Monday, September 17, 2012

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

“THE APES OF GOD” by Percy Wyndham Lewis (written between 1924 and 1929; first published 1930)

            Reading Zadie Smith’s N.W., I praise her for not explaining ephemeral cultural referents, and for allowing readers to work them out for themselves. It certainly makes for brisker and less patronising writing when the modern world is being depicted. We do not have to be told what this casually-mentioned TV show is about or what that casually-mentioned public figure did.

            And yet something nags at the back of my mind.

            What will happen to the novel when all these unexplained ephemera are no longer so easily recognisable to intelligent readers? Will it have to be edited with copious explanatory footnotes, or will it simply become unreadable?

            Perversely, this reminds me of a novel that is totally unreadable now because of all its time-and-place-specific topical cultural referents. At best, it is of interest to specialist antiquarians.

            In a mood of what can only have been intellectual masochism, I once sat down and ploughed my way through all 650 pages of the Penguin Modern Classics edition of Percy Wyndham Lewis’s The Apes of God.

            Percy Wyndham Lewis – now there’s a name not to conjure with.

            Lewis (1882-1957) was once mentioned in the same breath at Yeats, T.S.Eliot and D.H.Lawrence as one of those early 20th century right-wing Modernists who broke literary boundaries in interesting ways en route to affirming deeply elitist and traditional faiths. Intelligent articles in refereed journals were once written about Lewis as much as about the others. But the hard fact is that, while the literary reputations of Eliot and Yeats and (for some people – but not for me) Lawrence have endured, the literary reputation of Lewis has long since vanished down the gurgler.

            His name-dropping memoirs Blasting and Bombardiering are still readable. His paintings (especially his portraits and First World War landscapes) are still good Modernist works and earn their place in British galleries. But his novels and short stories? They are overlong, tedious pieces of attitudinising. Once they had a small intellectual audience. Now they have no audience at all. Even Lewis’s sympathetic biographer Paul O’Keeffe (Some Sort of Genius: A Life of Wyndham Lewis, published in 2000) readily admits all their defects.

            The Apes of God is Lewis’s attack on the pretensions of London’s literary world in the 1920s.

            It is set in 1926 (although Lewis began writing sections of it before that). The plot, such as it is, concerns the extremely naïve and bashful 19-year-old Irishman Dan Boleyn who, on the strength of having written one poem, has been taken up and is being promoted as a “genius” by the literary critic and entrepreneur Harold Zagreus. Dan is too innocent to realize that Zagreus’ interest in him is mainly homosexual, as is that of other males who are introduced.

            Zagreus commends Dan to various characters who clearly represent all the things in the literary world that Wyndham Lewis detests. The “hearty” Dick Whittingdon who, as he tries to concoct a best-seller, lives off money sponged from a faded aristocrat. (Dick turns out to be a devotee of flagellation,  which I suppose is Wyndham Lewis’s judgement on the John Buchan and “Sapper” school). Then there is the lesbian artist who mistakes Dan for a life model and gets him to strip naked before he flees, blushing, into the night. (Lilywhite Dan does a lot of blushing in this novel). Next is the “split-man” Julius Ratner, who knows how to criticise the works of others, but is capable only of producing rubbish of his own. And the lion-hunting literary host and hostess Mr. and Mrs. Lionel Klein, with their pretentious tea-table talk.

            Zagreus introduces Dan to his theory of “apes” – that is, those poseurs and pretentious arty people who merely “ape” the work of true artists by imitating one another and following the latest fads.

            Most of the latter part of the novel (at least 300 static pages of it!!) takes place at a Lenten Party thrown by three aristocratic literary siblings, the Finnian-Shaws – Lord Osmund, Lord Phoebus and Lady Harriet. Described in Lewis’s wayward punctuation as “God’s own Peterpaniest family”, the Finnian-Shaws are presented as overgrown children who imagine they are in some sort of meaningful cultural revolt because they tease their aged father, as overgrown children do. They exchange repetitive baby-talk in loud tones across the heads of their assembled guests.

            And, tediously, in the course of the party, all the other poseurs whom we have already met once again act out their roles. For some reason, innocent, blushing, naïve Dan is made to dress in drag, which makes him subject to the groping of various males.

            At this point a vigorous young Welsh Fascist, Starr-Smith, called “the Blackshirt”, interrupts the festivities to make some obvious points about the vacuity of literary poseurs. Zagreus is attracted to the Blackshirt’s muscular virility. The novel ends with Zagreus dumping Dan for the Blackshirt. Disillusioned, Dan wanders weeping through a quiet London which is caught in the grip of the General Strike – but Wyndham Lewis depicts the strike as a complete fizzler which did little apart from provoking alarmist rumours. There will be no revolution.

