A YEAR ago an Englishman. D. B. Wyndham Lewis, discovered himself to us in his biography of François Villon which, thanks to the mass production of a book club, went home to 85,000 readers. To judge from this and his more recent biography of Louis XL, Mr. Lewis is residing not in London but in the Middle Ages, where, says Olga Katzin, he is entertainingly at home.
King Spider, by
THE mood of modern biography is ironically destructive; venerated bones are exhumed, turned over, and let fall with a supercilious sniff. This author, in his life of Louis XI, undertakes the kindlier task of transforming a stock villain into an estimable sovereign. Never did champion bring stouter heart to a difficult ordeal. But his choice is unfortunate and his cause endangered by his very title, King Spider. Royal birds, royal lions, leopards, and eagles have appealed to posterity, but never a royal insect. If you call a king ‘Spider’ he must be evil or there are no parallels in nature. Mr. Wyndham Lewis does not conceal or extenuate his hero’s faults; he embraces them. Take him for all in all, he says, this was a king. But it is hard to kindle enthusiasm over a ruler who merely works hard, grinds the faces of his subjects, and dies the victim of senile terror at the age of sixty.
If Louis had nothing spectacular about him, be was far too great to be ignored. A mediæval figure, he was the lirst modern king, the lirst to understand finance, the lirst to prefer diplomacy to arms. His handling of enemies within and without his kingdom, the princely houses, the foreign kings, make lively reading. Of his extraordinary administrative ability we are told in detail. Vet, after such tributes, the best said of him, even here, is that he neither squandered his revenues on display nor paraded his mistresses, and that he was a good son of the Church. Which is to say that he did not indulge in vices to which he was not inclined.
The truth is, Mr. Wyndham Lewis is an enthusiast; he has discovered the Middle Ages and found them so much to his taste that even the bad in them is good because it belonged to the era before mdernity. That is why the book has color in full measure. We are pushed headlong into the France of Louis, the Paris of Villon, ‘the vast anchored nef of Notre Dame, the many-colored Streets.’ Here is a rich contemporary record of the splendors of the court of ‘Our dear brother of Burgundy’; the gentle interlude of Margaret of Scotland, done to death by slanderous tongues; a popular novel of the times; a portrait gallery of Louis’s familiars; some letters of the king to his dear and well-beloved subjects [the salt of the collection); and, as if this were not enough, a complete inferential biography of Mr. Wyndham Lewis himself.