Friday, February 26, 2010

Faulkner's Corn Cob: How I Know Nabokov Would Have Liked Wyndham Lewis

Since I like Wyndham Lewis so much, and since so few other people do, I am often curious to know how my favourite artists feel about him.

Since Lewis was so famously jerky, answers are surprisingly easy to come across—surprising given the fog of neglect in which WL otherwise sits. Hemingway, for instance, definitely did not like Lewis. He famously said, in A Moveable Feast, that Lewis possessed "the eyes... of an unsuccessful rapist." (Speaking of A Moveable Feast, I was once on a bus ride when the person sitting next to me struck up a conversation and said "Oh, A Moveable Feast—reading that book makes me so hungry!") Virginia Woolf was terrified of Lewis. The mere announcement of a forthcoming review from Lewis's pen led her to write in her diary, "Now I know by reason and instinct, that this is an attack; that I am publicly demolished; nothing is left of me in Cambridge and Oxford and places where the young read Wyndham Lewis."

This is the sort of behaviour I would expect from Hemingway and Woolf—it would be weird and make me uncomfortable if they were to say something nice about Lewis. (Lewis did write a chapter on Hemingway called "The Dumb Ox," after all.) It makes me very happy, however, when people I really like turn out to like Lewis. For example, Mark E. Smith of the English punk band The Fall. Here are his remarks on Lewis, from a 1986 issue of Melody Maker, where he lists his heroes (among them Hulk Hogan and Philip K. Dick):
He was a funny old stick, Wyndham Lewis, the most underrated writer this century. I can't believe how good his stuff is when I'm reading it. He was a much better writer than he was a painter. People always say that Paul Morley ripped off Lewis, which is bollocks. WE ripped off Lewis, and Morley stole his ideas from us! The thing that pissed me off is that ZTT uses his ideas and then put them into a context that Lewis would have hated. He loathed the futurists. His stories are great; things like 'The Crowd Master' in Blast. What a great title for a story. Wyndham Lewis is so real and so now. He wrote a book about Hitler in 1934 [actually 1931] saying that this is maybe the way forward and was condemned during and after the war for being a Nazi. Yet in another book, 'Rotting Hill', he says he wrote an essay in 1938 to say that he was completely wrong and that Hitler had to be stopped [The Hitler Cult, published 1939]. The critics made sure he was only remembered one way - the wrong way. He was a real man though. He'd always be the first to condemn himself if he got something wrong. He went for the critics before they went ever got to him. I like people than can admit to their mistakes. When people ask me about The Fall back in '77 and the whole punk thing I say it was shit. Everyone hated us. Punk bands hated us. Even we hated us! I'm not going to lie about it. It's hard, but I like people that are real and tell the truth. His books are hard to read but if you stick with them they're great. "Rude Assignment' - what a title! 'Rotting Hill' is the greatest phrase I've heard in my life. It's so simple you'd never think of it. The things he was talking about in 1911, people are just beginning to talk about now. A man years ahead of his time.
Anyway, I'm getting off-topic. The question I have set out to answer is: Would Vladimir Nabokov have liked Lewis? As people, I'm sure they wouldn't have gotten along. And perhaps Nabokov would have been a bit too much an aesthete to please Lewis, and Lewis too much of a politician to please Nabokov. But they do have a lot in common, especially as critics. They are uncompromising and belligerent, and they're lively and entertaining.

As far as I know, neither read the other. I have never seen a review or mention of the one by the other. But I do have the following excellent reason for supposing that, critically speaking, they would have gotten along. They both make delightful fun of William Faulkner, in precisely the same way.

I don't like Faulkner. I find his prose unbearable. It is one of the great mysteries of my life why a relative would have given a Faulkner "box set" containing The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying and others to my mother for Christmas one year. So I was reassured when I first read Lewis's Men Without Art (1934) and saw that he also disliked Faulkner. In a chapter titled "The Moralist With the Corn-Cob" Lewis produces impressive lists of stupid words over-used by Faulkner, such as "myriad" and "sourceless." He also produces purple passages like this:
Moonglight seeped into the room impalpably, refracted and sourceless; the night was without any sound. Beyond the window a cornice rose in a succession of shallow steps against the opaline and dimensionless sky.
For me this is damning evidence. Lewis concludes, "William Faulkner is not an artist: he is a satirist with the shears of Atropos more or less: and he is a very considerable moralist—a moralist with a corn-cob!"

I must confess that I had no idea what all this corn cob business was about. I found it to be a funny phrase, and I supposed it was some sort of good joke. Luckily I kept the image in my head. Because it was the key to settling the question, "Would Nabokov and Lewis get along?"

One day I was told to look up the Nabokov videos on YouTube. Let me tell you, they are very good. The one of Nabokov on our very own CBC is disorienting and dizzying in more senses that one. But the video called "Nabokov and the Moment of Truth" was the one that provided the revelation. I have embedded it below. Advance it to the 3:25 mark and pay special attention at 3:50.

In this passage Nabokov says the following (reading from a script, as apparently he always did in interview):
I've been perplexed and amused by fabricated notions about so-called Great Books. For instance, Mann's asinine Death in Venice; and Pasternak's melodramatic and vilely written Doctor Zhivago; or Faulkner's corn-cobby chronicles.
Corn-cobby chronicles! I almost fell out of my seat when I first heard Nabokov utter those divine words. At first I thought it was evidence that Nabokov had in fact read Lewis—that he was making fun of Faulkner via Lewis's essay, "The Moralist with the Corn-Cob." A bit of further research revealed that in fact in Faulkner's novel Sanctuary one character rapes another with a corn cob. I'm happy I've never read that book.

But in any case: that Nabokov and Lewis, my two favourite prose stylists of the English language, should demean Faulkner—one of my least favourite English prose stylists—in the exact same manner I consider sufficient proof that they would get along, and that my taste is coherent. Perhaps at some small table in a particularly unfashionable corner of heaven (for they are both there!), the two of them meet once a decade for a chat.

I leave you with a painting of my dog, drawing a strong visual simile between corn cobs and his Golden Retriever snout.

1 comment:

Gary Lucas said...

Lewis is mentioned by Nabokov in his "Selected Letters" Adam, as appearing to old Vlad in a dream one night--can't cite the actual letter now as I am currently inflight and heading for LA, and am reading your excellent posting via wifi

Saul Bellow was a great Wyndham Lewis fan also btw, and there are a few pages near the end of "Mr. Sammler's Planet" which are basically paraphrases of ideas enumerated in Lewis' "The Art of Being Ruled"

rock on...

Gary Lucas