            Zagreus takes the place of hearty Dick Whittingdon in sponging off a decaying aristocrat – which seems designed to tell us that even an observer of “apes” can turn out to be an “ape” himself. The literary scene won’t change for the better.

            If my synopsis makes the novel sound mechanical, dull and lacking in vigour, then I beg to report that I am making it sound far more tightly structured, lively and coherent than it actually is.

            I’m sure that the Bloomsberries and their ilk were ripe for sharp satire in 1920s London, but Wyndham Lewis cannot introduce a comic effect or make a satirical point without labouring it over many, many pages. Repeatedly as I read this bloated monster, I kept thinking how much more efficiently Evelyn Waugh (or even the young Aldous Huxley) could have demolished the same targets in about 200 brisk, farcical pages, in the manner of Waugh’s Vile Bodies.

            There is the additional problem of placing one-dimensional Dan Boleyn at the centre of the (disjointed, episodic) action. Perhaps Wyndham Lewis intended some sort of Candide effect -  innocence as a foil to expose sophisticated corruptions. But blushing, weeping Dan, who understands absolutely nothing, is naïve to the point of mental deficiency and quickly becomes a complete bore as he fails to understand the twentieth homosexual pass.

            Quite apart from its glaring defects as a piece of writing, there is much that is problematic in the novel’s ideology. Wyndham Lewis wasn’t the only observer who saw London’s literary scene as being over-weighted with homosexuals, but he was certainly one of the few who made a fuss about Jews. There is definitely a minor strain of anti-Semitism in the novel, especially in the way the character of Julius Ratner (nicknamed “Joo”) is presented. [For the record, Wyndham Lewis dabbled in anti-Semitism, at first welcomed the advent of Hitler, but by the later 1930s was already distancing himself from his earlier enthusiasm and loudly denouncing the Nazis.] We might also note that there is something unbalanced in a novel which denounces poseurs and false literary figures, but never once shows us somebody who could be called a true artist or writer. Against what criterion do the characters in the novel stand condemned? I can’t help noting that in his contemporaneous, and vastly more entertaining, piece of head-cracking Point Counter Point, Aldous Huxley at least gives us his positive reading of D.H.Lawrence in the character of “Mark Rampion”. More misanthropic, Lewis has nothing positive to show us. Spleen rules.

            Never introduced as a character, there is a sage called Pierpont who is sometimes quoted on such matters as Time and desirable forms of government. He seems to be Wyndham Lewis’s idealised image of himself.

            And what about those dated “time-and-place-specific topical cultural referents”, which were my excuse for beginning this rant?

            It is conceivable that the British literati reading The Apes of God in 1930 would have been able to recognise the originals of the people upon whom Lewis’s characters are based. Lord Osmund, Lord Phoebus and Lady Harriet Finnian-Shaw are transparently the posing siblings Osbert, Sacheverell and Edith Sitwell, and Lewis was not the only person to depict them in this satirical way. The catty relationship between Lewis and the Sitwells is chronicled in Paul O’Keeffe’s biography of Lewis, but also in Victoria Glendinning’s biography Edith Sitwell – A Unicorn Among Lions. Without having to look it up, I readily recognized the South African poet “Zulu Blades” (who wanders into The Apes of God for about two pages) to be a version of the South African poet Roy Campbell.

            But who are all the other people who inhabit what is so clearly a roman a clef? At first I thought Mr. and Mrs. Lionel Klein were caricatures of Leonard and Virginia Woolf, but O’Keeffe, Glendinning and others inform me that in fact they, and nearly all the other leading characters in the novel, are based upon extremely minor fringe literary figures of the 1920s who are now justifiably forgotten. Minor literary patrons. Minor Vorticists with whom Lewis had quarrelled. Minor everything. If there are incidental swipes at the likes of James Joyce and Aldous Huxley, they are not a central feature of the novel.

            So what do we end up with? Voluminous gossip and lampoon imagining it is biting satire. A laboured and over-long novel which smirks at length over people who were at best worthy of a very short smirk. It might have seemed an absolute scream at the time when some of the originals were recognisable in the novel’s caricatures. But now that they are gone and forgotten, there is nothing here for us but a literary freak and back-number.

            The perils of being too topical indeed.


  1. Unfortunately you can make exactly the same comments about Lewis's "Childermass" trilogy.

  2. thanks for sharing..