Last Updated on May 18, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1581
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...
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- Critical Essays
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 notion of the Wild Body that informed all of Lewis’ fiction into the 1930’s. Lewis is the great champion of consciousness and the intellect as the source of anything that might be of value in human beings. The human body is essentially comic, a great puppet or machine that careens wildly and purposelessly about unless it is controlled, as in a handful of cases, by the ghost within the machine—the human intellect. In Snooty Baronet, this deflating vision of humanity is apparent on almost every page. Even a simple reaction to the name of another character, for example, is portrayed as a lockstep mechanical sequence: “As I had said Ritter his face had undergone a violent change, as if a series of shutters of different sorts and sizes were being swiftly operated upon it—shutting off one expression after another, as soon as each flashed up.”
Lewis might argue that rather than deflating, this view of the human condition is simply realistic. If so, it is the realism of the satirist, one that often employs exaggeration, caricature, and invective in service, it affirms, of truth and right. In Snooty Baronet, there are more specific satiric targets than the general human condition. Lewis spends part of the novel in a somewhat wearisome attack on a familiar antagonist—D. H. Lawrence, apologist for the visceral, the instinctual, the primitive, and therefore the perceived enemy of much that Lewis values.
Perhaps the novel’s best claim for a respected place in Lewis’ work and in modern fiction is its self-consciousness as a novel and its exploration of the many levels of ambiguity inherent in storytelling. Two paragraphs after the novel’s opening line quoted above, one finds the following: “The face was mine. I must apologize for arriving as it were incognito upon the scene. No murder has been committed on No. 1040 Livingston Avenue—I can’t help it if this has opened as if it were a gunman best-seller.” This introduces themes which surface regularly throughout the novel, among them the idea of writing as disguise, illusion, parlor game, and joke, not to mention a readily apparent bitterness on Lewis’ part that his novels have never enjoyed anything near the popular success regularly accorded to worthless pulp fiction.
Although there are precedents for novels which constantly refer to their own fictiveness, even in early English fiction, Snooty Baronet predates most of the modern works which use this device to question traditional assumptions about the nature of reality. Events take a disturbing turn near the end of the novel, when Snooty casually murders his agent and infects his mistress with smallpox. He informs the reader not long after, however, that his mistress claims he is lying about both the murder and the smallpox and that her very different version of events is more generally believed.
Is one to take Snooty’s version seriously and reach conclusions about the acts people are capable of if they allow intellect to destroy normal human emotions? Is one to see the differing accounts as indicating something profound about the ambiguous nature of reality? Is Snooty/Lewis simply giving readers that exciting, farfetched, pulp-fiction ending that the reading world he has been grumbling about throughout the novel expects? Or is he doing all this and more at the same time? More important, has the reader been sufficiently drawn into the novel at whatever level—through style, character, theme, or any other element—to care if the work has any larger significance?
Bernard Lafourcade, the editor of this edition, believes that the work has great significance indeed. As part of the many scholarly accoutrements included, he provides a fifteen-page essay which attempts to link Lewis and the novel with every significant novelist since the eighteenth century. This greatness-by-association strategy is not particularly convincing, even to one already convinced of Lewis’ overall importance.
One also has mixed feelings about the other fruits of modern scholarship found in this edition. Twenty-four pages are devoted to listing and discussing variant readings from the different manuscript forms of the novel, a wearisome addition even to those few novels that profit from it, but of very dubious value in a work such as Snooty Baronet. One is also asked to be thankful for little flags within the text, which send the reader to the back of the book to find, for example, Snooty’s observation, “You can bring a stallion to the riverbed but you cannot always make him sip,” compared with “One man may lead an ass to the pond’s brink but twenty men cannot make him drink.” This particular case of the common attempt of scholars to make themselves indispensable to literature may in a sense be fitting. It unintentionally creates a mock-heroic air around the novel which is in keeping with the spirit of the work itself.
These reservations about the possible excesses of scholarship notwithstanding, this edition is beautifully put together. From the fine-quality paper and type, to the wonderfully appropriate Lewis drawings, to the very attractive cover, this is a model for how a book should look and feel. If there is some overkill in the editing, it is the sort of killing with kindness that Lewis received too little of in his own lifetime.
Snooty Baronet is ultimately a rather minor work, even within Lewis’ own oeuvre, yet the majority of all novels are minor works, and this one is more interesting than most. If one takes any joy in inventiveness with language, in the verbal acrobatics and mental projections of a powerful sensibility, then this book, as with anything created by Lewis, will be worth reading whether one finds larger meanings or not.
Last Updated on May 18, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 57
Chapman, Robert T. Wyndham Lewis: Fictions and Satires, 1973.
Materer, Timothy. Wyndham Lewis: The Novelist, 1976.
Meyers, Jeffrey, ed. Wyndham Lewis: A Revaluation, 1980.
The Observer. August 12, 1984, p. 19.
Pritchard, William H. Wyndham Lewis, 1968.
Punch. CCLXXXVI, June 20, 1984, p. 57.
Quill and Quire. L, June, 1984, p. 37.
Times Literary Supplement. July 6, 1984, p. 762.
Wagner, Geoffrey. Wyndham Lewis: A Portrait of the Artist as the Enemy, 1957.