When you’re researching, you can’t help from time to time thinking “What if…?” about other subjects you might have chosen. I’ve chosen a big wide subject (the representation of the soldier in fiction from 1914 to the mid-twenties) and by and large that suits me. It means that I’ve got plenty to think about, and if I get fed up with say, Patrick MacGill I can move on to spend a while with John Buchan, or Wilfrid Ewart, or Godfrey Elton or Alf’s Button, or whatever I fancy at the moment.
Sometimes I wonder, though – would I have been better off studying just one single author in depth. It would be easier in lots of ways – my big problem is that I’ve got masses of material and it doesn’t always want to get into a neat pattern. On the other hand, would I really want to spend several years in the company of just one writer? (At one time I was tempted to concentrate on C.E.Montague, a writer whose work I admire quite a lot – but he’s good within fairly narrow limits, and I think I’d have chafed at those limits a bit.)
These ramblings have been set off by the fact that I’ve spent the last few days reading a biography of Wyndham Lewis. I want to deal with his wartime story The French Poodle, so I consulted Paul O’Keefe’s Some Kind of Genius: A Life of Wyndham Lewis as part of the background. It’s an utterly gripping read. I only meant to look at the wartime chapters, but I’m hooked on it. Lewis comes across as unpleasant, conniving, domineering, argumentative, sponging, unreliable, contemptuous, dishonest, philandering, prejudiced, self-pitying, proto-fascist, pretentious, manipulative, deceiving and just plain nasty.
O’Keefe tells his story in minute detail. He actually includes Lewis’s laundry lists, or at least an inventory of the garments that went missing at an American laundry. He meticulously records each failure of Lewis’s to deliver a painting on time, as well as each spiteful attack on a benefactor, and each bout of gonorrhea. The book is a monument to the author’s industry. How many years did he spend amassing this detail, I wonder? And how could he bear to spend so much time with so awful a human being? Lewis has been my companion for a week or so now, on and off, and while I can’t say that he’s dull company, I think I’ll be glad to move on.
Lewis’s literary reputation is odd. He seems to be regarded as important, without having produced any very important work. His books (so far as I’ve explored them) are violent caricatures, settling scores with people who have offended him (and sooner or later everyone he met caused him some offence or other). Blast was important – but mostly because it featured Pound and introduced Eliot. Lewis’s own contributions seem to be either shallow fun (the lists of Blasts and Blesses, a trick he copied from the French) or else pretentious – the “Crowdmaster” and so on.
He’s one of those Nietschean artists who proclaim their superiority to the crowd, without quite convincing this reader at least that the superiority is very real. His reputation suffered from his association with Fascism (apparently the display of his Hitler book in the window of Zwemmer’s in the Charing Cross Road was such a target for spitting, that an assistant had to go out every now and then to wipe the spittle off the glass.) This seems to have been caused, though, by an actual lack of interest in politics, and an inability to connect with what other people were saying. He supported the Nazis in the early thirties because he thought they were the party of order, but thought their racial policies were not to be taken seriously, so he discounted them.
The best of his work that I’ve read is Blasting and Bombadiering, where he has a good story to tell, and for the most part tells it plainly, without striving for modernism. And The French Poodle is intriguing.
But now I must get back to the biography. It’s the late forties; Lewis at over sixty is living in poverty and squalor, and is going blind. There are 120 pages left, in which things, I fear, will get even grimmer. And I don’t think Lewis is going to mellow in his old age.