Saturday, June 16, 2018

Tarr by Wyndham Lewis

The chilly and unusual air of the early morning, the empty streets and shuttered houses, destroyed all feeling of reality of what was happening for Kreisler.  Had the duel been a thing to fear, it would have had an opposite effect.  His errand did not appear as an inflexible reality, either, following upon events that there was no turning back.  It was a whim, a caprice they were pursuing, as though, for instance, they had woken up in the early morning and decided to go fishing.  They were carrying it out with a dogged persistency, with which our whims are often served.
I was inspired to read D. H. Lawrence's The Rainbow because I had developed an interest in T. S. Eliot's milieu.  Here we have a novel I am reading from the same impetus, but by a personage much more closely connected to Eliot.  (Though in a December 1922 letter to his brother Henry, Eliot suggested that Joyce and Lawrence were the only contemporary novelists worth reading, Peter Ackroyd's 1984 biography of Eliot relates incidents that suggest Eliot was very skeptical about Lawrence--in a lecture in 1933 Eliot called Lawrence "a sick man" and he later called out E. M. Forster for his effusive eulogy of Lawrence, implying that calling Lawrence "the greatest imaginative novelist of our generation" was vacuous, empty praise.)  In a November 1918 letter to Isabella Stewart Gardner, Eliot called painter, writer and soldier Wyndham Lewis "the most interesting man in London Society."  Lewis published Eliot in the second and final issue of his famous periodical Blast, while Eliot wrote a foreword for Lewis's poetry collection One-Way Song.  The two even traveled together on the Continent, where Lewis got into a bicycle accident.  (Here's an article by Jeffrey Myers all about Eliot and Lewis's relationship.)

First page of the Preface from
the copy of Tarr which I read
Tarr, Lewis's first novel, was initially published in 1918, but the author rewrote it in 1928 and there has been considerable debate among scholars as to which version is superior.  I borrowed via interlibrary loan a 1973 printing by Jubilee Books--it is not clear to me whether it presents the 1918 or the 1928 text.  I like the typeface and the little decorations at the start of each chapter, which seem to incorporate the borzoi logo of Knopf; Knopf published the first American edition of the novel.  Is this some kind of clue about which version I read?

In a 1947 radio recording you can listen to on YouTube, Lewis talks about his education in France, tells an odd story about Flaubert, discusses the influence  the great Russian writers had upon his thinking, and speculates on the differences in character among English, French and Russian young men.  (The Russians come out on top, Lewis suggesting they are serious thinkers, while the English and French are frivolous.)  Lewis's interest in national characters and in foreign cultures and ideas  is strongly reflected in Tarr, which is set in Paris and features an international cast.  On the very first page of the volume, which I reproduce here (click to enlarge), Lewis's preoccupation with these topics is evident.  The English again come in for some dismissive criticism--since they don't think for themselves, save for a few Irishmen and Americans (who is he thinking of here?  Yeats and Pound?  Joyce and Eliot?) they are at the mercy of German ideas, of the "brain waves" that "boom" from "Germany's large leaden brain;" only the sea, that has protected the English people from Continental invasion for centuries, has preserved Lewis's countrymen from the influence of German thought, which has had its way with Frenchmen, Italians, and Russians.

The novel is chock full of lines like these that succinctly characterize the various ethnic and cultural groups of Europe; here is a small sample:
The whole of English training--the great fundamental spirit of the country--is a system of deadening feeling, a prescription for Stoicism. 
Latin races are as scandalised at northern amenities, the badness of our hypocrisies or manners and total immodesty displayed, as the average man of Teutonic race is with the shameful perfection of and ease in deceit shown by the French neighbour. 
...husbands hobnobbing with their wives' lovers or husbands of their unmarried days is a commonplace of German or Scandinavian society. Latin countries you have a democracy of vitality, the best things of the earth are in everybody's mouth and nerves. 
There he sat with his legs crossed and his eye fixed on the door with a Scottish solemnity.     
The main text of Tarr in this edition is some 340 pages long and consists of seven Parts, each made up of several chapters.  In Part I we meet our title character, Frederick Sorbert Tarr, an English painter living in Paris's "Knackfus Quarter."  Tarr is engaged to a German woman, Bertha Lunken, a sort of mediocrity.  Tarr puts forward his theory that an artist devotes to his art the passion an ordinary man devotes to sex; as a result an exceptional woman would distract him from his work, and so a mediocrity is the best sort of woman for him.
All the delicate psychology another man naturally seeks in a woman, the curiosity of form, windows on other lives, love and passion, I seek in my work and not elsewhere.
Tarr visits three English friends of his, one after the other, to talk over his relationship with Bertha.  Tarr treats these men pretty shabbily, insulting them and demeaning them.  His discussions with them confirm in him the need to avoid marriage, and so he goes to visit Bertha in her apartment, which is decorated with a scowling bust of Beethoven and reproductions of Max Klinger images, intent on severing their ties.  Tarr and Bertha's long and convoluted conversation settles nothing, however; Bertha calls his bluff and Tarr in any case is unsure whether he really wants to break up with her.

