This is a true story–written to enlighten the general reading public who believe that great writers are born great writers; and to encourage despairing writers who see no hope in their ambitions.
In 1953 my publisher insisted that I live in Europe for a while. “To polish your boorish ways. To get yourself some culture.” I settled in a modest left-bank hotel in Paris and met a Russian Count Maximillian Ilyn. He was a film producer in his sixties. He was an intimate friend of people like Camus, Picasso, Utrillo, Sartre, Chagall, Colette, Malraux. He was always trudging from his room into the hotel lobby, exhausted from the demands of his youthful mistress. We became friends. He called me a “savage” because I doused my food in catsup and did not like yogurt.
He wheeled-and-dealed me into writing a short biography about the artist Maurice Utrillo which he had translated into French. It was issued by an artsy paperback publisher and I can’t find anyone who ever read it. Max took me over as his “barbaric prodigy.” He taught me table manners, the genteel way of kissing a woman’s hand when introduced (“Do not slobber or munch–caress provocatively.”) and how to wear the right clothes to the many parties we attempted.
I returned to New York about a year later so fat with culture that high-class just leaked out of me. I started teaching at New York University and working on another novel.
About six months later Maximillian came to America and telephoned me. We met in the Russian tea room on 57th St. He was carrying a bulky package. We ordered coffee and yogurt and talked a while, then he shoved the bundle to me. “Here, Leonard, this is unpublished stories of Chekhov, Tolstoy Dostoevsky, Gogol, and such other masters. I am desperate for finances. Submit to your publisher, these writings.”
I was aghast. “Max, are you crazy? You don’t need me. Unpublished work of such great writers carries a built-in fortune. Publishers will let you weekend with their wives and virgin daughters to get their hands on this writing.”
He insisted that I do it his way. “You, Leonard, I trust. You are an innocent–not a greedy soul. For your efforts I will give you a privilege for writing the introduction to such a collection.” I telephoned my publisher, George Joel, of Dial Press, and told him what I had. His voice shuddered and squeaked with excitement. I brought it to his office and he placed it on his desk as if handling the Holy Grail. He was reverent and his eyes teared. “This will be the publishing event of the century.”
Three days later he telephoned me. I could hear his grief. “I can’t publish these stories, Leonard. I’m heartbroken, but I can’t publish these stories.” When he told me why, I was astonished.
I met with Maximilian again, in the Russian tea room. I handed him the bulk of pages. “Max, I’m sorry. My publisher won’t handle this writing.” He nodded and dejectedly spooned his yogurt, and sighed. “I was fearful of such a thing. It is most disenchanting to believe that such great writers could create such unpublishable trash.”
In Max’s desperate need for funds he had hoped that an American publisher would not be as critical as a more erudite and literate European publishers. What these writers–Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Kafka–had written was so amateurish that even the blatantly tasteless and commercial American publishers would not put it into print. The public would not believe such masters could create such drivel.
Great writers do not always write great works. Great writing emerges from ruthless combing away and culling out from a mass of writing that should be disregarded. Yet through all those years of writing, the writers who have changed the concept and character of their society sustained themselves by faith in their talents and in what they believed was truth. It often takes decades of slow working through despair and banality to suddenly produce a great book.
(first published Sunday, October 28, 1984 the Manhattan Mercury)
©1984 Leonard Bishop