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.

1 comment:

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