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.