Saturday, May 24, 2008

"I knew Sweet F. A. about it."

Yesterday's post that featured Oblomov's difficulties in finding the right word in a letter he was writing seems like the perfect lead-in to a post about the difficulties Julian Maclaren-Ross had with the language in what was to become his first published story, "A Bit of a Smash in Madras." A sharp tale of drink, dissipation, and the problems of colonial life, the story establishes its strong narrative voice in the first line:
Absolute fact I knew fuck-all about it.
Horizon, Cyril Connolly's heralded wartime literary magazine, accepted the story, but Stephen Spender, the magazine's uncredited co-editor, began to worry that no printer would be willing to print the volume if they didn't change some of Maclaren-Ross's earthy language. According to Paul Willetts, author of Fear and Loathing in Fitzrovia: The Bizarre Life of Writer, Actor, and Soho Raconteur Julian Maclaren-Ross (2005), Spender offered the following emendations:
Besides changing the opening sentence from "Absolute fact, I knew fuck-all about it" to "Absolute fact I knew Sweet F. A. about it," Spender suggested a succession of substitute phrases that could be deployed throughout the rest of the story. he listed these 'in the form of a short poem':

Pissed-up
By Christ
Balls
Bugger.
Even from this distance in years, I have trouble imagining that the words Spender was worried about could have been much worse than his preferred replacements.

Regardless, Maclaren-Ross was annoyed, and despite, as an unpublished author, having essentially no leverage, he decided to confront Connolly. True to form, however, he scotched the meeting by displaying such a conspicuous interest in Horizon's captivating administrative assistant Sonia Brownell (later to be Sonia Orwell), "the Euston Road Venus," that Connolly, disconcerted, cut short the meeting. The story went to press in less racy form, and even today, in Dewi Lewis Publishing's Selected Stories (2004), "A Bit of a Smash" opens with less force than Maclaren-Ross intended, his "fuck" replaced with a "damn."

3 comments:

  1. Recent TLS also has note (in "NB") re this slang term!

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  2. I'll have to check that out. I think I first came across it in my record store clerking days, when Love and Rockets used it as that title of an album.

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  3. Love and Rockets!! Ha! Blast from the past: "You cannot go against nature / but even if you do / going against nature / is part of nature too!" Or some such!

    Like you Levi, I'm not sure that Spender's suggestions hide very much and JMR's spikier originals surely scan much better too ...

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