Failed fascist

Some Sort of Genius: a life of Wyndham Lewis

Paul O'Keefe <em>Jonathan Cape, 697pp, £25</em>


Is Wyndham Lewis, both writer and painter, worthy of the erudite industry that now surrounds him? Educated at the Slade, he founded the vorticist movement with Ezra Pound, served on the Western Front from 1916-18, painted a number of decent portraits and wrote several esoteric books. A handful of enthusiasts claim him as the equal of James Joyce, but Paul O'Keefe, who should presumably be making the case for his subject as a great writer, says merely of The Childermass (1928), Lewis's supposed literary masterpiece, that it jabbers "away in the repetitive baby prose of Gertrude Stein or in the allusive verbiage of James Joyce". The familiarity of Lewis with the former writer is doubtless what lies behind one of O'Keefe's best anecdotes, telling of how a Lewis essay implying that Ernest Hemingway was a mere epigone to Gertrude Stein, made "Papa" have a near-apoplectic fit when he read it in a Paris bookshop.

Despite his creative endeavours, Lewis is best known for being - along with Yeats, Eliot, Pound and Roy Campbell - an unregenerate apologist for the right in the 1920s and fascism in the 1930s, despite knowing nothing whatsoever about politics in any form. This is Lewis on Franco: "An ordinary, old-fashioned anti- monarchist Spanish liberal . . . no more a fascist than you are, but a Catholic soldier who didn't like seeing priests and nuns killed . . . didn't want to see all his friends murdered for no better reason than that they all went to Mass and to the more expensive cafes and usually were able to scrape enough money together to have a haircut and a shave."

One of the problems with O'Keefe's huge biography, which, at times, tracks Lewis's life on an almost day-to-day basis, is that we are expected to plough through gibberish such as this and find it interesting. One can respect Lewis's war service, when he witnessed the horror of the trenches in 1917, narrowly escaped death and saw his fellow imagist T E Hulme killed. But one can hardly respect his decision to cut and run for the new world as soon as war broke out in 1939, and to return precisely at its end in August 1945. A rebarbative, self-regarding sponger, whinger and special pleader, Lewis had this to say in response to Pearl Harbor, when he was hoping for a job at a US university: "I was just about to get an appointment in the States when, the very week in which it was all being settled, bang-bang-bang! went the filthy little descendants of Hokusai and my appointment went up in smoke." No doubt the hearts of the widows of the 1,177 sailors entombed on USS Arizona went out to him.

There is far too much medical detail in this book, particularly on the tumour that finally resulted in Lewis's blindness in 1951 at the age of 69. At times, one wonders if one is reading a biography or a clinical textbook, especially because O'Keefe gives us the Latin names of spores and viruses. It is bizarre, in an age when pub- lishers claim that the market for biographies - even of famous names - has dried up, that a major house took on a book that ought to have appeared under a university imprint. And I question the taste of the jacket illustration: a lugubrious photograph of the blind Lewis's brain, showing a pituitary tumour.

Lewis quarrelled with everyone, alienated everyone, touched everyone for loans, literally drove his wife mad, and spent much of his life in litigation with publishers and others over unearned advances, obscenity and imaginary libels. He sired a son who was arrested for aggravated burglary at the age of 18. Er, that's it, apart from the novels and painting, for which one has to turn to the rival (and infinitely more interesting) volume from Yale University Press by Paul Edwards, which reproduces his work in lavish colour, in contrast to the handful of monochrome images in this book.

Amazingly, among all the letters and essays that O'Keefe quotes, he finds no room for this lucid and economical summing-up by Julian Symons: "Like Orwell, Lewis had an itch for politics; like Orwell was ignored . . . Yet although he was easy to talk to, Lewis was inhuman in a way Orwell was not."

This article first appeared in the 30 October 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Divorce your husband and watch him get rich