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False Bottoms

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Once met, I rarely dislike a person. But the idea of a person often fills me with dislike and even abhorrence. So it was with Wyndham Lewis. I never met him but I might easily have done so, since I often begged J. R. Ackerley, the brilliant literary editor of The Listener and a close friend of us both, to effect an introduction. But Ackerley, always oddly fearful that, if he brought any two of his friends together, he might lose both of them, did nothing.

It is easy to see why my younger self – so different from the ancient one now writing this – should have disliked the idea of Lewis. Then on the far left, I was, like almost everyone of my generation, an ardent supporter of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. I thought that Mussolini, Hitler and Mosley were quite simply monsters, and that the greatest living English novelists were Aldous Huxley, Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster. I was also a pacifist.

Lewis, so far from accepting such opinions, abominated them. Democracy was, he maintained, merely a tyranny of the masses. A supporter of the British Union of Fascists and of Franco, he wrote a laudatory book about Hitler. His chief reason for detesting the ‘Bloomsberries’ was that their ‘war-work’ during the years 1914–18 had been performed in the comfort and safety of Garsington Manor. If these reactionary views repelled me, so too did the accounts that I heard about his character and behaviour. Here, apparently, was someone who always ended up by sinking his poisonous fangs into the hand of anyone who had helped him; who kept his put-upon wife in purdah from his friends and frequently betrayed her with other women; and whose intermittent paranoia persuaded him that even his intimates were plotting against him and doing him down.

In the light of the above, it is hardly surprising that when in the late Forties an Oxford undergraduate friend of mine, Desmond Stewart – a disciple of Mosley, later to become a write

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Once met, I rarely dislike a person. But the idea of a person often fills me with dislike and even abhorrence. So it was with Wyndham Lewis. I never met him but I might easily have done so, since I often begged J. R. Ackerley, the brilliant literary editor of The Listener and a close friend of us both, to effect an introduction. But Ackerley, always oddly fearful that, if he brought any two of his friends together, he might lose both of them, did nothing.

It is easy to see why my younger self – so different from the ancient one now writing this – should have disliked the idea of Lewis. Then on the far left, I was, like almost everyone of my generation, an ardent supporter of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. I thought that Mussolini, Hitler and Mosley were quite simply monsters, and that the greatest living English novelists were Aldous Huxley, Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster. I was also a pacifist. Lewis, so far from accepting such opinions, abominated them. Democracy was, he maintained, merely a tyranny of the masses. A supporter of the British Union of Fascists and of Franco, he wrote a laudatory book about Hitler. His chief reason for detesting the ‘Bloomsberries’ was that their ‘war-work’ during the years 1914–18 had been performed in the comfort and safety of Garsington Manor. If these reactionary views repelled me, so too did the accounts that I heard about his character and behaviour. Here, apparently, was someone who always ended up by sinking his poisonous fangs into the hand of anyone who had helped him; who kept his put-upon wife in purdah from his friends and frequently betrayed her with other women; and whose intermittent paranoia persuaded him that even his intimates were plotting against him and doing him down. In the light of the above, it is hardly surprising that when in the late Forties an Oxford undergraduate friend of mine, Desmond Stewart – a disciple of Mosley, later to become a writer – pressed Lewis’s Revenge for Love on me, I read it with growing annoyance. At the close of Part I, I gave up on it. That part is an account of how a communist agitator, Percy Hardcaster, loses a leg when he is recaptured while attempting to escape from a Spanish prison. Described by Lewis as ‘a tough ordinary little party-man dialectically primed to do his stuff’, Hardcaster, more at ease with trades union intrigue back home than with the urgencies of a civil war abroad, is an unappetizing figure. I was therefore infuriated when Stewart told me that the character had been modelled on a now largely forgotten novelist called Ralph Bates. I had read two of Bates’s novels, based on his experiences in Spain during the Civil War, and had at once warmed to what then struck me as his passionate and noble idealism. In contrast, when I had previously read Tarr, regarded by many as Lewis’s best novel, I had been repelled by the author’s chilly disdain for every one of his characters except his eponymous hero. However, on rereading The Revenge for Love sixty years later, my reactions have been totally different. How could my youthful self have been so blind to its merits? Admittedly in the first thirty or so pages, the kind of cinematic slow motion that makes Tarr so wearisome is still in leaden evidence. But as soon as the book shifts to England and to the lives of Victor, an impoverished Australian painter, and his wayward ‘mate’, Margaret, I was enthralled. That Victor, haunted by creditors, should adopt the solution of forging pictures, adumbrates the dominant theme of the book: deception. It is significant that Lewis’s first title – not surprisingly rejected by his publishers – was False Bottoms. When Percy is in the Spanish prison, one of his fellow-communists, a young girl, smuggles in a message from his fellow-conspirators, along with some food, in a basket with a false bottom. On a gun-running expedition to Spain, in the course of which they die, Victor and Margaret travel in a car also with a false bottom, for the concealment of arms. Eventually it is revealed that the compartment contains not arms but bricks. The two have been set up. Throughout the narrative, nothing is quite what people think it is, no character is quite what he or she seems. In Tarr Lewis worked on the premise that no one, not even a novelist of genius, can know for certain what it is to be someone else. It is there f o re only from external evidence that the reader can infer what is happening within its characters’ psyches. When he came to write The Revenge for Love, he was, like his largely autobiographical character Victor, both held in high critical esteem and incapable of earning an adequate living as either a painter or a writer. He then realized that, to sell his novels, he must make them more accessible and beguiling. The chief way to do this, he concluded, was by ceasing to maintain his former alienating distance from his characters and his readers. The result was a book so superior to Tarr that, once over the hurdle of its costive beginning, I found it impossible to resist the excitements of its thriller-style narrative, the trenchancy of its political satire and the coruscation of its style. The account, part high tragedy and part macabre comedy, of Victor and Margaret’s last, tragic journey alone makes the work a triumph. T. S. Eliot wrote of Lewis that he combined ‘the thought of the modern poet and the energy of the caveman’. It is that combination of high sophistication and brutal force that, for me, makes him one of the most interesting and rewarding writers of the last century.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 3 © Francis King 2004


About the contributor

Francis King is now in his eighty-second year. When people ask him ‘Are you still writing?’ he replies ‘Are you still breathing?’ He is convinced, he then explains, that writing, and not modern medicine, is what continues to keep him alive. Last year his novel The Nick of Time was long-listed for the Man Booker.

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