Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Onassis of the airport novel

At the TLS, Frances Wilson considers Andrew Wilson's Harold Robbins: The Man Who Invented Sex and several other recent sex-related literary things:
The Carpetbaggers, Harold Robbins’s most successful novel, should have been scribbled on a lavatory wall rather than placed between hard covers, according to the New York Times in 1961. Robbins, the first person to write about sex in mass-market novels, did not let this, or indeed any criticism, curb his enthusiasm. The Carpetbaggers, after all, contained one of the most notorious sex scenes in American writing, the one where a Hollywood producer has sex with a woman three times, after which she shaves him all over, massages him with a vibrator, gives him a bath in champagne, a few puffs of marijuana, and a blow job. Tame stuff by Cleland’s standards, but Robbins saw himself as a star in the literary firmament; he claimed at one point that his books were being studied in nine out of ten university literature courses, and that he was America’s answer to Dickens. The cash rolled in like waves over a bikini bottom, and his book sales exceeded $750 million.

Wilson makes no attempt to defend Robbins, whose writing he calls “vulgar and tacky” and whose life was a pornotopia composed of cocaine, celebrity orgies, and millions of dollars. But by way of homage to his subject, Wilson begins every chapter by telling the story as the novelist might have done. When Robbins informs his mistress, Yvonne, that A Stone for Danny Fisher is going to be made into a film, she “leaned over and placed a hand on the top of his leg. Harold felt himself stirring. ‘Hey, cut it out, will ya? I’m trying to have a drink, not cream my pants’”. Robbins liked turning his life into a story, and regaled many with an account of how he spent his childhood in a Roman Catholic orphanage, ran away to sea and was sole survivor of a torpedoed submarine, made and lost a fortune in sugar, and so forth. As his friend, Steve Shagan, said in an interview with Wilson,

"That story that he survived a submarine hit and swam to the surface – I said, “Harold, come on – there was no way you could have survived the pressure of being 300 feet under water and coming to the surface, never mind the sharks”. He turned round, gave me a smile, and said, “I was the only survivor”. I said, “It’s total bull-shit, but if you want to tell it, then you tell it”."
I must say that I rather want to read this book, it sounds pretty delightful and I am a closet Harold Robbins fan in any case--I do not have a copy here to check, and really this seems implausible even to me, but is it not perhaps the case that one of Robbins' novels (almost certainly The Carpetbaggers, in fact...) indeed finds a place as one of Anthony Burgess's 99 Best in English Since 1945?!?

(A copy of which, I am proud to add, was recently purchased by a student of mine at the Strand--I am hoping to start a sort of cult following of this book, in fact really it would be very tempting to teach an undergraduate seminar in which we would read 11 or 12 of the novels--only that would not give the true demented flavor of the thing, because we'd be skipping the Harold Robbinses etc.!)

1 comment:

  1. I blogged Burgess' list here a couple of years ago if you need easy access to it.