Wednesday, September 14, 2016

reading notes: Wyndham Lewis biographies

Why am I reading Wyndham Lewis?, you ask. Well, he represents a major hole in my knowledge of modernism. (Or perhaps, more fairly, one of the many major holes...) I think I admire his paintings and drawings more than those of any other English artist of the first half of the twentieth century, but I haven't ever really gotten a grip on his vast written corpus. I've read The Apes of God, Blasting & Bombardiering, Tarr, and quite a number of stray shorter things, but I've never systematically tackled his works and his career. So I'm starting that, and a fortuitous copy of Paul O'Keeffe's big biographyhailed by Laurence Rainey on the jacketwas one entrée.

I've finished the six-hundred-odd pages of O'Keeffe now, and feel a bit more warmly toward it then I did in my last post. It sent me back to Tarr (which I'm in the middle of) and oddly enough, it sent me back to Jeffrey Meyers's 1980 The Enemy, the first full-length biography of Lewis, and until O'Keeffe, the biography of record. O'Keeffe clearly despises Meyers's book; as I work my way through Meyers's account of events O'Keeffe also describes, I recognize how much energy in Some Sort of Genius has been devoted to setting the record straight, to making clear that Meyers has gotten this or that sequence of events or exchange of letters wrong.

It's a perfectly understandable impulse, even pardonable, but someone who comes to O'Keeffe first, with no knowledge of Meyers, is apt to wonder why so many pages are devoted to excruciatingly detailed sorting out of dates and meetings and so forth. The reasonoccasionally revealed in an endnote, less often in an outright textual referenceis that O'Keeffe is striving to write a definitive biography, to basically blow his only competitor out of the water so far as the facts of the matter go. Sometimes O'Keeffe is fascinating and richly detailed on very interesting matters indeed; at other times, he goes on at spectacular length on quite trivial matters.

I haven't read all the way through Meyers's The Enemy yet, so comparisons must be provisional. But here's a few anyway:  

O'Keeffe is a more graceful and subtle writer than Meyers by far; sometimes his style rises to real pitches of musicality that I enjoy very much. But Meyers is far more forceful and straightforward, and cuts to the chase when he needs to: there's a lot to be said for that.

Which leads to the very obvious fact that O'Keeffe could have used some grim and relentless editing. Some Sort of Genius is a biography that is weighed down, at times almost sunk, by the accumulation of detail. It's good to know that Lewis was expelled from The Sladea fact which O'Keeffe has feretted out, but Meyers is completely innocent of. It's less fascinating to be given the term-by-term numbers of how many times Lewis signed in for his classes, and how many times he had a friend forge his signature. (That, I'm afraid, is the biographer showing off his research.)

The paper trail of Lewis's early life is distressingly scanty. Meyers passes breezily over everything until his public emergence in his mid-twenties in London; O'Keeffe shows us every scrap he has accumulated, alas not particularly to any illuminating effect. When the paper trail gets better established, then both biographers begin expanding. But Meyers has the edge here, for his attention is more firmly fixed on the writing, the painting, the work in short. Neither biographer provides the kind of rich examination of the works that one gets in Edgar Johnson's life of Sir Walter Scott, for instance, or A. David Moody's recently completed (and triumphant) life of Pound, but Meyers provides a somewhat better sense of what's going on in each book, and why each new canvas is important. (On the other hand, O'Keeffe will let you know what sort of advance Lewis received for each book, and how long he kept the publisher waiting, and so fortheven if sometimes it's not quite clear whether the book is a novel or a set of essays or whatever.)

Meyers is frankly a lot better at setting Lewis in the context of modernism as a movement and as a congeries of disparate talents. He's better at managing his cast of characters, showing them as important writers/painters/artists in their own right, rather than as walk-ons in the drama of Wyndham Lewis's life (as they appear in O'Keeffe).

