Tarr - Wyndham Lewis
"The ‘‘ Real Thing” is always Nothing. REALITY is the nearest conscious and safe place to “ Reality.” Once an Artist gets caught in that machinery, he is soon cut in half--literally so." from BLAST, the magazine of Vorticism which Wyndham Lewis played a key role in.
Wyndham Lewis was a key member of the modernist avant garde in the early decades of the twentieth century. As the founder of Vorticism, an art movement the philosophy of which was outlined in BLAST, he had a influence beyond his own work. BLAST, of which there were only two issues still managed to publish TS Eliot, the story which formed the basis of Ford Madox Ford's classic The Good Soldier, Ezra Pound, paintings from Lewis and Edward Wadsworth and Jacob Epstein etc
Tarr clearly belongs to the modernist period drawing also on Lewis' double life as a painter. It plays around with structure, content and includes many oddly powerful passages of visual description. ("Butcher's large red nose stood under a check cap phenomenally peaked. A sweater and stiff-shouldered jacket, of gangster cut, exaggerated his breadth, He was sunk in horizontal massiveness in the car - almost in the road. A quizzing, heavy smile broke his face open in an indifferent business-like way. It was a sour smile, as though half his face were frozen with cocaine.") Tarr is an English painter based in Paris who is entangled romantically with Bertha, a German woman whom he sees as "bourgeoise bohemian". Tarr seems as 'stuck' as his name suggests, adn his main contribution early on is to soliloquize on art and love and anything else. He then dissappears from the central section of the book when he is replaced as main character by the German artist Kreisler who also becomes involved with Bertha. A fourth major character is introduced in the central portion, Anastasya Vasek, a tall, striking, intellectual woman who has Russian blood mixed with an American upbringing.
Plot and character embrace their own unreality, seeming at times realist and at other times fantastical. People are defined in broad generalization of class and nationality interspersed with descriptions from a balefully specific eye. The bohemian, the artist is after individuality and novelty and decries the masses.
Here is a description of how class is produced, seeing the graduates of an Oxbridge education as the ranks of an army - "What is your position? you have brought have you not for eight hundred pounds at an aristocratic educational establishment a complete mental outfit, a programme of manners: for four years you trained with other recruits: you are now a perfectly disciplined social unit, with a profound esprit de corps."
And the class system doesn't just mark the elite, but brackets them with their lowliest inferiors within the caste system. "All individuals who have class marked upon them strongly resemble each other don't you agree - a typical duchess is much more like a typical nurserymaid than she is like anybody not standardized to the same extent as the nurserymaid and herself."
As well as class, sex and nationality are seen to define peoples relationships but it doesn't stop there. Shape for example: "'What are your ideas on the subject of girls?' he asked in a moment.
'Oh I think they ought to be convex if you are concave - stupid if you are intelligent, hot if you are cold, refrigerators if you are a volcano." Underlying the whole book there seems to be a grand sense of the absurdity of people. Artists and bohemians, on one level abandoning materialism, are seen spending all their time trying to get money.
At one point a duel is fought, and although the ostensible reason is romantic, the real reason is financial. The loss of financial patronage send the German artist Kreisler spinning out of control. The duel is one of the most memorable scenes in the book and is recounted in a tenor of heightened absurdity.
Indeed, Tarr sees himself as a sort of anti-Quixote, seeing people as meaningless and absurd and tied by bonds of class, nationality, honour and sex that are equally absurd. "His sardonic dream of life got him, as a sort of quixotic dreamer of inverse illusions, blows from the swift arms of windmills and attacks from indignant and perplexed mankind. But he - unlike Quixote - instead of having conceived the world as more chivalrous and marvellous than it was, had conceived it as emptied of all dignity, sense and generosity. The drovers and publicans were angry at not being mistaken for a legendary chivalry, for knights and ladies! The very windmills resented not being taken for giants."
I haven't fully digested this book but maybe the point is that this is not meant to be digested. Language can be used to confuse as easily as to elucidate. Lewis uses phrases which are very specific and without glosses would have little meaning to most readers. Are they deployed with the same intent that Kreisler uses them to confuse his hosts as he sets out to wreak havoc. Kreisler, we are told, "poured into her startled ear symbols and images of pawn shops, usury, three gold balls, 'pious mountains', 'Smokkin' or 'Frac' complets which he seemed a little to confuse, overwhelmed her with a serious terminology, all in a dialect calculated to bewilder the most acute philologist."
Or is it just a first time novelist's desire to keep his characters moving, to fill that gap between the front and back cover that allows an object to be called a book. "The two or three instruments behind the screen of palms produced the necessary measures to keep this throng of people careering, like the spoon stirring in a saucepan: it stirred and stirred and they jerked and huddled insipidly round and round, in sluggish currents with small eddies here and there."
This book is rich enough with language and character and humour to cover any flaws of pretentiousness and obscurity that it has. It is well worth reading for those interested in the period, and modernism, and I may return to it at some stage to develop a clearer opinion of it. As it is I am trying not to spend an excess of time on any book as I try to reach at least 85 of my targeted 100 books, allowing myself to award myself an A?