Loads of Learned Lumber

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Wyndham Lewis, _The Red Priest_

I HAVE READ most of the Wyndham Lewis that is out there to be read--not all of his available books, but at least thirty--yet I had never read this, his last novel, published 1956, the year before he died. I had hitherto skipped it because, first, it is hard to obtain (never appeared in that great Black Swallow Lewis republication project of the 1980s and 90s), and second, it seems to be the least appreciated of his novels. No one who has written extensively about Lewis seems to care for it much;  Paul Edwards's massive, magisterial, near-encyclopedic Wyndham Lewis: Painter and Writer does not mention The Red Priest at all.

Perfect setup for an announcement that I have discovered The Red Priest to be a stone cold lost masterpiece...alas, it is not. In fact, I'd have to say it is the worst of Lewis's novels, unless Mrs Duke's Millions, a very early work not published in Lewis's lifetime, which I also have not read, turns out to pack even less punch.

Still...not without its pleasures.

The left-leaning cleric of the title is Augustine Card, tall, attractive, well-connected, a boxer in his youth, who is making his mark at a church in London by inviting Russian clergy to his services, holding "debates," and being generally charismatic and controversial. So, are we getting Lewis-as-Trollope here, a novel on politics and the Church and the politics of the Church?

Not so fast.  We soon meet Mary Chillingham, a stunning, well-connected, 27-year old parishioner and admirer of Card.  She unexpectedly inherits a lot of money from an aunt and we are all of sudden in a Lewis version of The Portrait of a Lady, with Mary as Isabel Archer and Card as Gilbert Osmond. This is a not-so-wonderful turn, as Card begins to evaporate from his own novel as Mary, who is quite a bit less interesting than Isabel Archer, gets more attention.

It is from Mary's point of view, in fact, that we learn that Card has gotten into a fistfight with a supercilious curate and, erm, killed him.  Whoops! Card is charged with murder, convicted of the lesser charge of manslaughter, does his time, lets Mary get a divorce, and goes off to Canada, where (Mary and we the readers learn from a letter) he gets into another fight and is killed. This whole last phase of the plot, from the death of the curate to Augustine's far away demise, is covered rather briskly in the last 50 pages of a 250-page novel.

So, not all that satisfactory, but still, things to enjoy--Card himself, another study in incorrigibility like Victor Stamp of The Revenge for Love or René Harding in Self-Condemned, bristly and unassimilable; the glimpses of mid-1950s London, here as in the short story collection Rotting Hill diminished and shabby and weirdly vital; and a final paragraph (about the birth of Mary's and Card's second son) that is echt Lewis:

   Mary and Basil Tertullian [their first-born son] withdrew to the plantation on the shores of Lake Rudolf, where she gave birth to another child. Her naming was more like a branding; she gave him the fearful name of Zero. She could see that he would look like his terrible father; that he was fated to blast his way across space and time.

No comments: