by Len Gutkin

Tarr (1918), Wyndham Lewis’s first published novel, demonstrates a significant expansion and refinement of the techniques and themes Lewis had been developing in short stories published in The Little Review and in the short play The Enemy of the Stars (in Blast, 1914). Though the novel’s titular character functions partly as a mouthpiece for Lewis’s own aesthetic and social views, the articulation of these views in a compelling novelistic framework lends them a very different valence than Lewis’s views as expressed in the Blast manifestos. It is interesting to note that, prior to Tarr, Lewis had written a first novel, Mrs Dukes’ Millions, which was not published until 1977.

Publication History

Lewis probably began Tarr in 1907 or 1908, and finished by 1915. He had some trouble getting it published, probably due in large part to the prosecution on obscenity grounds of Lawrence’s The Rainbow. John Lane, who published Blast, considered it “too strong a book,” perhaps fearing prosecution[1]. With Pound’s help, Lewis got Harriet Shaw Weaver to agree to serialize Tarr in The Egoist from 1916-1917. No English publisher could be found, but Knopf published an American version on June 27th, 1918. The Egoist followed suit, bringing out a book version in England on July 18th, 1918 (which, indeed, was meant to come out even earlier, on June 15th). More material was cut from the English version than the American; the serialized version was shorter than either[2].

In 1928, Lewis published a revised Tarr, based on the American version, “partially…because it was the fullest of the three and partly because the Knopf edition had the wider margins necessary for copious alteration and addition.”[3]

This later manifestation differs considerably from all three wartime versions. First, it is longer, and contains much added or expanded material. Second, syntax is cleaned up for clarity. Third, and most obviously (if least substantively), Lewis’s idiosyncratic typographical method of indicating caesura-like pauses by inserting two horizontal bars, or an equivalence sign, between sentences has been omitted. (The first sentence of the 1918 edition, for example, begins: “Paris hints of sacrifice. = But here we deal with that large dusty facet known to indulgent and congruous kind”).[4] Critics and readers differ on which version they prefer; Hugh Kenner, for instance, insists that “in the process of firming up the narrative, Lewis has inadvertently wafted much of the magic away. Not content with correcting a number of outright and annoying ambiguities, he has fussed in almost every sentence with locutions which, however reprehensible in detail, signify less when brushed off for the market than when streaked with the loam of the unconscious from which they were so hastily gathered”.[5] Though one hesitates, always, to quarrel with Kenner’s ear, I find the 1928 version at least as loamy as the 1918, and appreciate the heaps of added detail. Frederic Jameson has justly noted that, in Tarr, “the sentence is reinvented with all the force of origins,”[6] and those interested in studying Tarr’s style and the development of the Lewisian sentence will need to consult both the 1918 version(s) and the 1928 revision.

Plot and Characterization

Tarr is set in pre-War Paris, and its principal characters are artistically-inclined bourgeoisie (what Lewis calls “Bourgeois-Bohemians”) from various parts of Europe, particularly Germany, England, and Poland. Unlike many of the novels we’ve come to think of as modernist exempla, Tarr is pointedly, even melodramatically, plotted and does not defy useful summarization. The novel begins with the English painter Frederick Tarr, whom Lewis later called “a caricatural self-portrait of sorts,”[7] expounding his evidently very Lewisian theories on art and sex to two successive English acquaintances. He wants to break his engagement to the conventionally bourgeois German Bertha Lunken, a “high grade aryan bitch”[8] who he feels will sap him of his aesthetic and intellectual forces. We follow Tarr while he visits Bertha and attempts to make the break, though this narrative line is abruptly interrupted with Part II’s introduction of the German painter Otto Kreisler. Kreisler is Tarr’s antitype—messy, incoherent, insufficiently intellectualized, a bundle of misdirected libidinal energy and no accompanying artistic talent. He falls hard for the Russo-German Anastasya, who mostly ignores him. His antics reach their hilarious climax in Part III, “Bourgeois-Bohemians,” a beautifully orchestrated satirical set-piece in which an ill-dressed Kreisler scandalizes his fellow Germans at a club ball by sexually harassing every woman in sight. Kreisler is the most Dostoievskian figure in this very Dostoievskian novel, an underground man with an overgrown sex drive, compulsively humiliating himself in a narcissistic spiral of social misbehavior. His world and Tarr’s cross when, on the way to the ball, Bertha Lunken gets him to kiss her, much to the shock of her cohort. Later, she comes to his studio to pose for a painting, and farce edges into tragedy when Kreisler rapes Bertha and shows her the door. They later develop an uneasy relationship, in which the measure of coercion is left somewhat ambiguous. Tarr runs into this problematic couple on the street and strikes up an acquaintance with Kreisler, which relationship culminates in Kreisler selecting Tarr as his second in a duel foisted on a young Pole, Soltyk, whom Kreisler jealously suspects of being involved with Anastasya. Soltyk reluctantly accepts, and the duel, called off at the last moment, terminates in Kreisler’s accidentally shooting and killing his man. Again, tragedy and farce are intertwined and all but indistinguishable. Kreisler runs to the French-German border and turns himself in to the French authorities, who think he is a German spy. He hangs himself in jail.

