THE ENEMY: A Biography of Wyndham Lewis by Jeffrey Meyers

THE ENEMY: A Biography of Wyndham Lewis

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Have Wyndham Lewis' writings been seriously under-rated? And has the odium of his personality--the megalomania, the paranoia, the pro-Nazism, the relentless combativeness--been exaggerated and over-simplified? So believes Prof. Meyers (English, Univ. of Colorado). But this dense critical biography, though readable and richly informative, never really succeeds as revisionism--especially since Meyers is much better at detailing Lewis' feuds than at explaining his behavior or iliuminating his ""genius."" Canadian-born, New England-reared, then raised by his doting mother in London when his father ran off with a housemaid, Lewis grew up with no apparent talent but drawing; his ""prolonged and leisurely self-development"" included a brief stint at the Slade circa 1900 (the start of his chumship/rivalry with Augustus John) and seven years of Continental bohemia (mistresses, an illegitimate child or two, poverty, much self-education). So when he returned to England in 1908, adopting a vagabond-ish ""Spanish persona,"" Lewis was ready to begin his varied, vigorous, yet never-quite-triumphant careers: the rebel-painter, distilling Cubism and Futurism into ""Vorticism"" (""the greatest art movement. . . in modern England,"" demolished by World War I); the Pound-influenced editor of Blast; the author of the unconventional Tarr (""one of the least read and most underrated novels of the twentieth century""); the politico-philosophical writer of ""profound and monumental"" books (The Art of Being Ruled, etc.) in the late 1920s; the anti-Bloomsbury satirist of the 1930s (The Apes of God, etc.); the great portrait-painter; and the ""lonely volcano"" of the Forties and Fifties, writing Self Condemned (his ""greatest novel"") in blind old age. Meyers painstakingly re-investigates all the famous quarrels, deciding that in most of them (especially the Bloomsbury war) Lewis ""was morally and intellectually right."" He questions the fairness of Lewis-attacks by Herbert Read, Stein, Hemingway, Huxley, and many others; he denies Lewis' paranoia, suggesting that this self-dramatized ""Enemy"" purposely, even jokingly, fostered the wild-man image. He attributes much of Lewis' undeniable rotten-ness to lifelong near-poverty, stresses his charm, idealism, and ""little suspected"" modesty. And, as for the pro-Hitler politics, Meyers calls Lewis ""naive and gullible,"" laments that (unlike Pound) Lewis still hasn't been forgiven, and emphasizes the prophetic insights in the admittedly ""reactionary"" treatises. None of this is fully persuasive--and, throughout, Meyers fails to explore Lewis' psychology sufficiently. But, for the sheer wealth of well--presented material here--from the decoding of romans à clef to the succinct summaries of the Lewis canon--this is a valuable resource, more crisply accessible and personality-rich than Geoffrey Wagner's stolid 1957 study.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1982
Publisher: Routledge & Kegan Paul (9 Park St., Boston, MA 02108)