Wyndham Lewis: The Revenge for Love
Lewis clearly has a thing about artists with minimal talent. As in the The Apes of God, this book is concerned, to a great extent, with mocking such artists. Unlike The Apes of God, it is not set just in England but starts and ends in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Percy Hardcaster (his real name is apparently Hardcastle but he (slightly) changed it to avoid causing his mother embarrassment) is in prison in Spain. He had been working as a propagandist (and not a fighter) for the communists but had been caught with three sticks of dynamite in his pocket. Life does not seem too hard in prison. A young woman brings him food every day (and also smuggles in foreign newspapers and messages). However, he is planning an escape with the aid of Serafín, one of the prison guards. The senior prison guard has been well aware of this escape, having intercepted messages carried in Hardcaster’s food basket, and the plot is foiled, with Serafín killed and Hardcaster wounded.
We then jump to England, where we learn that Hardcaster has been released from prison (albeit with a wooden leg) and Sean O’Hara is to hold a party welcoming him back. It is this party that gives Lewis the opportunity to introduce us to the guests and, at the same time, the talentless artists, as well as a variety of shady characters. The first one we meet is Victor Stamp and his wife, Margot. Stamp is trying hard to earn a living as a painter but even he admits that he does not have any real talent. He is permanently broke and Margot’s temporary job in a bookshop is about to come to an end. He will become the perfect target for a couple of shady characters. Lewis shows how shallow he is by using a technique used in other novels of this period, namely having a talentless and/or insincere artist forging paintings. He is not even successful at that and will end up in a shady plot in Spain.
Jack Druze is not an artist. Indeed, he is an accountant. He becomes involved in the art world by helping Tristram Phipps (Tristy) with his accounts. He becomes fascinated with the art world and, in particular, becomes fascinated with Gillian, Tristram’s wife. Tristram is naïve but is held up to be a talent to watch. However, when he goes to Jack (because the Inland Revenue feel that, because he is talked about in the press, he must have sold a lot of paintings), he reveals that he has sold very few paintings and, like Victor, is broke and he too will end up working for Roland Stamp’s forgery factory. Stamp and O’Hara are the two shady characters. We barely meet Stamp but O’Hara, obviously Irish but, as Lewis states, eager to be British, is clearly up to something suspicious politically, probably involving Spain but we do not find out what till much later.
While there is a plot, involving the painting, Jack and Hardcaster both trying to woo Gillian and murky politics around the Spanish Civil War, Lewis uses much of the action to mock talentless artists, political activists, particularly those on the Left, and, as in his other books, the ill-informed bourgeois. There is a wonderful scene where Margot gets a visit from her friend Agnes Irons. Agnes talks about her rich friends, the Bulkeleys. Have they any pictures by living people? Margot asks, on being told that they collected art. That the living were rather common for the Bulkeleys to have anything to do with, in the matter of artists, obviously was the first thing that occurred to Agnes. When Margot persists, Agnes comments You don’t mean those cubist horrors, do you? When Picasso is later mentioned and Margot asks if Agnes has heard of him, her comment is I can’t say I have. What an odd name – it sounds dago. In short, Lewis is, as in The Apes of God, brutal with his characters. If you like brutal satire and a plot revolving around murky politics in the Spanish Civil War, you will enjoy this novel.
First published 1937 by Cassell