Tarr, meanwhile, has been courting Anastasya himself, and the development of their relationship is handled in Part VII, “Swagger Sex.” If Kreisler is Tarr’s antitype, Anastasya is Bertha’s: she is fiercely intelligent and utterly unsentimental. She and Tarr talk headily about art, sex, and life. They also participate in one of the most bizarre foreplay scenes in all of modern literature, particularly in the longer 1928 version, in which Anastasya compares the sexed body to cuts of meat. Tarr, in a kind of response, elides the butcher and the artist, thinking to himself that “He was not an artist in anything but oil-paint. Oil-paint and meat were singularly alike.”[9] Anastasya and Tarr are, presumably, meant to represent male and female visions of the antitype to the modern herd-man (Lewis uses this Nietzschean nomenclature several times throughout Tarr), but more than a whiff of parody inflects Lewis’s portrayal of them—a parody that, I would insist, is also conscious self-parody on Lewis’s part, a deliberate mockery of his own Nietzschean fantasies about the superior subject.

It is in these erotically charged conversations with Anastasya that Tarr proposes the most characteristic statement of his aesthetic philosophy, one which will resonate with many of Lewis’s own claims: “[D]eadness,” Tarr insists, “is the first condition of art. A hippopotamus’ armoured hide, a turtle’s shell, feathers or machinery on the one hand; that opposed to naked pulsing and moving of the soft inside of life.”[10] In the valorization of surface, exterior, and hardness, Tarr expresses Lewis’s characteristic rejection of the increasingly interior focus of modernist literary production, from Dorothy Richardson to Proust to Woolf to Joyce (he would oppose, later, the increasing ubiquity of Joycean stream-of-consciousness). None of which is to suggest that Tarr does not deal with character, but its psychology is Dostoievskian, not Proustian or Woolfian. Frederic Jameson says it best: “[M]odernism has indeed traditionally been dominated by an impressionistic aesthetic, rather than that—externalizing and mechanical—of Lewis’s expressionism.”[11] And yet, a certain self-parody attends Tarr’s insistence on deadness as the definitive condition of the work of art, just as self-parody attends the insistence by Anastasya that the eroticized body is basically an appealing cluster of joints of beef. Perhaps Lewis is here ironizing the influence of Marinetti’s Futurism on his thought, an influence he was pointedly insistent, in Blast, on repudiating. None of which is to suggest that he was not profoundly attracted by the extremes Tarr and Anastasya (or, for that matter, Marinetti) formulate—indeed, Lewis was always a man attracted to extremes—but only that he was aware of the easiness with which such formulations can slip into the ridiculous.

Though Anastasya and Tarr seem made for each other, Tarr worries that two such equivalent intelligences cannot be brought into union. He ends up marrying Bertha, in part to cover for her since, as it turns out, Kreisler has made her pregnant. He allots the hours of four till seven for seeing his wife, but spends the evenings with Anastasya. This strange configuration is, it seems, what Lewis will leave us with, but a concluding half-page coda, separated from the foregoing by a horizontal bar, pointedly resists anything like normative novelistic closure. Lewis swerves away from the little four-person melodrama that has occupied the bulk of Tarr’s plot energies and introduces several new characters. Indeed, this conclusion is so radical and so unusual in the history of the novel that it deserves to be quoted in full:

Bertha and Tarr took a flat in the Boulevard Port Royal, not far from the Jardin des Plantes. They gave a party to which Fräulein Lipmann and a good many other people came. = He maintained the rule of four to seven, roughly, for Bertha, with the utmost punctiliousness. = Anastasya and Bertha did not meet. Bertha’s child came, and absorbed her energies for upwards of a year. It bore some resemblance to Tarr. = He lived now publicly with his illicit splendid bride. Two years after the birth of the child, Mrs. Tarr divorced him. She then married an eye-doctor, and lived with a brooding severity in his company and that of her only child. Tarr and Anastasya did not marry. = They had no children. Tarr, however, had three children by a lady of the name of Rose Fawcett, who consoled him eventually for the splendours of his “perfect woman.” = But yet beyond the dim though solid figure of Rose Fawcett, another rises. This one represents the swing back to the swagger side. The cheerless and stodgy absurdity of Rose Fawcett required the painted, fine and inquiring face of Prism Dirkes.[12]

  1. ↑ O’Keeffe, Paul. “Afterward.” Tarr: The 1918 Version. Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 1990. pg. 367
  2. ↑ ibid. pgs. 369-370
  3. ↑ Okeeffe, Paul. “Editorial Note.” Tarr: The 1918 Version”. Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 1990. pg. 5
  4. ↑ Wyndham Lewis, Tarr: The 1918 Version. ed. Paul O’Keeffe (Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 1990), p. 21.
  5. ↑ Kenner, Hugh. Wyndham Lewis. Norfolk: New Directions Press, 1954. pgs. 36-37
  6. ↑ Jameson, Frederic. Fables of Aggression: Wyndham Lewis, the Modernist as Fascist”. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979. pg. 2
  7. ↑ Chapman, Robert T. Wyndham Lewis: Fictions and Satires. Knightsbridge: Vision Press, 1973. pg. 69
  8. ↑ Lewis, Wyndham. Tarr [1928]. London: Penguin, 1990. pg. 24
  9. ↑ Lewis, Wyndham. Tarr: The 1918 Version ed. Paul O’Keeffe. Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 1990. pg. 297
  10. ↑ ibid. pg 299
  11. ↑ Jameson, Frederic. Fables of Aggression: Wyndham Lewis, the Modernist as Fascist. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979. pg. 2
  12. ↑ Lewis, Wyndham. Tarr: The 1918 Version. ed. Paul O’Keeffe. Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 1990. pg. 320