Ultimately I'm not really happy with either of these biographies. I'll take Meyers as a solidly-reading, well-contextualized life, which gives a clear sense of Lewis's role among the "men of 1914" and why we ought to take Lewis seriously. But if I want to check a fact or a date, or untangle the intricacies of a particular imbroglio, I'll turn to O'Keeffe. His book is, after all, now the biography of record. But it's a long way from the biography Lewis deserves, I think.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

reading notes: Paul O'Keeffe on Wyndham Lewis

Paul O’Keeffe, Some Sort of Genius: A Life of Wyndham Lewis (2000; London: Pimlico, 2001)

I started and abandoned The Enemy, Jeffrey Meyers’s 1980 biography of Wyndham Lewis, a couple of times, though I’m not quite sure why. O’Keeffe is certainly a more graceful writer, but in the long run I don't know whether he has the interpretive edge over Meyers—though he certainly has amassed far more data, and has gone over the documentary record far, far more closely.

(A bit irritating, indeed, how O’Keeffe lets his reader know how he has gone through years of sign-in records for the National Gallery or the Slade School, or through tax records, or whatever, in his own text.)

I commented on Facebook how Lewis comes across in this text as a “colossal jerk,” at least in his early years; now I’m into his late thirties, and he shows no signs of turning into a likeable figure. Clearly, O’Keeffe has not gone to any exculpatory pains with Lewis, often singling out a particularly jerkish action and letting it stand at the end of a chapter or a section of a chapter like a ghoulish punctuation mark. Judged just on those actions—the string of cast-off mistresses and illegitimate children, the constant receptions of financial largesse responded to with surly incivility—Lewis comes across as someone who is certainly “some sort of genius,” but not someone with whom one might want to hang out. (Indeed, given the number of people who precisely did want to hang out with Lewis—lovers, painters, writers—it’s got to be counted against O’Keeffe that he isn’t able or willing to convey precisely what people found so magnetic and interesting about the man. And that, I’d venture to say, might be one of the biography’s ultimate failures.)

O’Keeffe fails to convey a convincing portrait of Lewis’s interiority, which I think is what a reader most hankers for in a biography, especially a biography of a writer. I’ve gotten to Lewis’s late thirties now; we’ve already passed through the Vorticist period, Blast, Tarr, and a great deal of his most vital visual art. (I’d guess all of his most vital visual art, since now he’s at the point where he’s mostly doing portraits.) And I still don’t have a very clear picture of what makes Lewis “tick,” as it were. I suspect—indeed, I’m convinced—that this is because of a paucity of documentary evidence. There simply isn’t very much from Lewis’s own pen in his early years about himself, or at least if there is O’Keeffe hasn’t quoted or paraphrased it.

O’Keeffe is not very good, it must be said, on the visual art. He can describe a picture adequately, but there’s no sense whatsoever of what place Lewis’s art has within art history as a whole—where he comes by his style, what makes his style vital and interesting, "new." We get an adequate account of his break with the Omega Workshop/Bloomsbury (Fry, Grant, Bell), but it’s told more in terms of a personal break with Bloomsbury than as a matter of artistic principle. We get almost nothing about what Lewis’s own principles of art might be, aside from some fleeting, anecdotal business distinguishing his own work from the Italian Futurists. The whole very interesting business of Vorticism is passed over painfully rapidly.

One would hope for more from O’Keeffe’s treatment of Lewis’s writing, given that he’s edited Tarr for the Black Sparrow Lewis edition. Unfortunately, there’s almost nothing. Aside from some occasional comments, and a good deal of detailed description of the business of publishing Lewis’s work, O’Keeffe gives us almost no sense of what’s interesting or striking about Lewis’s writing, or what distinguishes it (say) from Joyce’s Portrait, which is presented as proceeding in tandem (at least in terms of publication) with Tarr.

So in the end we have this enormously detailed, rather fat volume chronicling the life of a major painter and writer which is very good indeed on the details of his movements, his lodgings, his financial arrangements, his amorous entanglements, and his business dealings; but which is very sketchy on the work that prompts our interest in the writer, and which doesn’t really in the end convey a convincing picture of what makes this alternately energetic and otiose figure tick, what motivates him.

But I’m only 2/5 through the book; I’m hoping things will pick up in the latter portions, when Lewis’s paper trail becomes more concrete.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

12 april 2016

Hannah Sullivan's book The Work of Revision (did I mention how generally excellent it is?) captured a long-held desire of mine to think about and perhaps theorize the process of revision. I'm certainly planning on mining its bibliography.

