Bright and Silly

The Enemy: A Biography of Wyndham Lewis

by Jeffrey Meyers
Routledge & Kegan Paul, 391 pp., $19.95

Fables of Aggression: Wyndham Lewis, the Modernist as Fascist

by Fredric Jameson
University of California Press,, 190 pp., $15.95; $5.95 (paper)

“Wyndham Lewis is surely the least read and most unfamiliar of all the great modernists of his generation,” Fredric Jameson remarks, “a generation that included the names of Pound and Eliot, Joyce, Lawrence and Yeats; nor can it be said that his painting has been assimilated any more successfully into the visual canon.” Lewis’s work is normally reckoned less than the sum of its many parts: novelist, painter, poet, polemicist, critic, but in the end nearly a dead letter. His repute might now be higher if he had written less and painted more: if he had written only Tarr (1918, 1928), Time and Western Man (1927), The Revenge for Love (1937), and Self Condemned (1954), and otherwise kept his brushes active and his mouth shut.

Lewis was born on November 18, 1882, aboard his father’s yacht, then moored at Amherst, Nova Scotia. Christened in Montreal, he retained Canadian nationality for the rest of his life. In 1888 the family moved to England, and lived comfortably on the Isle of Wight till Lewis’s father ran off with one of the housemaids. There was still enough money to send Lewis to decent schools, including Rugby, and later to let him study art at the Slade, but gradually the checks arrived later than expected, and the amounts inscribed were not enough to support an artist who liked restaurants and champagne. Lewis earned little; he lived mostly by borrowing money which he neglected to pay back.

Jeffrey Meyers’s biography is richly informative, fair, lively, and in every good sense disinterested. He is sympathetic to Lewis, but not besotted with him. He gives Lewis’s many causes their due, and he elucidates every fuss, but he does not demand that the reader beat all those antique drums. He doesn’t fudge the political issues. Lewis’s reputation never recovered from some extraordinarily foolish articles he wrote about Hitler and gathered into a book peremptorily called Hitler (1931). He tried to undo the damage with The Hitler Cult (1939), but it was too late. Most of his contemporaries thought him, on every political question, an idiot. Auden and MacNeice in their “Last Will and Testament” (Letters from Iceland, 1937) wrote:

We leave the Martyr’s Stake at Abergwilly
To Wyndham Lewis with a box of soldiers (blonde)
Regretting one so bright should be so silly.

On September 2, 1939, the day before England declared war on Germany, Lewis sailed for Canada. He lived out the war in Toronto, miserably poor and hating his life. In 1946 he went back to London as art critic for The Listener, a post he held with honor. But he started going blind in 1951, and had to give it up. He died on March 7, 1957.

Jeffrey Meyers doesn’t hedge the fact that Lewis was one of the most obnoxious men of his time. Only Bertolt Brecht and Evelyn Waugh are in the same league when it comes to nastiness. In sexual achievement, anything Augustus John could do, Lewis…

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