Wyndham Lewis Long Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2466

Wyndham Lewis published his first novel, Tarr, in 1918. Tarr, The Childermass, and The Apes of God—Lewis’s first novels—are essentially about the satiric comment of someone committed to art and the intellect on the limitations of those committed to the values of life and the body.

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Wyndham Lewis published his first novel, Tarr, in 1918. Tarr, The Childermass, and The Apes of God—Lewis’s first novels—are essentially about the satiric comment of someone committed to art and the intellect on the limitations of those committed to the values of life and the body.

Early novels

Tarr began as two separate stories that grew and were fused together, somewhat awkwardly, to form the novel. The first, which can be called “Tarr,” is about Frederick Tarr, a young English painter living in bohemian Paris and engaged to a German, Bertha Lunken. Tarr is full of opinions about everything, and his part of the book is mostly taken up by his disquisitions, primarily on aesthetics. The other story, “Kreisler,” is about an impoverished German sculptor, Otto Kreisler. Kreisler, as contemptible a failure in life as in art, runs out of money, rapes Bertha, gets in a duel, kills his opponent before the duel can take place, and finally commits suicide. The basic split between Tarr and Kreisler runs throughout Lewis’s fiction. Mind and body, intellect and emotion, art and life—these are some of the obvious terms for expressing this split.

The Childermass and The Apes of God are considerably more dense, difficult, and ambitious works than Tarr. The Childermass, first published in 1928, is the first book of The Human Age, books 2 and 3 of which were not published until 1955, but it really stands on its own. Set in the life after death, it also divides into two parts. The first is about how James Pullman and Satterthwaite, a famous writer and his “fag” at school, make their way to the camp of the Bailiff outside what they take to be Heaven. The second half is a long debate, mostly between Hyperides, a Tarr-like figure who sounds remarkably like the Lewis who wrote The Art of Being Ruled and Time and Western Man, and the Bailiff, the political ruler of at least this corner of the afterlife, not Heaven at all, as Pullman slowly grasps.

The Apes of God is set in contemporary London. A vicious satire in which most of the targets of Lewis’s satire are recognizable, it is a prolonged attack on Bloomsbury, which Lewis saw as full of people aping their God, the artist, and in the process making the life of the genuine artist impossible. Everyone here is a follower of the Bailiff, or his worldly equivalent; the only person in the novel who does not seem to be an ape, Pierpoint, remains offstage, only speaking through disciples who, the reader should soon see, are as apelike as the rest.

Neither The Childermass nor The Apes of God can be taken lightly. One either takes their vision and judgment of contemporary society very seriously or one cannot take them at all. They have been praised very highly by Ezra Pound, I. A. Richards, and others, and they are probably Lewis’s ultimate achievements in the sense of being the most unusual, the most personal, and the most Lewisian of his works. Nevertheless, most readers find them unreadable. They are, frankly, very difficult to read; William Butler Yeats, no stranger to difficult texts, called one passage in The Childermass “the most obscure piece of writing known to me.” This difficulty is deliberate: Lewis is trying to defamiliarize the world for his readers, to present it, not as it is habitually seen, but as it should be seen. Lewis sees most people as little more than automata or machines, so he presents them in his fiction as such. This satiric strategy can have one of two effects on a reader; in neither case is Lewis left with much of an audience. Either the reader grasps the satiric point Lewis is trying to make, or he takes Lewis’s novels as eccentric mythologies. Those who grasp the point are likely to feel insulted, for the reader is subsumed in Lewis’s vision under the category of ape as well; those who appreciate mythological or fantastic fiction tend to prefer more genial mythologies.

