Sydney And Violet: Their Life With T. S. Eliot, Proust

Joyce, And The Excruciatingly

Irascible Wyndham Lewis

Stephen Klaidman

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday

268 pages, $27.95

By Michael D . Langan

News Book Reviewer

Sydney and Violet Schiff, a Jewish couple whose wealth came from commerce, would hardly seem to fit the contours of literary confidants to writers T.S. Eliot, Marcel Proust, Aldous Huxley, Katherine Mansfield and Percy Wyndham Lewis.

Yet, these Zelig-like figures of early 20th century England’s modernism were accepted into the snobbish, anti-Semitic English literary world. How they did it is the subject of this fascinating biography by Stephen Klaidman.

Modernism, in its broadest definition, is what developed as contemporary thought, character, or practice at the beginning of the last century. Of course whatever views are au courant change by the minute, so there is an element of flux involved which is inevitable.

The movement’s development was influenced by the growth of industry, the rise of cities and the debacle that was World War I. It was almost impossible for writers, artists and savants to ignore modernism’s Lorelei appeal.

This was not to say that there was agreement about modernism’s tenets.

There was large and vociferous disagreement about what it meant, as an aesthetic and as a way of life, our author tells us.

Klaidman, a longtime editor and reporter for the New York Times, Washington Post and International Herald Tribune, has taken on the work of documenting the lives of the Schiffs and their intimate linkage with the English literary world. As a couple, Sydney and Violet were inseparable. Sydney wrote his friend, Max Beerbohm, “Except for two or three times we’ve not been separated for more than a few hours.”

Kudos to Klaidman, who makes their lives come alive largely through their letters to others. They lived in London from the time they were married in 1911 until Sydney died in 1944. There were other “evocative scraps of information from family members and friends. along with marriage and divorce records, birth and death certificates and a will.” But there wasn’t much beyond these “meager remnants,” as they extended themselves, “tightly entwined with many of the defining figures of literary modernism.”

What were they like, these two? Physically, Violet was in her mid-30s when they were married. Her eyes were brown with long lashes, and she had the slim, graceful fingers of a musician. Sydney, who was in his mid-40s, wore a sandy-colored toothbrush mustache and carried himself with what looked to some like military bearing. This image was undercut by his sad brown eyes, a side effect of 20 years of heartache produced by his first wife’s relentlessly demeaning treatment.

Eliot himself appended a note to Violet Schiff’s obituary in the Times of London edition, July 9, 1962. He added, “I write primarily to pay homage to a beloved friend, but also in the hope that some future chronicler of the history of arts and letters in our time may give to Sydney and Violet Schiff the place which is their due.”

The Schiffs were important, says Klaidman, because their “lives were tightly entwined with many of the defining figures of literary modernism. Far more is known about them than would otherwise be the case.”

Klaidman makes clear the importance of this engaging couple “who critiqued and published articles, stories and poems and solicited contributions from Proust for Eliot’s Criterion.” It wasn’t all one-sided. Eliot, Mansfield and Lewis did the equivalent favor for Sydney, publishing his novels and stories in their journals. His work was less than spectacular and he wrote some of it under a pseudonym. “Little magazines” the publications were called and largely emanated from London.

The Schiffs were great hosts, owning London and country homes. It was an honor to be invited to their small dinners.

Theirs was a far different milieu than Bayswater, where Ezra Pound lived or Bloomsbury, the home of the Woolfs and the Bells. “The society of Bloomsbury,” according to Edith Sitwell, “was the home of an echoing silence.”

Gertrude Stein called it “the Young Men’s Christian Association - with Christ left out, of course.”

Klaidman tells us that Bloomsbury’s bountiful snobbery would have seen the Schiffs as “a couple of rich poseurs, pseudo-intellectuals, sycophants.”

The Schiffs were excluded from the Garsington world as well, named after the country home of Lady Ottoline Morrell.

Character assassination was endemic among modernists. A final question along these lines: Why is Wyndham Lewis called “excruciatingly irascible”?

It didn’t help that he portrayed the Schiffs as social climbing sycophants in his novel, “The Apes of God.” Lewis seems to have engendered hatred all round. Ernest Hemingway once dismissed him as someone who “just looked nasty,” a man with the eyes “of an unsuccessful rapist.”

The Schiffs, to their credit, were philosophic about the attacks upon them and didn’t complain. They were survivors. They knew how to accept opprobrium without increasing the invective that was par for the course in an overheated artistic environment.

Michael Langan is a frequent News book reviewer.