By Peter Cowlam
I first met Harry at the back end of the ’90s, almost a decade after I had left London but had kept my friendships there. At that time he was still living in his flat near Highgate, where I dropped in as often as I could. Almost his entire living space was floor-to-ceiling with books and journals, some of the latter carrying short pieces Harry had written. At that time I was never shown his work in progress, which, if my memory serves correctly, was all put down using traditional pen and paper. This would now have been the early 2000s, when I never left his flat without Harry having first filled my bag with books he thought I would like to read – a William H. Gass, one of those many enormous tomes by Harold Bloom on the subject of canonicity, Cortázar’s Hopscotch, Chevillard’s The Crab Nebula, and many, many more.
I saw Harry less often once he had moved to East Finchley, but was glad to find, once he’d installed himself there, that all his writing was now through a laptop. He did not seem to understand the importance of backing up, so I bought him an offline hard drive and showed him how to use it. His scepticism wasn’t so much at the technicalities. What he was uneasy with was the thought of allowing some article of electronica into his house whose factory assembly was at the hands of slave labour working in some godforsaken sweatshop somewhere in the East. And of course, I wasn’t able to reassure him. The episode didn’t end there. On a later visit I asked him about his backups. He told me quite calmly he had lent the hard drive I had brought him to a great nephew, for use with a computer game, but since its return it had never worked. I looked at it, and yes, it was quite dead. By now storage technology had moved on, to a point of greater and greater capacity crammed onto smaller and smaller devices. I bought a couple of USB sticks, and personally backed up Harry’s machine – once on a stick I left with him, and again on a stick I took away with me. This was December 2015, the last time I saw Harry. I didn’t know that he had died until I mentioned his name to a mutual friend (Harry it seems had a great many friends whom he did not introduce to one another). A few months after this shock news I had a phone call from Fiona Ford (a new name to me), who had been going through Harry’s things. Bless him, Harry had taped a note to his laptop, to the effect that he wanted me as his literary executor. If I managed to publish anything he had written at a profit, then whatever profit there was should be to the benefit of charities named in his will. And that was Harry, charitable by nature.
A first effort at bringing all that literary activity to light was Harry’s witty insight into the trials of living as, or of being a writer – his Letters to Kafka, now available as an ebook. In some ways his Kafka could have been Harry himself, plunged into the periphery of publishing and its adjuncts, where if you cannot conform to what is au courant you are likely to be badly misconstrued. There are too many in the business of book production who cannot venture beyond public obsessions or the bestseller, or just stop for five minutes to try to get a grasp on what gifted human beings may have turned their attentions to.
Harry Greenberg’s Letters to Kafka is available on most ebook platforms. There are plans to publish more from Harry’s backlist.
I am indebted, of course, to Fiona Ford, and I would like also to thank David Salaman, who delivered the laptop to me. We are hopeful of more Harry Greenberg books to come.
Peter Cowlam has won the Quagga Prize for Literary Fiction twice, most recently in 2018 for his novel New King Palmers, which is at the intersection of old, crumbling empires and new, digital agglomerates.
Cowlam is also a freelance editor and the author of plays and poetry. His first novel was published in 1998, by CentreHouse Press. His second novel, New Suit for King Diamond, published in 2002, was nominated for the Booker Prize. His brief stint as a commissioning editor saw two issues of The Finger, a journal of politics, literature and culture. His fiction, poems and reviews are published in a wide range of print and online journals.