In my opinion, this 1926 ad for Tarr totally
mischaracterizes what the novel is all about
(image from "Rewriting Tarr Ten Years Later:
Wyndham Lewis, the Phoenix Library,
and the Domestication of Modernism" by
Lise Jaillant)
Part II introduces us to Otto Kreisler, a German painter resident in the same part of the city as Tarr and Bertha.  Kreisler actually occupies a larger portion of the narrative than our title character.  The chapters in this part, no doubt for some artistic reason, are not in chronological order, though I will summarize them here more straightforwardly.  Background: Back in the fatherland, Kreisler's fiance dropped him to marry his own father; Kreisler went to Italy to study painting, leaving Italy for Paris when his debts began piling up--Kreisler is notorious for not paying his bills and for borrowing money from others and failing to repay them.  He relies on money sent regularly by his fiance-stealing father, but, as the period covered by this novel begins, his father's regular letter, with its precious marks, is late, and Kreisler must face up to the possibility that no more money is forthcoming from Germany.

Like Tarr, Kreisler has a large number of acquaintances whom he treats in a shabby manner.  (Lewis again and again provides us readers reasons to see similarities between his English and German protagonists, and I have a suspicion that one of the novel's objects is to portray the negative effect on the character of an Englishman of excessive association with Germans--Tarr is attracted to and identifies with individual Germans and proposes ideas he labels as German, and "Frederick" is a sort of classic German name, isn't it?)  In a cafe Kreisler meets a beautiful woman, Anastasya, an ethnic Russian who spent her youth in the United States and has lived in Germany as an adult.  Kreisler becomes infatuated with her.  He learns she will be at an upcoming party of Paris-living Germans, and finagles himself an invite to the party, but feels he cannot go because his evening dress clothes have been pawned.  In the course of fruitless attempts to borrow the money he needs to regain possession of his evening attire, he spots Anastasya hanging around with another of his acquaintances, Soltyk, a half-Polish Russian art dealer whom Kreisler already has complex psychological reasons to dislike.  In despair, thinking Anastasya must be beyond his reach, Kreisler decides to attend the party in his dirty morning clothes and deliberately make a scene, I guess to achieve a childish sort of revenge.

Part III covers the party to which K arrives underdressed, and is titled "Bourgeois-Bohemians."  (Whoa, remember when that David Brooks book came out?  It feels like just yesterday!)  This is one of the more entertaining parts of Tarr, as Lewis describes all the pretentious phonies and odd characters who attend the party--a grossly fat woman with a tiny violin-playing mathematics expert for a boyfriend; women who pretend to be lesbians because it is avant garde; an impoverished baroness who gets her fellow artists to pose for her for free, and so on.  Lewis's metaphors here feel more fun and more effective--the fat woman is an elephant and Der Matematiker is a flea who hops around whenever he is near her; a dull man who is in love with Frauelein Lipmann, the woman throwing the party and the center of the novel's social circle, is said to be "laying siege" to her, "investing" her.

Bertha is at the party, and notices how out of sorts Kreisler is, and approaches him, tries to comfort him.
"You are suffering!  I know you are suffering.  I wish I could do something for you....Treat me as a sister: let me help you."
Her attentions are insistent, and seem somewhat flirtatious, and Kreisler, thinking that here is an opportunity to commence his work of causing trouble at the party, grabs her and kisses her; the question of how much Bertha consents is muddled--in this novel people's motivations and actions are all ambiguous and vague, the characters seeming to act on whims and then later concoct post hoc rationalizations for their impulsive actions.  Bertha hopes word of the kiss will get back to Tarr and this will somehow bring her relationship with the Englishman to a crisis, severing it for good or inspiring jealousy that will tie Tarr securely to her.
With the salt of jealousy, and a really big row, could Tarr perhaps be landed and secured even now?
(I love how poetic this line is, with its rhyme and its metaphors--it even feels like it is in meter.)

As the party proceeds Kreisler makes a tremendous nuisance and fool of himself, groping women and insulting them, angering most everyone, except for Bertha, who does not witness this misbehavior.

The next morning, in Part IV, Kreisler receives a letter from his father informing him that no further money will be arriving and demanding his return to Germany ASAP.  Kreisler writes back a letter threatening to commit suicide on a specific date if his father's financial support is terminated. Bertha receives a letter from Tarr, who has heard the gossip of Bertha and Kreisler's kiss and decisively breaks off their relationship. Despite his efforts to avoid her, Kreisler runs into Bertha on the street, and, his "appetites" "asserting themselves," he suggests, and she agrees, to have dinner with him. All Bertha's friends warn her that Kreisler is a monster, but, for complex psychological reasons, their admonitions actually push Bertha closer to him. A few days later she agrees to model for one of his paintings, and while she is in his apartment he rapes her.

