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Tarr Paperback – 1 Mar 1990
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Frederick Tarr, an Englishman, has difficulty understanding the motivations of Otto Kreisler, a German artist, whose life ends in tragedy.
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Percy Wydham Lewis is not in literary vogue and hasn't been for many years. Most of his books are out of print - and if it wasn't for the efforts of indedpendent cult publishers like the Black Sparrow Press, I doubt if we'd have ready access to much of his work at all.
Many literary critics ascribe to the view that, because Lewis railed against the prominent contemporaries of his time (D.H. Lawrence; Virginia Woolf; James Joyce) and was rather cynical of 'the art scene' (even though he was in it) - the literary canon has subsequently excluded him. They say that, as an Angry Young Man, he took things a little too far and is out of favour nowadays because he so persistently criticised all that we now regard as definitive 20th Century fiction. Not to mention the fact that he could be decidedly anti-British which, no matter how hard we deceive ourselves, is a rankling point to this day.
My opinion is that Wyndham Lewis is not a well-known literary figure because he is not a good writer. It's as simple as that. 'Tarr' is essentially a novel about nothing. It tries, in its own muddled way, to paint a portrait of Bohemian Paris and the precarious love triangles to be found there. The narrative whirls randomly around the central figure of Otto Kreisler (the 'star' of this book - Tarr really has a comparatively minor role...this is why the choice of title is also a confusion to me). This narrative rambles on for 200 uneventful pages or so, trying unsuccesfully to breathe believable life into various characters.
Nothing of merit can be said of the plot until Kreisler, at the very end, is drawn into a duel of honour with a Polish artist. This, for me, was the only dramatically appealing part of this fragmented affair. And I say 'fragmented' not in the Modernist sense. Modernist fragmentation has a sense of hidden unity - a disjointed but beautiful chain of memory and thought. 'Tarr' is simply disjointed and it bears all the hallmarks of a young, hurried and somewhat conceited author.
But I can't damn it entirely. Some of the language is ingenious. Some of the musing is profound. Some of the subject matter is distinctly risky for 1918. But these plus points do not add up to a satisfying whole - and when this happens, does an author such as Lewis really deserve the respect that cult readers demand for him? I don't think he does.
The problem is this. "Tarr" (i.e. the character Tarr) is supposed to be the foil to Kreisler, the sensible, 'neo-classical' counterweight to the hysterical, 'neo-romantic' Kreisler. But Tarr (again, the character) is a dreadful bore. The first two chapters of the novel are tedious as Tarr spouts his (not terribly interesting) theories about art and life, and the book only springs to life when Kreisler appears.
Kreisler himself is a fascinating character: a Nietzschean proto-fascist, he is a hysterical thug, rapist and murderer: a failed artist turned killer (and Kreisler of course came to life many years later in the guise of Adolf Hitler). But Lewis was clearly more interested in characters than this than he was in the 'neo-classical' poise of the characters that were supposed to oppose him. The sad conclusion to this internal war was when Lewis ended up supporting the real Adolf Hitler, always telling himself (and others) that Hitler was a man of peace (i.e. a neo-classicist, just like Lewis himself wanted to be, if it were not for his Romantic impulses forever getting the better of him).
So the novel, overall, is a failure. However, it remains interesting in three main respects: first as one of the few authentic records of a Bohemian world that has now completely vanished (pre-world war 1 Paris), second, as an authentic High Modernist masterpiece (in terms of its experimentation with language and form), and third as a precursor of Lewis's later themes and obsessions.
It's also, moreover, a significant document of bohemian life in Paris around the beginning of the century.
-and, by the way, it's not Lewis's first attempt at prose. Early, yes, but not the first.
Most helpful customer reviews on Amazon.com
For the last hour he had been accumulating difficulties, or rather unearthing some new one at every step. Impossible to tackle "en masse," they were all there before him. The thought of "settling everything before he went," now appeared monstrous. He had, anyhow, started these local monsters and demons, fishing them to the light. Each had a different vocal explosiveness, inveighing unintelligibly against each other. The only thing to be done was to herd them all together and march them away for inspection at leisure.
Tarr, The 1918 Version is an enjoyable and worthwhile read if you have the time, but if you will read only one book by Lewis, leave this one on the shelf and, instead, make a grab for The Apes of God.