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Versioning Tarr: First Results

The first results are now in for my work on versioning Tarr. And they’re fascinating.

I decided to begin by looking at a scene about versions, and indeed filled with the word “version.” It occurs near the middle of the novel (Part IV, Chapter 5 in the 1928 edition) and at a key moment. Bertha—her fiancé Tarr having somewhat equivocally broken up with her—is out for an evening with her friends when she is accosted in the street by the unstable Kreisler, who suddenly kisses her. When the unwelcome kiss is seen by her friends, Bertha quickly invents a story to explain. She tells her friends that it was she who kissed Kreisler, motivated by humane compassion for a starving artist. This casts her in a “noble rôle,” as she terms it, and also serves symbolically to “free” Tarr from his fiancailles. But Bertha is a victim of what Tarr’s narrator later calls “the Invisible Audience haunting life”: the story thus concocted conveniently portrats her in a favourable light, it is doubly false—based on a deliberate misinterpretation of events, and serving and end she does not really intend, for she still loves Tarr.  Nonetheless, Bertha is furious when her account of the kiss is proven untrue—when she learns from a friend that Anastasya Vasek, another young artist, has begun circulating the actual story. It was not that Kreisler was poor or hungry, but rather that he was in love with Anastasya, and that she had snubbed him, and that this had made his especially unstable. Bertha reacts as follows to the emergence of this competing narrative:

This ridiculous version—coming after her version and superseding it with her cats of friends was, why, a sort of rival version. And in such exquisite taste! Such pretentiousness should discredit it in advance, it should with decent people.

Bertha took some minutes to digest Elsa’s news: she flushed and frowned: the more she thought of this rival version of Fräulein Vasek’s the more repulsive it appeared. It was a startlingly novel view, it gave proof of a perfect immodesty. It charged hers full tilt. For three days now this story of hers had been her great asset, she had staked her little all upon it. Now some one had coolly set up shop next door, to sell an article in which she, and she alone, had specialized. Here was an unexpected, gratuitous, new inventor of Versions come along: and what a version, to start with!

Bertha’s version had been a vital matter: Fräulein Vasek’s was a matter of vanity clearly. The contempt of the workman, sweating for a living, for the amateur, possessed her.

But there was a graver aspect to the version of this poaching Venus. In discrediting Bertha’s suggested account of how things had happened, it attacked indirectly her action, proceeding, ostensibly, from those notions. Her meeting Kreisler at present depended for its reasonableness upon the ‘hunger’ theory; or, if that should fail, something equally touching and primitive. Were she forced to accept, as Elsa readily did, the snub-by-Anastasya theory, with its tale of ridiculous reprisals, further dealings with Kreisler would show up in a bare and ugly light. Her past conduct also would have its primitive slur renewed. She saw all this immediately: her defiance had been delivered with great gusto—‘I am meeting Herr Kreisler to-morrow!’ The shine had soon been taken off that.

The weak point in Anastasya’s calm and contradictory version was the rank immodesty of the form it took.

A scene about versions—about competing accounts, and their life-or-death consequences—seemed a natural place to start versioning. I decided to compare the scene in all five witness texts: the 1916/17 Egoist serial, the 1918 Egoist Press UK edition, the 1918 Knopf US edition, the 1928 Chatto and Windus edition, and the 1951 Methuen edition. For each text, I scanned the scene, performed OCR correction, produced text files and collated them using Juxta Commons.

Among the three earliest witness texts there are very few differences. The most interesting is the capitalization of “Versions” in the phrase “inventor of Versions”; it appears only in the American edition (perhaps as a typo, as the change from “proceeding” to “preceding” clearly is) but is preserved in the 1928. Here is a side-by-side comparison of the Egoist serial and the Knopf. There are no changes at all between the 1928 and 1951 editions.

Between the early and revised editions, however, the differences are considerable. See, for example, this visualization of the changes between the 1918 Egoist Press and 1928 editions. The major difference between them, as I see it, is the inclusion of more of Bertha’s actual words—less of the narrator’s description of her thoughts, and more or those actual thoughts as they develop. Less telling, more showing.