Lewis himself must have sensed the problems inherent in The Childermass and The Apes of God, for the novels he wrote in the 1930’s, Snooty Baronet, The Roaring Queen, and Revenge for Love, are very different. The first important difference is that in them Lewis abandons the attempt to write fiction as though no one else had written any before. There are no formal models for Tarr, The Childermass, and The Apes of God; they obey no generic laws of any kind, which is much of the reason they seem so sprawling, so formless. Lewis’s novels of the 1930’s, by contrast, are generic parodies: The Revenge for Love is a political thriller, Snooty Baronet a travel book-cum-murder mystery, and The Roaring Queen a country house weekend novel, a parody of early Aldous Huxley and Evelyn Waugh. The second important difference is that none of these novels contains the all-knowing Lewis persona who comments on the action. They do express much the same vision of man: Human desires seem just as bizarre, as animalistic, as trivial in Snooty Baronet as they do in The Apes of God. What is missing is the eternal comment on this vision: Lewis abandons the static novel of ideas and presents his vision far more through what happens than what is said. These two changes make his novels of the 1930’s far less intense and far more enjoyable to read.

How Lewis could have written Snooty Baronet two years after writing The Apes of God has long mystified critics. In 1977, however, Mrs. Dukes’ Million, a novel Lewis began in 1908, about when he began Tarr, was published and made this shift far more comprehensible, though it made Lewis’s beginnings as a novelist look much more complicated. Mrs. Dukes’ Million is a fascinating if bizarre attempt at a detective thriller. Lewis frankly wrote it for money, but he could not quite write a straight example of the genre, so Mrs. Dukes’ Million ends up being the same kind of parodic genre novel as Snooty Baronet. Thus, Lewis’s impulses as a novelist were divided from the beginning: On one hand, he wanted to be a serious novelist of ideas and a modernist innovator, which led to difficult, static works such as The Apes of God; on the other hand, he had a tremendous talent for narration and for a subversive handling of genre.

The Revenge for Love

In Lewis’s greatest novel, The Revenge for Love, he manages to put these impulses together. The Revenge for Love is a satire on 1930’s leftism, on the “parlour pinks” of London, and on the tremendous gap between the humanitarian idealism of these figures and the murderous nature of the ideology they espouse. It is as biting and incisive as The Apes of God, yet this commentary is embedded in a fast-moving thriller plot about smuggling arms into Republican Spain. Lewis’s use of the thriller genre is perfectly opposite because The Revenge for Love is a meditation on the nature and value of action, and the thriller is the novel of action par excellence. Hence, the playful and the serious sides of Lewis’s art come together perfectly in what is one of the most underrated novels of the twentieth century.

A new note is also struck in The Revenge for Love, a note that became dominant in the major novels Lewis wrote after World War II, Self Condemned and books 2 and 3 of The Human Age, Monstre Gai and Malign Fiesta. In the first part of his career, until The Revenge for Love, Lewis had been absolutely sure of his position, of his values, of his satiric critique of man. Lewis’s role, as he saw it, was to castigate man for his lack of freedom and his deadness. In this role, he called himself the “Enemy” and set out to oppose virtually everything in the name of art, the intellect, and detachment. In The Revenge for Love, Lewis continues to attack most of what he portrays. The two major male characters are Percy Hardcaster, a professional Communist who holds the intellectual fellow travelers around him in contempt, and Victor Stamp, a hapless artist who gets drawn into the same gunrunning scheme as Hardcaster. These characters are not grotesques such as those in The Apes of God, but neither are they figures with whom the reader identifies. The third major character, however, is Victor’s wife, Margot. Initially an object of caricature, a young devotee of Virginia Woolf, Margot grows in stature as the novel progresses. She stands in opposition to the world of action, politics, and men, portrayed in the rest of the novel, and stands for the bonds of love and human affection. In earlier Lewis novels, her feminine values, as Lewis labels them, would have been lumped in with the male values of activity and attacked from Lewis’s detached, intellectual perspective. Here, though, Margot becomes a moral authority, and Lewis begins—tentatively, one must admit—to criticize his earlier position as excessively harsh and arid. Margot’s death at the end is a real tragedy, inducing even in the tough Percy Hardcaster a tear that rolls down his cheek at the very end of the novel.

