This handsome new edition of Snooty Baronet, a novel originally published in Great Britain in 1932 but never available in the United States except as a library-bound photographic reprint, is a welcomed part of a renewed interest in Wyndham Lewis, an important but controversial figure in twentieth century art and letters. Lewis was a painter, novelist, philosopher, literary and social critic, and sometime dramatist and poet. The ultimate value of his contributions in each of these areas is debatable, and Snooty Baronet serves well to illustrate the nature of that debate.
Snooty Baronet, as with all of Lewis’ fiction up to that time, raises the question of the relationship between style and content in his work. Is Lewis primarily a prose-producing machine that cranks out pages of intriguingly idiosyncratic and highly intellectualized prose, the value of which is largely formal, or does he at the same time, as one expects of all first-rank writers, also offer a vision of life that is compelling?
A brief review of the course of events in the novel indicates that the answer to this basic question is not to be found in the plot. It is so arbitrary and peripheral to the focus of the novel as to be largely irrelevant. Snooty is a writer whose books (like many of Lewis’) are difficult to categorize, neither anthropology nor philosophy nor culture-criticism but partaking of all those disciplines. Snooty’s agent, Humph, prevails upon him to travel to Persia so that he can be captured by a cooperative bandit, who will ransom him back to a British public enthralled (so the plan goes) with this heretofore little-known baronet. Reluctantly dragging his mistress along, he stops in southern France to try to enlist a poet friend on the expedition. The poet is killed in a bullfight before he can make up his mind, and Snooty, Valerie, and Humph proceed to Persia for some random misadventures.
No less arbitrary than the plot, but of infinitely greater interest and significance, is the characteristic Lewis prose style in Snooty Baronet. There is no need to look any further than the opening sentence: “Not a bad face, flat and white, broad and weighty: in the daylight, the worse for much wear—stained, a grim surface, rained upon and stared at by the sun at its haughtiest, yet pallid still: with a cropped blondish moustache of dirty lemon, of toothbrush texture: the left eye somewhat closed up—this was a sullen eye.” Such prose activates one’s intellect at the same time that it straight-arms emotional involvement. The reader is not invited to be intimate with this or any other character but to join Lewis in a detached, withering, often coldly comic observation of human behavior.
Such observation requires paying great attention to the seemingly trivial, because that is where the human puppet reveals its true nature. Snooty, the Lewis-like puppet master of this show, therefore renders in great detail, for example, the inner struggle which he perceives in Val as she tries to answer a telephone in the most socially advantageous way. Or he records a simple kiss as only Lewis, the master of the antierotic could do: “’Mike darling!’ she said between two sunbursts of intoxicated kiss-stuff, and close-ups screwed down like thermos-stoppers.”
Such a style awakens the reader to the almost infinite possibilities of language in service to an omnivorous intellect. One marvels at the intricate verbal constructs which arise out of pure intelligence hovering ruthlessly over human activity. Whether one ever really cares, however, about any of Lewis’ characters, whether it matters to the reader what happens to them is another question and a clue to the controversy over the ultimate worth of Lewis’ fiction.
If there is more to this novel than an exercise in style, it begins with the...
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