Culturebox can’t think of a relationship more appalling than the benign bond alleged to exist between mentor and prot,g,. How humiliating for the supplicant, to grovel before the living proof of his own inadequacy! How nervewracking for his benefactor, that soon he’ll be forced to compete with the poor resentful bastard! Why, one wonders, don’t more prot,g,s grow up to become character assassins?
The short answer is, they do. One of the great examples of prot,g, ingratitude is Ernest Hemingway, whose second book, The Torrents of Spring, was a vicious parody of his unusually indulgent mentor, Sherwood Anderson. (Hemingway dashed it off in ten days before submitting it to his publisher; he was deliberately trying to break his multi-book contract.) Philip Roth’s portrait of E. I. Lonoff, a.k.a. Bernard Malamud, in The Ghost Writer, involves a subtler form of backstabbing: the unkind portrait masquerading as homage. (See Note 1 below to see what Culturebox means.)
But where mentor-murder really thrives is in the somewhat less elevated genre of literary memoir. Brendan Gill’s Here at the New Yorker is the most delightful example that comes to Culturebox’s mind. Damning with faint praise and exceptionally witty prose, Gill skewers both Harold Ross (“As for manners, Ross might truly be said not to have had any”) and William Shawn (“Shawn, by contrast, might be a revenant from some small eighteenth-century court”). Less amusing, but more typical, is an 1983 essay by James Atlas in The Atlantic Monthly, in which he offers up the spectacle of himself cringing at the feet of the New York intellectuals who helped him with his biography of poet Delmore Schwartz–and equally nasty portraits of the intellectuals themselves. (See Note 2 for a typical exchange between Atlas and Alfred Kazin.)
Then there’s Paul Theroux, whose book on his former mentor V.S. Naipaul is excerpted in this week’s New Yorker. Never before has Culturebox encountered such dizzying heights of disingenousness–the prot,g, pretending to be taken in by the mentor, while storing up anecdotes that prove his foulness. The pinnacle of disingenousness isn’t Theroux’s, though–it’s the New Yorker’s headline: “The Enigma of Friendship.” As if! This is not a nuanced exploration of the mysterious bonds that form between writers. The portrait may well be accurate–Naipaul is not a writer with a reputation for warmheartedness–but all that can be concluded from the exercise is that, at best, one monster deserved the other. (See Note 3 for a choice passage.)
It was while contemplating further instances of mentor-murder in this issue of the New Yorker–see the “Talk of the Town“‘s paeans to the departing Tina Brown, particularly Anthony Lane’s meditation upon her query, “Is Housman hot?” (Note 4)–that Culturebox was moved to invent a subgenre, spiterature. It rhymes with literature: literature as spit, composed in spite. Readers are hereby invited to submit suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org for the most spiteful work of spiterature they’ve ever encountered. A warning, however: Should your suggestions turn out to be superior to Culturebox’s, she might well be forced to write an expose in which you are roundly damned with her faint praise.
Here’s Nathan Zuckerman on his hero, who can’t stop fussing with a malfunctioning record-player arm:
This, I realized, is the excruciating scrupulosity, the same maddening, meticulous attention to every last detail that makes you great, that keeps you going and got you through and now is dragging you down. Standing with E.I. Lonoff over the disobedient arm of his record player, I understood the celebrated phenomenon for the first time: a man, his destiny, and his work-all one. What a terrible triumph!
Here’s Atlas on Kazin:
“You know what I don’t get about you?” Kazin was studying me intently. “You don’t stand up for yourself. I’ve read your reviews. You say whatever you want in print, you take on this big book, and then you sit here like a schoolboy in the principal’s office.” “It’s hard,” I murmured. “You bully me.” The more annoyed he got, the more unnerved I was. Cowed by his intensity, I was afraid to open my mouth. My way was to creep up, toss in a grenade–“Delmore considered you a serious menace to criticism”–then melt away before he could get off a shot. But Kazin liked to argue; it was a way of working off grievances, improving one’s mental circulation. For him, rudeness was to conversation what polemic was to journalism–a style, a genre, an expressive mode.
Here’s Theroux on Naipaul:
The whites he had met in Uganda, he said, drank too much. They were intellectually dead. They were common. They were inferior. “Infies” was his name for them. “Listen to the infy,” he said while an expatriate held forth in the Senior Common Room. I had never met anyone so certain, so intense, so observant, so impatient, so intelligent. He was stimulating and tiring to be with, like a brilliant, demanding child-needy, exhausting, funny.
Here’s Lane on Brown:
There were innumerable occasions on which Tina was right, and obviously right; but I had a fondness for those times when she was right while seeming to be wrong, or when she went via wrongness to get to the right stuff. Critics claimed to discern superfluous gloss, but what she did was to apply the invigorating rhetoric of of gloss to the supposedly unglamorous, and thereby encourage reades to try what they might otherwise disdain; only thus can I account for her kindly tolerance of my grimmer taste.