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Wyndham Lewis: The Apes of God

The blurb on the back cover of my copy says that T S Eliot said that his book is so immense I have no words for it. Richard Aldington called it the most brilliantly witty piece of writing which I have ever read, while Walter Allen, talking about this book and The Human Age trilogy, said These two books seem to me the most sustained tours de force in English since Ulysses. I can only respectfully disagree with these gentlemen. Walter Allen should have known that the period between the publication of Ulysses saw the publication of A Passage to India, The Ashe of Rings, The Polyglots, Mrs. Dalloway, To The Lighthouse, Death of a Hero, No Enemy and others (see my chronological list for the 1920s), which easily stand comparison with this novel. Allen got one part right – sustained, for it is a sustained or, rather, a blistering, vitriolic attack, which does not let up for one word of its 650 pages, on the arty set of contemporary London and surroundings.

The book starts (in a prologue) and ends with Lady Fredigonde Follett. (One of the joys of this book are the very inventive names.) She is an elderly lady (though how elderly is not quite clear). We first meet her in a brilliant scene where she is having her hair done by her maid, Bridget (whom Lady Fredigonde insists on calling Budget). Much of the interchange consists of the issue of what hair cap Lady Fredigonde will wear and her own musings and discussions on her hair caps, leading to both comments on Lady Fredigonde by Lewis (as with the rest of the book, none flattering) as well as awkward interchanges between her and Bridget. It is very funny but also very evocative. It also leads to the introduction one of the main characters, Horace Zagreus. (While most of the names are odd, this is the one that gets mocked most by the other characters.) Zagreus is a man about town. We later learn that he is sixty-three. He knows everybody in the arty set and seems to spend much if not all of his time mixing with them. However his great interest is in discovering young men and introducing them into the arty set. He is not, as he and others tell us, homosexual. Indeed, he shows heterosexual tendencies by the end of the book but there is no doubt that his interest in these men seems to have homosexual undertones.

Much of the book is taken up with his latest protégé, Daniel Boleyn, a young Irishman and, apparently, the son of a friend. Daniel is very immature (the chapter in which we are introduced to him is called The Virgin) , completely unsure of what he wants out of life and easily led by Zagreus. Zagreus is determined to educate him. A good half of the book is taken up with a picaresque journey he makes round the London arty set. Zagreus gives him a set of detailed instructions (called Orders for the Day) of where he has to be and when, how he should arrive and leave and what he should do when he is there. He is to do this alone (though many of these people have other visitors, Zagreus is not one of them). All of these people are important as they are all Apes of God. Previously, Zagreus had sent him what Lewis calls an encyclical, which is a diatribe by the third most important character in this book (after Zagreus and Daniel Boleyn), Pierpoint. Pierpoint seems to have a lot of influence on Zagreus and the others Apes of God but we never meet him, though we do hear a lot about him. In particular, he defines these apes in his encyclical and condemns them as being very harmful to art. They are essentially well-to-do dilettantes of art (some patrons but many practitioners) who may have a modicum of talent but only a modicum (and, as a result, detest those that have real talent.) They are responsible for the harmful direction art has taken, as they are highly influential. They have according to Pierpoint (who is, presumably, Lewis himself) made a sort of cult of the amateur… and any imperfectly equipped person. Virtually everyone Daniel Boleyn will meet during the book is an ape of god.

Daniel Boleyn struggles with this itinerary, both the geographical aspects (he has a London street guide) as well as the apes themselves. Twice he ends up naked. At all times, he feels out of place, as Lewis viciously sends up the apes, from the amateur painters to the patrons, from the bookseller to the publisher (it is not just painters that are mocked). Some of the characters are readily identifiable – from T S Eliot to Lytton Strachey – while others are condemned in absentia, such as Joyce, Huxley and Stein. Indeed, there are few people from the contemporary world of art and literature who escape. Even Daniel Boleyn himself is based on a so-called ape, namely Stephen Spender.

The book concludes with a long description of a country house weekend, the so-called Lenten House fancy dress party, held by the Finnian Shaw family. It is soon very clear that the Finnian Shaws are the Sitwells. Once again, Lewis lets fly at all and sundry, with the whole party taking some 250 pages and running to almost the end of the book. Of course, it is all too much. At times very funny, at times far too excessive, this book was clearly not, despite the comments of the blurbists, a success nor was it well received and, today, it remains more interesting for whom it satirises than for its own literary merits. Let us not forget that Lewis made a series of bad judgements (the following year he published a book praising Hitler) and this may be one of them but it still remains a fascinating failure.

Publishing history

First published 1930 by Nash-Grayson