Critical Context

The Apes of God, the longest and most notorious of Lewis’ fifty books, played a pivotal role in his life, for it viciously lampooned the avant-garde art world that had earlier supported the middle-aged enfant terrible. The privately published novel, a thinly disguised roman a clef, attacked the powerful Bloomsbury circle and their more aristocratic competitors, the formidable Sitwell family (compare the novel’s Finnian Shaws). The Apes of God, although praised for its stylistic virtuosity, severely damaged Lewis’ reputation. Only after the war did the writer-painter fully recover his standing. Nor was The Apes of God Lewis’ best work. Most critics single out other novels, starting with his earliest, Tarr (1918, 1928), as more artistically successful. Snooty Baronet (1932), The Revenge for Love (1937), and Self Condemned (1954) have all been highly praised, as has his autobiography, Rude Assignment: A Narrative of My Career Up-to-Date (1950).

In the years before World War I, Lewis was closely associated with Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot; James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, and William Butler Yeats were also of his generation. Lewis remains the least read of these giants, although he, with Pound, was the most flamboyantly public and political. Although no less a modernist, Lewis went against the main tide of modernism with its focus on private, subjective strategies of inwardness. Lewis employed an aesthetic of the external and mechanical, which he drew from his painting and transmuted into the brilliantly sculpted prose style that is his contribution to English literature.