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.


plainwater said...

I always mean to read Lewis's day. I remember reading one of Martin Seymour-Smith's books as an undergrad in which, if I remember correctly, he says Lewis is the greatest prose writer of the twentieth century or something like that (don't worry, I knew MSS was nuts even at the time).

Michael Hofmann's bad review of Mariani's Stevens bio:

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