This is clearest in the changes Lewis introduces to the first paragraph. In the 1918, it reads:

This ridiculous version—coming after her version—was a rival version, believed in by her friends.

Already Lewis is employing free indirect discourse (FID)—mixing together the first-person perspective of Bertha (who thinks of Anastasya’s story as a “ridiculous version”) and the third-person perspective of the narrator (who inserts third-person pronouns into Bertha’s thoughts, renders them in the past tense, and introduces a characteristically Lewisian comma after “rival version). In the 1928 rendering of this paragraph, however, there is much more FID:

This ridiculous version—coming after her version and superseding it with her cats of friends was, why, a sort of rival version. And in such exquisite taste! Such pretentiousness should discredit it in advance, it should with decent people.

While the sentiment is the same, Lewis goes much further to signal that we are in Bertha’s head here, watching a subjective process of thought unfold. The stutter “why,” the sarcastic exclamation point after “exquisite taste,” the idiosyncratic definition of what constitutes a “decent person”—all these place us more firmly in Bertha’s mind, and further from the narrator’s normalizing influence. The odd description of her “cats of friends” (not a typo of “cast,” apparently, since it appears in all five witnesses) has the same effect.

What Lewis is doing in rewriting this scene about versions, then, is giving us more of Bertha’s version—adding more of her unique perspective, more of her voice, more of her words to the FID mixture. And the increase of FID is telling: in a scene about two irreconcilable accounts of a single event, each vying for supremacy, Lewis deepens his use of a narrative device that forces the reader to remain suspended between the irreconcilable accounts of the narrator and character.

In the remainder of the scene, the same logic is at work. When Lewis adds, he adds FID renderings of Bertha’s perspective. The “clearly” appended to the phrase “Fräulein Vasek’s was a matter of vanity” places the sentence more firmly in Bertha’s thoughts, since we (and the narrator) know that Anastasya’s account is not “vain” in the least—it only appears so to Bertha, who has “staked her little all” (another Bertha phrase added here) upon this version of events. Conversely, when Lewis removes, he removes authorial judgments about Bertha and her actions. He thus removed the phrase “All Bertha’s past management of the boulevard scene had presupposed that she was working in an element destined to obscurity: malleable, therefore, to any extent,” since it offers too neat and distant a summary of Bertha’s motivations, and does not render what Bertha is actually thinking in that moment.

All this leads me to a conclusion and a working hypothesis. The conclusion is methodological: I will gain most by comparing the most disparate versions—the 1918 Egoist Press edition and the 1928 Chatto and Windus—and ignoring, for the moment, the finer distinctions between the other earlier and later witnesses.

The working hypothesis is interpretive: that Lewis, in revising the earlier versions of Tarr, was motivated by a desire to add character voices, lessen authorial intervention, expand FID, and generally increase dialogism.

This will be a fascinating hypothesis to explore. In rereading Tarr recently, I was struck by the amount of FID that Lewis employs. We normally associate this technique with writers such as Virginia Woolf and Henry James—writers who, like Woolf, strive for what Auerbach called in Mimesis a “multipersonal representation of consciousness” or who, like James, take special delight in undermining the authority of their protagonists through subtle irony. Lewis strikes most as a very different kind of writer—as strongly single-voiced, as unwilling to yield authority to his characters, and as pathologically insistent on inserting authorial representatives into his fictions, all of whom toe fanatically the Lewisian line.

Reading Lewis beside Woolf and James is highly counter-intuitive—especially since Lewis famously attacked them both in his book of notorious criticism Men Without Art (1934). But already this versioning work on Lewis is uncovering an affinity. The 1918 version itself contained a surprising amount of FID; adding more seems to be among the main goals of Lewis’s revisions in 1928.

