Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 827

Wyndham Lewis is probably the least known of the great modernist authors and artists. A sometime colleague of Ezra Pound; an acquaintance of T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, and Gertrude Stein; and a campaigner for innovation in the arts of painting and literature, Lewis lost fame by turning on these...

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Wyndham Lewis is probably the least known of the great modernist authors and artists. A sometime colleague of Ezra Pound; an acquaintance of T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, and Gertrude Stein; and a campaigner for innovation in the arts of painting and literature, Lewis lost fame by turning on these and other allies, who, understandably, became less than enthusiastic about promoting his reputation. His feud with the literary Sitwell family, for example, whose portraits he painted, undoubtedly lost him many commissions. His output as painter, novelist, poet, philosopher, and controversial pamphleteer was prodigious. His father was American, and his mother English; Lewis was born on a yacht moored in Canadian waters. He thus was a citizen of three countries. After his parents separated when he was an infant, Lewis was raised in England by his English mother. He was educated at Rugby, a famous public school, and at London’s Slade School of Art. Tarr is his first novel.

Lewis has been called the foremost English prose stylist of his century. In Tarr, his skill and his rigorous aesthetic are well in evidence. His painting, of the Futuristic stamp, but which Lewis, more to name his own movement than to create a necessary distinction, termed vorticist, is hard-edged and done with dizzying perspective. One finds a similar technique in Tarr. Eliot remarked that Lewis’s novel was a war of points-of-view, not only in its content but also in its form. The style of the writing alters according to which of the major characters predominates in any given chapter.

It needs to be remarked here that there are a number of texts of this novel. In 1918 alone, three different versions were published: a serialized one, an American edition, and the English edition. In 1928, Lewis issued a revision of the American version. The reprint novel that is most widely available is based on the 1918 American text and provides an exhaustive variant table. Lewis uses various devices as “distancers,” so that readers are frequently reminded by these unfamiliar signs that they are reading a text, not being hypnotized into ignoring one. To the same end, Lewis loads his prose with startling words and phrases, that insist on their status as artifice. The distinction between nature and art forms the subject of several exchanges in the novel. Furthermore, Kreisler and Bertha have too much nature in them, whereas Anastasya, like Tarr, is able to separate herself.

The writing is not replete with sensuous detail. Frederick Tarr is ascetic rather than sensuous in his aesthetics, as was Lewis. Tarr, being self-invented, evinces another article of Lewis’s Futurist faith, that one needs to rid oneself of the past and begin anew, to be unnatural, unorganic, to break the inertia of the species. Personality, Lewis argues, is developed to overcome that which is imposed by birth and environment. It is noteworthy that the tragic events in the novel are brought about by the persistence of traditions that have outlived their time—dueling, the notion that a woman is a man’s possession. These events arise from the conflict of the present with the past. Lewis needs to make this historical break evident, and Tarr embodies this need. The reader is kept aware at all times that the novel is art. The discomfort the text can cause is a deliberate calculation on its author’s part. People must wake up, the aesthetic argument underlying Tarr implies, and cease to function as automata of nature. To be truly human is to invent oneself, to be efficient, a modern, a machine. Kreisler, a Romantic, has much that is old-fashioned, mechanical, and inefficient in his behavior. His suicide, ironically, moves like clockwork. Old-fashioned, too, is Kreisler’s vision of himself as a pawn of fate. He is the villain of the story, because he is an embodiment of much that his creator found reprehensible.

In art, however, evil is often more engaging than good, and the sections with Kreisler in them are far and away the most readable portions. This may well be part of Lewis’s calculation also: The hypnotized individual is presented in hypnotic prose. There is more of Kreisler than Tarr in the book, and Lewis himself was later to remark that he should have named the book after the German.

To one way of reading, the book is an allegory. Kreisler, in his envy of the civilized, in his passionate blindness, in his march toward death and destruction, represents the Germany of 1914. Kreisler is resentful of the Frenchified culture of the Poles, fearful of the power of Russia, baffled by the detachment of the English. All these elements—the Polish, the Russian, and the English, as well as the German—formed the tragic forces of World War I. Allegorical reading alone will not neatly contain the many meanings of this difficult, stimulating, and idiosyncratic novel, which, like a mobile, can turn a different aspect toward readers each time they open the book.

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