it moved me.”

In later years, however, Yeats’s passion cooled and he found Tagore’s subsequent works overly sentimental. But by then Tagore was a world-renowned figure and had many admirers. Yeats’s friendship had kicked the doors of the West open post, after which the India writer had made his own way forward.

Narayan and Greene

Among the more famous friendships in which one writer played mentor to another is the one between RK Narayan and Graham Greene. In 1934, RK Narayan, as a young writer, had been rejected many times over by publishers in England. Dejected, he told his friend through whom he had despatched the manuscript to England to dump it in the Thames.

But his friend chanced to show the manuscript to Greene, who was quite taken with it. He made several suggestions for improvement, and also advised Rasipuram Krishnaswami Narayan to call himself RK Narayan. Swami and Friends soon found a publisher – Hamish Hamilton – and Narayan was on his way. The friendship stood the test of time, Greene playing the mentor throughout, suggesting changes, titles, proofing manuscripts and finding publishers for a number of Narayan’s books.

Kolatkar, Mehrotra and Chitre

A lesser-known friendship, not quite of the mentorship sort, was the one that Arun Kolatkar shared with his fellow poets Dilip Chitre and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra. Chitre, like Kolatkar was a bilingual poet moving between Marathi and English with relative ease whereas Mehrotra is an English poet and an important anthologist.

In 2004, Kolatkar was on his death-bed and Mehrotra was editing a collection of his poems, which later appeared as The Boatride and other poems. In his introduction to this volume, there is a touching story about how Mehrotra rushed to Pune to talk to Kolatkar to clear some of the finer points of Kolatkar’s long poem, The Boatride.

In Pune, Mehrotra also met up with Chitre, who had recently completed a film on Kolatkar and also had a lot of archival material, including unpublished poems, relating to the poet. This fortuitous trip and meeting led to a far more extensive collection of Kolatkar’s works than had been previously planned. It also enriched the introduction Mehrotra wrote for the book, since he had now secured access to a lot more material and understood certain aspects of Kolatkar’s life better.

Hindi writers and their relationships

In the world of modern Hindi literature, Jaishankar Prasad, Sumitranandan Pant and Suryakant Tripathi “Nirala” rank among the pioneers. The trio, along with Mahadevi Varma, are part of the “Chhayavad” school which was akin to the Romantic movement in English literature. Prasad was the oldest of the three and Nirala was the enfant terrible. After visiting a brothel in Calcutta’s Sonagachi, when Nirala contracted a serious disease, it was Prasad who got the financially hard-up writer treated.

As for Nirala and Pant, it was a completely different story. In Harivansh Rai Bachchan’s autobiography (published in four volumes in Hindi and condensed and translated into English by Rupert Snell as In the Afternoon of Time), there is mention of a bizarre incident which illustrates the fraught relationship that the two writers shared.

Apparently, in 1948, when Bachchan, Pant and another Hindi writer, Amritlal Nagar, were having tea one hot summer afternoon, Nirala strode in, caught up in something of a frenzy. In those days he was perpetually clad in a wrestler’s get-up. Nirala then challenged Pant to a wrestling match even as Bachchan and Nagar watched, horrified. This was just an extreme illustration of the intense dislike the two poets had for each other. While they are forever bracketed together in any discussion on Hindi literature, in reality the two poets hated each other.

Meanwhile in America

An unlikely American literary friendship was between Truman Capote and Harper Lee. Lee, whose fame rested on a solitary work, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) till the sequel Go Set A Watchman came out – was something of a recluse. Capote, on the other hand, was something of a party animal and led a jet-setting life in New York.

Also, unlike Lee, Capote wrote prolifically after winning fame with his novel Other Voices, Other Rooms, published in 1948. Breakfast at Tiffany’s, published in 1958 and several other books, scripts and plays, cemented his reputation as one of the best writers of his generation. The character Dill in Mockingbird is based on Capote – or, at least, that’s what he said. The famously reticent Lee neither confirmed nor denied this. Lee assisted Capote extensively for his book, In Cold Blood (1965). As far as literary friendships go, theirs was certainly odd given their contrasting personalities.

Perhaps the most documented literary feud was the one between Gore Vidal and Capote feud. Vidal, the American writer of books such as Myra Breckinridge and Myron hated Capote. He once said: "Capote I truly loathed. The way you might loathe an animal. A filthy animal that has found its way into the house." He then later remarked that Capote had "raised lying into an art – a minor art". Capote’s caustic retort: "Of course, I'm always sad about Gore. Very sad that he has to breathe every day."

It’s not quite clear though why they hated each other. They actually had much in common. They published their debut novels in the same year, 1948. They were both openly homosexual at a time when it was dangerous to be so. They both lived in New York and were protégés of another homosexual writer, Tennessee Williams.

But they regularly took potshots at each other through the press and ridiculed one another’s writing styles. They famously even went to court against each other and the feud only ended with Capote’s death in 1984. Vidal also had a running feud with another writer, Norman Mailer, with Mailer once head-butting Vidal and later tearing into him in a TV show even as Vidal maintained an eerie calm.

Latin lovers

While Capote and Vidal only came close to blows, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, both giants in Spanish literature who won the Nobel Prize, actually did. The authors were once close friends. But in 1976, the friendship came apart. Rumour has it that it was over a woman and the woman in question was Vargas Llosa’s wife, Patricia, who is believed to have sought solace with Garcia Marquez when her husband had a dalliance with a Swedish flight attendant.

In retaliation, appropriately on Valentine’s Day in 1976, Vargas Llosa gave Garcia Marquez a black eye at a cinema in Mexico City. The Columbian writer shrugged it off and even had himself photographed with the black eye. For years, that such a photograph existed was an oft-repeated rumour. In 2007, the photograph actually surfaced, much to everyone’s amusement.

Serious-minded folks attribute a loftier reason to the punch-up though. Vargas Llosa veered to the right of centre and even ran for the presidency of Peru in 1990 as a free-marketer, whereas Garcia Marquez was a proclaimed leftist and his friendship with Fidel Castro was legendary. It could have been an altercation over politics.

Protégé-foe-friend

The only instance perhaps of a self-documented feud is that of the one between Paul Theroux and VS Naipaul. Theroux was once Naipaul’s protégé. But later, the friendship soured over Theroux’s criticism of Naipaul’s writing and other misunderstandings. Sir Vidia’s Shadow (1998) by Paul Theroux was entirely about the feud and how it played out.

This feud ended in 2011 at the Jaipur Literary Festival. Given that Rajasthan is a land known for ever-lasting blood conflicts, this reconciliation on its soil is ironic.

Another happy ending of sorts: the Vargas Llosa-Garcia Marquez feud did not prevent the former from publicly praising the latter’s writings. In 2014, when Garica Marquez died, Vargas Llosa said: "A great writer has died. His work gave wide publicity and prestige to literature. His novels will survive him and will continue to gain readers everywhere.”

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.