Apoplectic Gristle

David Trotter

  • Some Sort of Genius: A Life of Wyndham Lewis by Paul O'Keeffe
    Cape, 697 pp, £25.00, October 2001, ISBN 0 224 03102 3
  • Wyndham Lewis: Painter and Writer by Paul Edwards
    Yale, 583 pp, £40.00, August 2000, ISBN 0 300 08209 6

The day he first met Wyndham Lewis, shortly after the end of the First World War, Ernest Hemingway was teaching Ezra Pound how to box. The encounter took place in Paris, where Pound had a studio, and Lewis, impassive beneath his trademark wide black hat, seemed content to watch in silence. ‘Ezra had not been boxing very long and I was embarrassed at having him work in front of anyone he knew, and I tried to make him look as good as possible,’ Hemingway wrote. So wide was the margin between master and pupil, both in musculature and in technique, that Hemingway could without difficulty refrain from doing his opponent any damage. Lewis, he felt sure, wanted to see Pound hurt. He was careful not to oblige. ‘I never countered but kept Ezra moving after me sticking out his left hand and throwing a few right hands and then said we were through and washed down with a pitcher of water and towelled off and put on my sweatshirt.’

What is startling about Hemingway’s recollection of the event, in his Paris memoir, A Moveable Feast (1964), is the way in which it uses all this washing-down and towelling-off as the basis for an assault on Lewis’s character. Hemingway remembers himself as clean, above all; and clean, furthermore, after his carefully controlled exertions, in a thoroughly modern way. Lewis, on the other hand, wearing the kind of bohemian ‘uniform’ favoured by the ‘prewar artist’, remains somehow archaic and insalubrious. ‘Walking home I tried to think what he reminded me of and there were various things. They were all medical except toe-jam.’ Lewis is dirt, then, or an abortion. ‘Under the black hat, when I had first seen them, the eyes had been those of an unsuccessful rapist.’ There might presumably have been some hope for Lewis had his eyes merely been those of a successful rapist.

Lewis describes his visit to Pound’s Paris studio in the first of his two volumes of autobiography, Blasting and Bombardiering (1937). No one answered his knock, but the door was open, so he went in.

A splendidly built young man, stripped to the waist, and with a torso of dazzling white, was standing not far from me. He was tall, handsome and serene, and was repelling with his boxing gloves a hectic assault of Ezra’s. After a final swing at the dazzling solar plexus Pound fell back upon his settee. The young man was Hemingway. Pound got on like a house on fire with this particular statue.

By comparison with Hemingway’s, Lewis’s description of the event is coolness itself. It does subtle damage to Hemingway by not discerning in him the agency or control over events his undeniable physical superiority might be thought to have generated. By this account, it is Pound, rather than Hemingway, who brings the bout to a conclusion; and he does so by falling back on a settee – a fixture not ordinarily available in the average gymnasium for the use of wobbly punters. Statuesque or supine, neither protagonist is left with much of a leg to stand on.

And yet there is in the description’s coolness a certain residual heat. The stance Lewis favoured was not in fact one of detachment. He liked to get up close, in the world’s face. Immediacy mattered to him, and a vivid trace often survives in his writing of the impulse that gave rise to it. Here, for example, he makes no effort to avoid the cliché of the house on fire. The cliché is his first thought about Pound’s fondness for Hemingway, we are allowed to think, and the first thought will do. It will do, however, not just because it fills space, but because its familiarity in general terms is also its diagnostic value in this particular context: Pound merits a cliché because he has become a cliché, a walking susceptibility. Such fusions of impulse and diagnosis are the hallmark of Lewis’s writing at its best. They also got him into a lot of trouble.

Paul O’Keeffe’s new Life of Lewis does not hold back on the toe-jam. Some Sort of Genius is, among other things, a compendium of the many reasons people found to dislike its subject. Lewis became, sometimes by circumstance, sometimes by design, the sponsor of a wide range of opportunities for fear and loathing. Women were especially favoured in this respect. O’Keeffe observes that in all his relationships with women Lewis sought to present the image of a man with no attachments or encumbrances. The models available to him included his father, a swashbuckling veteran of the American Civil War who made a habit of infidelity and eventually left his wife for good in 1901, when Lewis was 18; and Augustus John, his celebrated predecessor at the Slade, whom he sought assiduously to emulate, and whose ever-varying seraglio became an object of fascination. But Lewis’s presentation of himself to women, and to the men with whom he conferred about women, had a polemical edge to it, a toxicity entirely lacking, as far as one can tell, in John’s sexual munificence. From an early age, Lewis cultivated what could be termed anti-pathos: a strategic, rather than merely tactical or opportunist, avoidance of sentiment. This strategy was to manifest itself in his art as a preference for the abstract, in his writing as a preference for satire and invective, and in his politics as a tough-mindedness shading almost imperceptibly into advocacy of tough action.

One of the few testimonials that survive from Lewis’s relationship with Iris Barry, with whom he lived from 1918 to 1921, is a telegram handed in to the Leicester Square Post Office at 3.35 p.m. on 1 June 1920: ‘PLEASE PREPARE CHOP EIGHT – LEWIS.’ Barry used its reverse as a shopping list. As she cooked Lewis’s steak and onions that night, she was also preparing the second of their two children. The pregnancy had been his idea, or so she claimed. She had been made to feel that a second child (the paternity of the first was in some doubt) would be irrefutable proof of her commitment to him. By early August, at any rate, Barry had installed herself in the Nursing Institute at Mitcham in South London. Lewis, however, was nowhere to be seen. ‘The distance is very great,’ he complained, ‘and you are awkward to get at.’ After all, he had a studio to find, and a patron for a new journal. Lonely, a little scared, and at a loss as to what to do about the imminent arrival, Barry pleaded with him at least to let her know where he was. He had already left London for a fortnight’s holiday in France with T.S. Eliot.

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