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Wyndham Lewis: Tarr

Tarr was a book that Lewis worked on for much of his career. It first appeared in serial form in The Egoist in 1916-1917 before being published in book form the following year. He then rewrote and republished it in 1928. He then again revised it again and republished it in 1951. This is the version I read. It tells the story of two artists in Paris in the early part of the century and distinctly unpleasant they both are. The first is the Englishman Tarr, apparently based, at least in part, on Lewis himself, while the second is the German Kresler who, Lewis is said to have thought in later year, was a Hitlerian figure. But it is Lewis’ approach that has given this novel its reputation, not always positive. It is a bit like Gide on drugs, though the drugs are Nietzschean Sturm und Drang, rather than the more conventional exotic powders.

The novel starts with Tarr, who launches a vitriolic attack on Hobson, a Cambridge man and fellow artist. He criticises everything, from his haircut to his alleged love of Germans. He soon moves to two other Englishmen, first Butcher and then Lowndes. Butcher sums him up:

You’re a dangerous man. If you had your way you’d leave us stark naked-and we should all be standing on our little island in the state of the Ancient Britons with coracles on our backs and curls on our shoulders. Figuratively.

This comes after Tarr has just condemned all English humour and said of English training that it is a system of deadening feeling. Lewis comments on him, a couple of pages later, as he is meeting Lowndes, pleasure could take no form that did not include death and corruption. But it is Bertha who suffers most from him. Despite his criticism of Germans, Bertha is German and his not-quite fiancée. He tantalises her with the idea of getting engaged. He is cruel. I am only a brute, he unashamedly tells her. He tells her that he loves her and then tells her that he wants to end their relationship. Finally, he tells her that he is leaving Paris to return to England and then merely moves elsewhere in Paris without telling her.

However, bad Frederick Tarr is, Otto Kreisler is much worse. We learn that he is not a very good artist but he is determined to continue as one. He has been given some (but not too much) money by his father, who wants him to return to Germany and work in the family business, which Kreisler positively refuses to do. He had been in Rome for some time, where he had left a trail of debts and ill-treated women. He has now come to Paris where the first thing he does is look up a fellow artist whom he had known in Rome with the sole aim of sponging money from him. He has only minimal success. He will continue to try and borrow money throughout the book. When he meets Anastasya Vajek and finds out that she may be well off, he tries his hand there but tries to be clever and make her jealous. He does not succeed. Instead he becomes jealous when she seems more interested in the Russian art dealer, Soltyk. But it is not only money that he is after. There is a wonderful scene where a group, including Kreisler (who has not really been invited), go to a party at a café and he behaves appallingly, propositioning, often quite blatantly, many of the women, getting drunk and generally behaving badly. This has partially been brought on by the fact he has pawned his smoking jacket so he is the only man not wearing one but so proud of the fact that it makes him behave even more badly.

Kreisler also receives bad news, in the form of an ultimatum from his father, who sends him a larger than usual cheque but telling him it is for his expenses to return home, as he will receive no further cheques. Naturally, he has no intention of complying. Inevitably, he comes across Tarr and Tarr tries to befriend him, seeing that he needs some friendship but Kreisler does not return his friendship, even in the awful and tragic denouement. Indeed, it is because of this non-friendship that Kreisler gets to know Bertha and she, poor woman, becomes the victim of Kreisler after being the victim of Tarr.

Lewis clearly has no time at all for this type of artist, for whom human feelings are virtually unknown and who are not even talented artists, even though he himself may have been similar to them. The portraits of Tarr and, in particular, Kreisler, are masterful, with the latter being one of the most unpleasant characters in literature. Lewis’ humour is of the darkest, almost painful, particularly the scene at the café and the final downfall of Kreisler. A fascinating work even if deeply uncomfortable.

Publishing history

First published 1918 by Egoist