But thinking about revision sent me to an alas as-yet-not-properly examined shopping bag of books I picked up over the New Year's holiday in Sarasota and Sanibel, and digging out a collection edited by Judith Kennedy, Victorian Authors and Their Works: Revision Motivations and Modes (Ohio University Press, 1991). It has essays—unfortunately brief ones—on a variety of important writers of the period, from Carlyle to Conrad. So I read Kennedy's introduction, and a couple of the essays.

Or I should say Kennedy's "Preface," for it's not really long enough or searching enough to be a proper introduction. She nods towards what she calls a "recent surge of interest" in textual scholarship, then gives a too-hasty overview of the shift from Greg-Bowers methodology to the "social text" thought of McGann and Shillingsburg. It's way too hasty—undigested even—and pales beside the careful, scrupulous, and inventive way Sullivan dovetails an account of that same shift with a description of attitudes towards revision in her own first chapter.

Only two chapters of Kennedy's collection actually read. Susan Shatto provides a quick-n-nasty overview of how Tennyson composed Maud (desultorily, for himself, then finishing when there was the prospect of a publication contract and money). Fred Kaplan tells again the story of John Stuart Mill's maid accidentally burning the manuscript of Part I of Carlyle's French Revolution, and of Carlyle having to compose the whole thing over again. What's striking is that a very few scraps (all burnt around the edges) of that first manuscript have survived, and their words seems to be pretty much precisely duplicated in the book as Carlyle actually (re)wrote it. Did he treasure up those scraps of prose, incorporating them into his new text when he got to the right place? Or Carlyle (as Kaplan tends to think) simply have such a retentive and capacious memory that he was able to largely reconstruct the whole book as he originally wrote it?


Peter O'Leary's The Sampo, now read (slowly, with feeling), is magnificent. It makes me wonder if there isn't (or shouldn't be) some movement back towards outright narrative among the few poets I follow and value.

Monday, April 11, 2016

11 april 2016

It's been ages; no excuses, though this has been a wearying semester, punctuated with some fine conference visits and some good music. I've resolved to begin writing in this space again.

First, a bit of self-promotion:

Mentioned earlier on this blog, but as yet unlinked (I think), I have two recently published books:

Intricate Thicket: Reading Late Modernist Poetries is out from the University of Alabama Press; it collects essays and long-form reviews that I've written over the past 15 years or more. I'm rather proud of many of the pieces here.

Michael Moorcock: Fiction, Fantasy and the World's Pain is out from McFarland; it's a rather lighter affair, falling somewhere between fanboy-enthusiasm and real live criticism. But it is frankly the most comprehensive book on Moorcock out there, so if you're a fan you really ought to buy it.


What I've been reading lately, and what I'm reading:

Just finished a third go-through of Geoffrey Hill's Selected Poems (Yale, 2006). I've been forcing my graduate creative writing students to work through this one over the course of the semester, just to give them a taste of late high modernism and high formalism (and frankly, because I love Hill's work). It's weird to work with a selection, rather than the single volumes I usually teach out of; I'm always trying to lay my finger on a particular poem or section of a longer thing, only to find that it hasn't been included. And I note how the volume tapers off towards the end—Scenes from Comus and Without Title are only very scantily represented—as if to catch breath before the grand explosion of work that Hill's released over the past decade—the last 1/3 or so of Broken Hierarchies, the vast 2013 collected poems.

The Kalevala, in its 1907 Kirby translation, despite the Hiawatha-meter into which the translator has predictably cast it, is highly readable indeed. I'm not sure whether the book wouldn't have moldered indefinitely on my shelves if I hadn't taken it down to gear up for a serious plunge into Peter O'Leary's fantastic recasting of portions, now available from the Cultural Society as The Sampo. This one is not to be missed: all of O'Leary's characteristic energy and verbal invention, in the service of high fantasy. Or—to call it what it is—sword and sorcery!

Hannah Sullivan's The Work of Revision (Harvard, 2013) is a pretty splendid piece of criticism. I confess to reading fewer books of criticism these days than I did, say, two decades ago. But I was pleasantly surprised over the summer by books by Brian Reed, Chris Nealon, and Gordon Teskey, and since have found myself reacquiring the taste. (Part of it, I think, is getting my own two books out the door, and being able as it were to take a breath.) Sullivan's book is for the most part gracefully written and more importantly just generally smart. She takes all that we already knew about writers' revisionary processes (both pre- and post-publication) and sorts it into a general theory of the cultural importance of revising, reaching a kind of apotheosis in the Creative Writing Industry's making revision a kind of index of "real" writing. Which is, as she points out, an inheritance of high modernism, a way of thinking that would have been utterly alien to the Romantics. Her book is chock full of insights in particular authors, and does a really fine job of taxonomizing various types of revision.