In Part V, Tarr, who has moved to another part of Paris, begins returning to the "Knackfus Quarter" on a daily basis in order to socialize with Fraulein Lipmann's circle, including his former girlfriend Bertha and Kreisler, the strange German whom he thinks is Bertha's new boyfriend.  (Tarr's reasons for returning to the neighborhood at all and for making such an effort to spend time with Kreisler I found vague and confusing, and perhaps this is Lewis's intention, to convey Tarr's own confusion and indecisiveness.  I think it is suggested that Tarr couldn't quit Bertha cold turkey, but had to wean himself off her, and that one reason he spent so much time with Kreisler is that he was trying to occupy the German's time so he (Kreisler) couldn't visit Bertha.)  Tarr meets Anastaysa, and, attracted to her, strikes up a friendship with her.  As the day upon which he has scheduled his suicide approaches, Kreisler acts in an increasingly violent and crazy manner.

Part VI, titled "Holocausts," covers Kreisler's physical altercations with Soltyk--he smacks the Pole when he finds him on a walk with Anastasya, and then again the same day in a cafe, where he publicly challenges the man to a duel. (Lewis relates the events of this Part out of chronological order, and from various vantage points; Kreisler's attack on Soltyk in the cafe is narrated twice, once from Kreisler's point of view and once from that of Tarr, who arrives at the cafe at just the right moment to witness and become briefly and peripherally involved in the caper.)  Because of the erratic behavior of Kreisler and others, the duel itself is a tragic farce where nothing goes as planned. Kreisler flees Paris, ending up in a police station near the German border where he hangs himself in a cell. The chapters about the duel and its aftermath are perhaps the best in the novel, as there is some real suspense (at times it looks like the disputants will make up or that one of them will fail to show up, preventing the duel from taking place and keeping anybody from getting killed) and because Lewis introduces some odd and interesting minor characters in the form of the men who serve as Soltyk and Kreisler’s seconds.  Kreisler's time in his cell and his suicide are also well done, Lewis giving us a striking and novel metaphor (I'll reproduce this below) and then a very good psychological description of Kreisler's process of destroying himself.

After the climaxes of the botched duel and the successful suicide, in Part VII the stories of Tarr, Bertha, and Anastasya are resolved. Anastasya, equipped with beauty, intelligence and a powerful will, calls the shots in her relationship with Tarr; he tries to break things off with her--remember that he thinks that an artist should not let his sexual relationships take up too much of his energy, and so he should not get involved with a woman who is his equal--but she asserts herself and seduces him, and they become lovers. Bertha tells Tarr that she is pregnant with Kreisler's child (she doesn't let on that the baby is the product of a rape), and Tarr marries her, it being the honorable thing. For a few years Tarr and Bertha remain married while Tarr spends most of his time with sexy sexy Anastasya, then Bertha divorces him and marries an eye doctor.  Tarr never has children with Anastasya, but he is unfaithful to her and has offspring with another woman.

This is a bleak novel in which all the characters are selfish jerks, but none of them is selfish in an ambitious or exciting way—the characters are artists, but none of them is driven by an obsession to be rich and famous or by a commitment to changing the world or altering the course of art history.  This is a marked contrast to Lewis himself and his friends Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, who were always founding new schools of thought, publishing manifestos and plans, promoting new writers and artists and trying to bring to the attention of Westerners literature from other parts of the world, and pushing for societal and cultural change (let's put aside for the moment that these changes they sought could be stupid and dangerous.)   None of the characters in Tarr has any kind of guiding passion or any decent human feeling.  With the marginal exception of Tarr himself, they don’t talk about art, and none of them feels any kind of normal love or friendship, or even lust.  At best they act like (erratic, broken) machines (Lewis repeatedly uses the word "machine" in the metaphors he applies to the characters); at worst they are manipulative schemers who see each other as tools to be used or resources to be exploited, and not even to grand or romantic ends, but to petty ones.

I'm willing to admit that Lewis here is presenting an accurate picture of how people behave, and that this may very well be an appropriate satire of artists he knew, but such characters militate against the construction of an entertaining novel, and contribute to Tarr's lack of clarity and lack of narrative drive.  I'm sure that there are people smarter than I am who think Tarr is a hilarious and biting satire that powerfully makes its point, but it didn't make me laugh and I don't feel like it had any particularly new or exciting ideas to convey.  There are a few good passages and effective scenes, and the book is certainly interesting as a historical document, but taken as a whole Tarr is not really moving or compelling.  Worthwhile for me and those with particular interests, but not a masterpiece or a satisfying read with broad appeal that I would recommend to general audiences--it's no Don Quixote or Moby Dick or In Search of Lost Time or Of Human Bondage

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