If this hypothesis is confirmed in future versioning work, it will be a significant contribution to ongoing re-evaluations of Lewis’s writing. While he has often been dismissed in the past as a monologic writer preaching reactionary views, this view is increasingly being challenged. Many critics have noted, for example, that the two issues of Blast—among Lewis’s earliest literary productions—already espoused a multiple and contradictory vision of the self, rather than the unified, coherent individuality we might expect. For instance, Lewis’s ironically titled contribution to Blast 2 (1915), “Be Thyself,” begins “You must talk with two tongues, if you do not wish to cause confusion,” and proceeds to a Proustian analysis of the multiplicity of the self: “You must be a duet in everything […] For the individual, the single object, and the isolated, is, you will admit, an absurdity” (91).

Many of the protagonists of Tarr express similar sentiments. Tarr tells Hobson in the opening scene, “Nobody is anything or life would be intolerable. You are me, I am you.” Anastasya tells Kreisler in their initial encounter, “I don’t like being anything out and out, life is so varied. I like wearing dresses with which I can enter into any milieu or circumstances: that is the only real self worth the name.” Bertha, in a passage again delivered in FID, notes that “She found here, in her room, was very different from she found outside, in restaurant or street.” Kreisler, gearing up for the climactic final duel, exclaims, “I am a hundred different things; I am as many people as the different types of people I have lived amongst.” The multiplicity of the self is one of the very few things on which all the principal figures of Tarr are agreed.

Significantly, each of these descriptions—so characteristic of Blast-era Lewis—is preserved in the 1928 version of the text. While the narrative usually told of Lewis is a movement from early avant-garde enthusiasm, to eventual disillusionment and conservatism, finally culminating in an embrace of Fascism, Lewis nonetheless saw fit to preserve these early “Vorticist” conceptions of the self, even when he changed so much else.

The first results on versioning Tarr suggest that Lewis not only preserved the “multiple personalities” of early versions of the novel—the use of FID, the inclusion of multiple subjective perspectives—but indeed multiplied them further, adding more character speech and further removing the author. If confirmed, this will complicate another set of received ideas, about Lewis’s stylistic trajectory. The usual narrative, closely related to the above, is that Lewis began with a love of stylistic play and deliberate self-contradiction, and moved increasingly to single-voiced monologism. The first manifesto of Blast 1, for instance, repeatedly “blessed” and “blasted” the same target—and acknowledged such contradictions as deliberate in the second manifesto, which declared, “We start from opposite statements of a chosen world. Set up violent structure of adolescent clearness between two extremes. / We discharge ourselves on both sides” (30). On the other hand, later polemical works like Time and Western Man (1927), The Diabolical Principle (1931), Men Without Art (1934)—and, indeed, Hitler (1931)—sought to advance straightforward arguments, often with ferocious disregard for differing views.

I do see a switch in Lewis’s writing from the late 1920s onward—his writing really does become increasingly monologic from the that point, and is solidly so from the mid-1930s. But I also see a lengthy transition period in which Lewis wavers between dialogism and monologism from text to text. During this transition period, the polemical and one-sided Time and Western Man (1927) was published alongside works like the dizzyingly multi-voiced Art of Being Ruled (1926) and positively cacophonous Childermass (1928). Lewis described the style of The Art of Being Ruled memorably in his biography Rude Assignment:

It is not an easy book to write about, because its argument bursts out into manifold byways. There is a further complication. It was my idea at the outset—inspired by the Hegelian dialectic, with its thesis and antithesis—to state, here and there, both sides of the question to be debated, and allow these opposites to struggle in the reader’s mind for the ascendancy and there to find their synthesis. (Black Sparrow, 183)

In 1926, Lewis remained interested in multi-voiced, dialogic style—so interested that he chose to employ it in a 400-page work of political theory (a brilliant, if occasionally baffling, decision, that has led to many serious misunderstandings of Lewis’s own politics.)

It is my hypothesis at this point that Lewis was similarly motivated in his revisions to the 1928 Tarr—that this version of Tarr is, along with The Art of Being Ruled and The Childermass, one of the last of Lewis’s genuinely dialogic texts.

I’ll test that hypothesis in my next post by versioning some longer scenes from the 1918 Egoist Press and 1928 versions of Tarr.


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