Self Condemned

Self Condemned continues this process of self-criticism, as should be obvious from the title. It is, obliquely, about Lewis’s experiences during World War II in Canada, which he hated. René Harding, a distinguished English historian, and his wife, Hester, leave England for Canada, where they gradually deteriorate. Hester commits suicide rather than remain in Canada as René wishes, and at the end René has become “a glacial shell of a man.” Hester, like Margot, is the moral center of the novel, and her suicide is an eloquent condemnation of René and his arid intellectualism. René may in part be Lewis’s own sense of what he might have become had he similarly turned away from his wife; in any case, in Self Condemned, as in The Revenge for Love, women characters are the vehicles for an implicit critique of Lewis’s earlier values.

The Human Age

The Human Age covers the same ground, in a sense, but from a more profound and developed perspective. Male and female in The Revenge for Love and Self Condemned serve as a kind of shorthand for the values of selfish indifference and unselfish compassion, respectively. In The Human Age, this sexual symbolism is replaced by a religious perspective, and Lewis’s art takes an explicitly theological turn. The Human Age is a continuation, after twenty-five years, of The Childermass, though written in the restrained style of his later years, not with the modernist pyrotechnics of The Childermass. In book 2, Monstre Gai, Pullman and Satterthwaite have entered Third City, which is neither Heaven nor Hell, but a bland third state reminiscent of the postwar Britain of the welfare state. Pullman, who as The Human Age develops, grows to resemble Lewis more and more, does not dislike this state of affairs but, flattered by the Bailiff’s attention and desirous of obtaining power, becomes a close ally of the Bailiff. Monstre Gai ends when the Bailiff has to flee Third City and goes to Hell, taking Pullman and Satterthwaite with him.

Malign Fiesta, book 3 of The Human Age, Lewis’s most striking work of fiction after The Revenge for Love, is set in Hell. The Bailiff is rather a minor personage there, and Pullman soon becomes an important adviser to Sammael, Satan himself. Much of the artistic power of The Human Age stems from Lewis’s ability to use the traditional conceptions of the afterlife to create his own special universe. The plot of Malign Fiesta centers on Pullman’s and Sammael’s plans to found a new human age. They want to humanize the angels in order to subvert the stark opposition between the human and the divine and between good and evil that, Sammael concludes, has always served God’s aims. In order to do this, Pullman, the specialist in Man, draws on all the resources of modern publicity to set in motion a gigantic party for the angels, the malign fiesta that gives the book its title, the purpose of which is to interest the angels in such human activities as drunkenness and lechery. God does not like this at all, and after warning Pullman repeatedly, He invades Hell. The book ends as Pullman is carried off to Heaven by some of God’s soldiers.

There was to be a fourth book that Lewis never finished, which would have concerned Pullman’s turn to and acceptance of the divine. This had already begun in Malign Fiesta, as Pullman was becoming more and more convinced of the wickedness of what he was doing, even though he continued to work with Sammael. What links this to Lewis’s other novels is that Pullman’s self-critique is Lewis’s: From the theological standpoint of The Human Age, Lewis criticizes the indifference and lack of compassion of his earlier work. He, too, has done the devil’s work and now wishes to turn to the divine.

This shift toward the end of Lewis’s life and career can, however, be overstated. Lewis did not go on to write the fourth volume of The Human Age set in Heaven. Instead, he completed The Red Priest, a minor if entertaining novel satirizing a Communist priest, and started on another novel, Twentieth Century Palette, about a young painter early in that century. The novel was unfinished at Lewis’s death. A thoroughly affirmative Lewis, in any case, would have been a Lewis deprived of much of his interest. The Revenge for Love, Self Condemned, and books 2 and 3 of The Human Age are Lewis’s greatest novels precisely because they continue the attack on the modern world begun in The Childermass and The Apes of God while qualifying and criticizing that attack as they articulate it. The resulting ambivalence is fascinating, far richer than the more single-minded earlier work. They also carry forward what was begun in Snooty Baronet and the other 1930’s novels, as they are written in a more conventional and readable style and conform somewhat to generic expectations. The later Lewis, in short, writes in a way that acknowledges that others have written, which makes his work much more accessible; yet his work remains completely his own.

Lewis’s novels form one of the most fascinating bodies of work written in the twentieth century. A less sympathetic account of his work could have pointed out many flaws not discussed here; nevertheless, the universe created in his oeuvre is a capacious if demanding one, a realm that many more readers should discover and explore.

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