VIJAY NAIR

Literary collaborations seem to have their own fascinating stories to tell.

An antagonism between scholars loyal to either of the writers lingers on to this day even though both Conrad and Ford are long dead. Conrad scholars have long written off Ford as a dunce while Ford loyalists frown at the meanness and manipulation of Conrad.

The best kept secret in the literary world may very well be the collaborative authorship of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” that played a significant part in the poet winning the Noble Prize for Literature. While Eliot’s vision in writing this masterpiece cannot be denied; what is not as widely known, however, is the part Ezra Pound played in the creation of this modernist poem with over 400 lines. Pound was Eliot’s mentor and the work is dedicated to him. It was to Pound Eliot took the first and the subsequent drafts and he played a significant role in chiselling the work with his editing and suggestions for improvement. Eliot might have been only returning the favour when he wrote the essay “Tradition and Individual Talent,” by including many of the ideas found in Pound’s poetry thus facilitating a greater understanding of his mentor’s works for scholars and academics in the years to come.

Unlikely collaboration

The mentor-protégé relationship also saw the unlikely collaboration of two 19th century Victorian writers with disparate styles collaborating on two plays and a short story. Charles Dickens, one of the most revered figures in English Literature, had an unlikely disciple in Wilkie Collins Collins’s pen made popular a brand of fiction known as “sensation novels,” a genre that led to the birth of the modern day detective novels. Dickens appointed Collins, Editor of the literary journals he brought out and also got his daughter married to the younger brother of his protégé. “The Frozen Deep” and “No Thoroughfare” the two plays written jointly by them have not lingered on in public consciousness unlike the novels they wrote individually, the plays having met with what one would call a “mixed response” in today’s parlance when they were staged initially. However the first staging of “The Frozen Deep,” that Dickens produced led to the breakdown of his marriage. He met Ellen Ternan, an actress who played a part in the play, and left his wife Catherine for her. Dickens and Collins, on the other hand, remained friends for life.

Not all literary collaborations have run the smooth course of the aforementioned partnerships. Certainly financial need on the part of Joseph Conrad prompted him to make the suggestion of partnering on a novel to Ford Madox Ford. A collaboration that produced two novels and a novella. When they met, the 41-year-old Conrad was almost bankrupt even though he had won a certain literary acclaim for the works he had written before Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim. The 24-year-old Ford was prolific having already published children’s stories, a collection of poems, a novel of uncertain merit and his grandfather’s biography. It was their common friend Edward Garnett who encouraged them to come together to write a novel that Ford was struggling with. Conrad proposed what he was to later call “the fatal partnership”, which disintegrated after the two had collaborated on some minor works, much inferior to what each produced individually. There may have been no public falling out between the two but it is clear that there was not much love lost between them either during or after their collaboration. An antagonism between scholars loyal to either of the writers lingers on to this day even though both Conrad and Ford are long dead. Conrad scholars have long written off Ford as a dunce while Ford loyalists frown at the meanness and manipulation of Conrad. Sadly the outputs from their collaboration have nothing to commend them either.

Considering W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood met in school, it’s not surprising their lives ran in such parallel tracks joining them in an intimate relationship that spanned companionship, friendship and love. They seemed to have shared political leanings that veered towards the left and gravitated towards spirituality in their later years. They collaborated on three plays written in verse, even though Auden’s chosen medium was poetry and Isherwood achieved fame with his novels. They may have ended up with different partners towards the end of their lives but their affection appears to have remained undiminished considering they continued to dedicate even some of their later works to each other.

Doomed relationship

No writing collaboration came out of the doomed relationship between Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath that led to the latter’s suicide over their troubled marriage. Ironically after her death, Hughes inherited Plath’s estate that was to be administered by his sister who did not get along with Plath during her lifetime. The inheritance enabled Hughes to destroy the last journal written by Plath that allegedly contained her disillusionment with him. But Hughes edited a volume of her Collected Poems and got them published many years after her death.

One of the most fascinating literary collaborations seems to have come about quite by accident. On their visit to Australia, D.H. Lawrence stayed with his wife in a guesthouse that was partly owned by an aspiring writer Mollie Skinner. An unlikely friendship seems to have developed between the mature Lawrence and the fledgling Skinner leading to the senior writer taking her under his wings and collaborating on a novel written by her on her brother’s immigrant experience and adding valuable psychological inputs to the book. The novel, The Boy in the Bush, is considered by many to be one of the best written by the controversial writer. Lawrence and Skinner collaborated on another novel that sadly never saw the light of the day.

The chequered literary landscape of Australia has seen many literary partnerships especially among women writers. Perhaps the multiple controversies dotting Australian writers and writing made writers like Marjorie Faith Bernard, Flora Eldershaw, Florence James, Dorothea Mackellar, Ruth Bedford go in for collaborative ventures with each other. However, the first Australian writer to make an international impact Rosa Campbell Praed collaborated with the noted male Irish writer Justin McCarthy on three novels after she immigrated to England from the land of immigrants.

One of the greatest literary hoaxes of all times came about because of a collaboration of sorts in the same land. James McAuley and Harold Stewart, two young and disgruntled Australian poets, were jealous of a fellow poet Max Harris who had got funding to bring out a literary magazine Angry Penguins. They got together one afternoon to pick up random words and phrases from the Concise Oxford Dictionary, Collected Works of William Shakespeare and Ripman’s Rhyming Dictionary, to string together a series of poems and mailed it to Harris under the fictitious name of Ern Melley. Not content with the make belief name, they also came up with a story of Ern Melley dying and his sister chancing upon the poems in the attic. It was from this fictitious sister of a fictitious dead man that Harris received the poems by post.

Hoaxes

Needless to say, the gullible upstart who had until then posed as a great patron of good poetry fell for the hoax hook line and sinker, coming as it did with the melodramatic story to back it. He immediately circulated the poems to some of his famous literary friends, all of whom agreed that the modernist poems had great potential and Melley could give his illustrious English peers a run for their money. A special edition of Angry Penguins was rushed out towards the end of the Second World War. The newspapers of the time cottoned on to the hoax soon enough not just destroying Harris’s credibility but also blighting the context of Modern Australian Poetry. For a long time, no Australian with literary aspirations ventured into writing free verse.

Another literary hoax perpetuated by a team of collaborators in the 1960s led to a happier ending of sorts. Mike Mcgrade, a columnist with a New York newspaper Newsday was appalled with the quality of mainstream literature being brought out by American publishers. He convinced two dozen of his colleagues to write a chapter each for a raunchy novel suggestively titled Naked Came the Stranger. The book supposedly written by a bored suburban housewife called Penelope Ashe was about the sexual escapades of a lady working in a radio station. Many of the contributors found their portions returned for rewrite as Mcgrade thought them to be too well written. He also got his sister-in-law to pose as the author. The book sold 20,000 advance copies and offers poured in to acquire the film rights of the book. The hoax being discovered had no impact on the sales of the book that continues to be in print.

Instances of Indians collaboratingin literature are rare. However, one of the best-selling novels about India, Freedom at Midnight, came about due to collaboration between two foreign writers: Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins.

In the present day context, the genre of science fiction has seen many collaborative ventures in print. This is one genre where literary partnerships to tell a story appear to thrive. Save for this field, the individualistic and professional approach of most modern fiction writers does not seem to lend itself to collaborative endeavours.