As usual, I'm dipping into and digging into various slim volumes of contemporary verse. I hope to begin noting them in depth—as I hope to be updating the blog at rather more decent intervals.

Monday, December 14, 2015


I'm about a third of the way through indexing the book—that is, entering all my highlighted elements into an alphabetized document—and I figure I'm working at the rate of about ten pages a hour, twelve when I'm doing well. That's not bad at all, but I'm sure not going to get rich doing this.

My drummer-colleague in the history department as a 900-page manuscript he needs indexed; he tells me he's contacted an indexer who'd do it for $1.50 a page; which seems rather low—this page recommends expecting between $4 and $6 per page for an academic book. Even if we take that top number ($6) and my fastest rate (12 pp. an hour), we need to figure in probably at least as much time spent going over the proofs in a preliminary fashion. So 6 pages an hour, all told, at $6 a page = $36 an hour.

That seems like an impressive number, or at least it would have when I was eighteen. These days, in white-collar land, I feel like I might be working beneath my normal rates. On the other hand, I'm going to come up with an index that I can truly call my own.

Sunday, December 13, 2015


So I read and returned the proofs of Michael Moorcock: Fiction, Fantasy and the World's Pain. By my count, 15 corrections total, and only two of them were the press's mistake. The rest were bits I'd overlooked. Like I said in my last post, a very clean set of proofs.

Now I'm deep into indexing the book. This is I believe the fifth book I've indexed, and I've gotten into a rhythm with the thing. I read the proofs with three different colors of highlighters at hand; I mark (1) proper names, (2) titles, and (3) concepts/ideas/miscellaneous, each in a different color. Some pages end up looking like Monet paintings; others are relatively white. Then I go back thru, a page at at time, and transfer each marked item to a Word document.

That sounds pretty slow and painstaking, and, well, it is. I like it that way. By the time I'm done, I know my book inside and out. I know what needs indexing, and what really doesn't. Yes, I've tried it with a PDF of the proofs, doing the word-search thing, and I can easily imagine how that procedure might make the whole business much easier and more palatable for someone who's in a hurry. But there's something about moving from one medium to another—from the printed-out proofs to the Word document—that makes me a bit more careful.

My antiquated indexing habits (hey, at least I don't use index cards!) make for a better book—at least for me.

For one thing, I end up reading proofs at least twice. That is, I read once, with pen in hand, for proofing, looking specifically for errors. But I don't send corrections in until I've done the highlighter-armed pre-indexing markup. That means that I've read the entire script, closely, at least twice. It works for me—so far as I can tell, there are fewer than a dozen typos in The Poem of a Life, and less than 10 in Intricate Thicket.

And I feel that it makes for a better, more comprehensive index. And yes, as one colleague tells me, everyone uses Google Books for their words searches anymore—but they'll be better off using my index for Michael Moorcock, because I can do concepts, which Google Books can't.

My new life motto: I am an anorak, and proud of it.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015


I've been feeling not great about my writing lately, so it was a mixed blessing to get page proofs for my forthcoming Michael Moorcock: Fiction, Fantasy and the World's Pain, which should be out (hopefully early) in the new year. But reading the proofs, in the interstices of grading papers and preparing exams, has actually been kind of fun. For one thing, they're really, really clean—very few corrections necessary. (I pat myself on the head for that, frankly—I gave them a clean ms to work with.)

And I've been having a ball reading the reference notes, and am reminded of one of the things that I love about doing criticism/scholarship. I try really hard to project a kind of sprezzatura in my text, to just "toss out" whatever insights I have come to as if they're perfectly obvious. But it's in the notes that I record my real labors, all the various texts I've collated, the stuff I've brought together and thought about and disentangled.

When I re-read my own notes—and this is true of The Poem of a Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofsky, especially—I can't help thinking, damn, this guy knows some stuff, he's read a bunch of books. The notes are a kind of gesture towards the clichéd 9-10ths of the iceberg that's out of view; the text is the visible portion.