Wyndham Lewis Long Fiction Analysis
Wyndham Lewis published his first novel, Tarr, in 1918. Tarr, The Childermass, and The Apes of God—Lewis’s first novels—are essentially about the satiric comment of someone committed to art and the intellect on the limitations of those committed to the values of life and the body.
Tarr began as two separate stories that grew and were fused together, somewhat awkwardly, to form the novel. The first, which can be called “Tarr,” is about Frederick Tarr, a young English painter living in bohemian Paris and engaged to a German, Bertha Lunken. Tarr is full of opinions about everything, and his part of the book is mostly taken up by his disquisitions, primarily on aesthetics. The other story, “Kreisler,” is about an impoverished German sculptor, Otto Kreisler. Kreisler, as contemptible a failure in life as in art, runs out of money, rapes Bertha, gets in a duel, kills his opponent before the duel can take place, and finally commits suicide. The basic split between Tarr and Kreisler runs throughout Lewis’s fiction. Mind and body, intellect and emotion, art and life—these are some of the obvious terms for expressing this split.
The Childermass and The Apes of God are considerably more dense, difficult, and ambitious works than Tarr. The Childermass, first published in 1928, is the first book of The Human Age, books 2 and 3 of which were not published until 1955, but it really stands on its own. Set in the life after death, it also divides into two parts. The first is about how James Pullman and Satterthwaite, a famous writer and his “fag” at school, make their way to the camp of the Bailiff outside what they take to be Heaven. The second half is a long debate, mostly between Hyperides, a Tarr-like figure who sounds remarkably like the Lewis who wrote The Art of Being Ruled and Time and Western Man, and the Bailiff, the political ruler of at least this corner of the afterlife, not Heaven at all, as Pullman slowly grasps.
The Apes of God is set in contemporary London. A vicious satire in which most of the targets of Lewis’s satire are recognizable, it is a prolonged attack on Bloomsbury, which Lewis saw as full of people aping their God, the artist, and in the process making the life of the genuine artist impossible. Everyone here is a follower of the Bailiff, or his worldly equivalent; the only person in the novel who does not seem to be an ape, Pierpoint, remains offstage, only speaking through disciples who, the reader should soon see, are as apelike as the rest.
Neither The Childermass nor The Apes of God can be taken lightly. One either takes their vision and judgment of contemporary society very seriously or one cannot take them at all. They have been praised very highly by Ezra Pound, I. A. Richards, and others, and they are probably Lewis’s ultimate achievements in the sense of being the most unusual, the most personal, and the most Lewisian of his works. Nevertheless, most readers find them unreadable. They are, frankly, very difficult to read; William Butler Yeats, no stranger to difficult texts, called one passage in The Childermass “the most obscure piece of writing known to me.” This difficulty is deliberate: Lewis is trying to defamiliarize the world for his readers, to present it, not as it is habitually seen, but as it should be seen. Lewis sees most people as little more than automata or machines, so he presents them in his fiction as such. This satiric strategy can have one of two effects on a reader; in neither case is Lewis left with much of an audience. Either the reader grasps the satiric point Lewis is trying to make, or he takes Lewis’s novels as eccentric mythologies. Those who grasp the point are likely to feel insulted, for the reader is subsumed in Lewis’s vision under the category of ape as well; those who appreciate mythological or fantastic fiction tend to prefer more genial mythologies.
Lewis himself must have sensed the problems inherent in The Childermass and The Apes of God, for the novels he wrote in the 1930’s, Snooty Baronet, The Roaring Queen, and Revenge for Love, are very different. The first important difference is that in them Lewis abandons the attempt to write fiction as though no one else had written any before. There are no formal models for Tarr, The Childermass, and The Apes of God; they obey no generic laws of any kind, which is much of the reason they seem so sprawling, so formless. Lewis’s novels of the 1930’s, by contrast, are generic parodies: The Revenge for Love is a political thriller, Snooty Baronet a travel book-cum-murder mystery, and The Roaring Queen a country house weekend novel, a parody of early Aldous Huxley and Evelyn Waugh. The second important difference is that none of these novels contains the all-knowing Lewis persona who comments on the action. They do express much the same vision of man: Human desires seem just as bizarre, as animalistic, as trivial in Snooty Baronet as they do in The Apes of God. What is missing is the eternal comment on this vision: Lewis abandons the static novel of ideas and presents his vision far more through what happens than what is said. These two changes make his novels of the 1930’s far less intense and far more enjoyable to read.
How Lewis could have written Snooty Baronet two years after writing The Apes of God has long mystified critics. In 1977, however, Mrs. Dukes’ Million, a novel Lewis began in 1908, about when he began Tarr, was published and made this shift far more comprehensible, though it made Lewis’s beginnings as a novelist look much more complicated. Mrs. Dukes’ Million is a fascinating if bizarre attempt at a detective thriller. Lewis frankly wrote it for money, but he could not quite write a straight...
(The entire section is 2466 words.)