Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 704
Blasting and Bombardiering is suffused with the trauma of World War I. Lewis’ superficial treatment cannot hide the pain and cynicism produced by the bloody stalemate of the western front. The book is, as he says, a way to “get away from war,” but demons are not so easily exorcised. He intended to make the war “an unseemly joke,” but his effort to reduce the war to comic absurdity ultimately fails, for the horror was too great. Thus, the book is not particularly important as a war memoir. Still, one who does know something of the veterans’ struggles to come to terms with their experiences will be struck by how profoundly Lewis’ view of man and art has been influenced. The memoir could be more powerful in this regard only by having had the prewar section actually composed before 1914.
Another concern in Lewis’ memoirs is elitism. It is, perhaps, not so surprising that the work of an avant-garde artist—a vorticist—was not wildly popular. New artistic schools are rarely accepted at first. Thus, Lewis’ dismissal of the English taste in art and his endorsement of Matthew Arnold’s label of the English as “philistines” are to be expected. Nevertheless, Lewis has little positive to say for prewar literature and art; he also writes of the postwar era that great artistic expression was of the past. His praise for Pound, Eliot, and Joyce, in his mind the best of the lot in the twentieth century, is less than generous, and he does not bother to compare them to the greats of the past. Perhaps such attitudes on the part of a writer and artist who, even when the memoir was written, had not gained enormous renown might be written off as pique, but he goes beyond mere artistic commentary. His view of the political astuteness of the English is little better. The crowds cheering the inception of World War I, he says, were “jellyfish.” Though anecdotes do at times give Lewis a human quality, the reader is more often left hoping for some break in the self-conscious portrayal of the artiste.
Another notable quality of Blasting and Bombardiering is the characterization of writers, artists, and society figures. In addition to Pound, Eliot, and Joyce, Lewis offers portrayals of Augustus John, T. E. Hulme, Nancy Cunard, T. E. Lawrence, and others. These descriptions are opinionated, satiric, and, at least at times, fanciful. They are also, like the work of a good portrait artist, able to evoke truths about their subjects that strict realism could not. Such pen portraits show Lewis at his best.
The American edition of 1967 includes three examples of Lewis’ fiction that illustrate the state of his ideas and feelings at the time on which the memoir is focused. This is not only effective in adding to the reader’s understanding of Lewis but also offers an introduction to his nonfiction work. Although memoirs with elements of fiction are not particularly unusual, these stories have been cleverly inserted so that they become illustrations of the points Lewis is making about himself—an effective and useful technique.
Lewis’ literary criticism may not satisfy everyone, but it too reflects the war and the emotions engendered by the conflict. His criticism is important for that quality as well as for being the comments of a known and respected critic. Lewis exemplifies the effects of the war even as he describes the culture it produced, although he fails in his efforts to portray prewar culture because his description comes from the postwar perspective. What the vorticist movement may have been in 1914 cannot be learned here with any certainty. Yet what it seems to have been to one of its practitioners looking back through the bloodied lens of the World War I is significant for understanding the culture of the 1920’s and 1930’s.
A similar estimate may be made of Lewis’ portrayals of his friends and enemies. Those lost in the war are certainly magnified, perhaps by the guilt of a survivor who escaped combat after about a year. Critical evaluations by a man of Lewis’ intelligence and sensitivity are, however, not to be taken lightly, and students of early twentieth century literature and art should remember this.
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