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.
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.
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.”