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Played out against the backdrop of Paris before the start of the First World War, Tarr tells the blackly comic story of the lives and loves of two artists--the English enfant terrible Frederick Tarr, and the middle-aged German Otto Kreisler, a failed painter who finds himself in a widening spiral of militaristic self-destruction. When both become interested in the same two women--Bertha Lunken, a conventional German, and Anastasya Vasek, the ultra-modern international devotee of swagger sex--Wyndham Lewis sets the stage for a scathing satire of national and social pretensions, the fraught relationship between men and women, and the incompatibilities of art and life. Scott W. Klein's introduction places the novel in the context of social satire and the avant-garde, especially the artistic developments of the 1910s--including Cubism, Futurism, and Lewis's own movement, Vorticism--and explores the links between Tarr and other Modernist masterpieces. The book also features Lewis's Preface to the 1918 American edition, comprehensive notes, a glossary of foreign words and phrases, and a map of Paris.

About the Series: For over 100 years Oxford World's Classics has made available the broadest spectrum of literature from around the globe. Each affordable volume reflects Oxford's commitment to scholarship, providing the most accurate text plus a wealth of other valuable features, including expert introductions by leading authorities, voluminous notes to clarify the text, up-to-date bibliographies for further study, and much more.

350 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 1918

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About the author

Wyndham Lewis

91 books120 followers
(Percy) Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957) was a novelist, painter, essayist, polemicist and one of the truly dynamic forces of the early 20th century and a central figure in the history of modernism. He was the founder of Vorticism, the only original movement in 20th century English painting. His Vorticist paintings from 1913 are the first abstract works produced in England, and influenced the development of Suprematism in Russia. Tarr (published in 1918), initiated his career as a satirical novelist, earning the praise of his contemporaries: "the most distinguished living novelist" (T.S. Eliot), "the only English writer who can be compared to Dostoevsky" (Ezra Pound).

After serving as an artillery officer and official war artist during the First World War, Lewis was unable to revive the avant-garde spirit of Vorticism, though he attempted to do so in a pamphlet advocating the modernisation of London architecture in 1919: The Caliph's Design Architects! Where is your Vortex? Exhibitions of his incisive figurative drawings, cutting-edge abstractions and satirical paintings were not an economic success, and in the early 1920s he devoted himself to study of political theory, anthropology, philosophy and aesthetics, becoming a regular reader in the British Museum Reading Room. The resulting books, such as The Art of Being Ruled (1926), Time and Western Man (1927), The Lion and the Fox: The Role of the Hero in the Plays of Shakespeare (1927) and Paleface: The Philosophy of the Melting-Pot (1929) created a reputation for him as one of the most important - if wayward - of contemporary thinkers.

The satirical The Apes of God (1930) damaged his standing by its attacks on Bloomsbury and other prominent figures in the arts, and the 1931 Hitler, which argued that in contemporary 'emergency conditions' Hitler might provide the best way forward in Germany damaged it yet further. Isolated and largely ignored, and persisting in advocacy of "appeasement," Lewis continued to produce some of his greatest masterpieces of painting and fiction during the remainder of the 1930s, culminating in the great portraits of his wife (1937), T. S. Eliot (1938) and Ezra Pound (1939), and the 1937 novel The Revenge for Love. After visiting Berlin in 1937 he produced books attacking Hitler and anti-semitism but decided to leave England for North America on the outbreak of war, hoping to support himself with portrait-painting. The difficult years he spent there before his return in 1945 are reflected in the 1954 novel, Self Condemned. Lewis went blind in 1951, from the effects of a pituitary tumor. He continued writing fiction and criticism, to renewed acclaim, until his death. He lived to see his visual work honored by a retrospective exhibition at London's Tate Gallery in 1956, and to hear the BBC broadcast dramatisations of his earlier novels and his fantastic trilogy of novels up-dating Dante's Inferno, The Human Age.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 37 reviews
Profile Image for Vit Babenco.
1,397 reviews3,275 followers
May 10, 2021
Tarr is a collision of everything new with everything old and it is a clash of the intellectual and animal origins of man colourfully pictured in odd metaphoric strokes.
‘I am the panurgic-pessimist, drunken with the laughing-gas of the Abyss: I gaze upon squalor and idiocy, and the more I see them the more I like them. Flaubert built up his Bouvard et Pécuchet with maniacal and tireless hands, it took him ten years: that was a long draught of stodgy laughter from the gases that rise from the dung-heap.’

For me Tarr associates with turpentine – an acrid liquid used by artists as a solvent. Tarr is a very dubious impersonation of good and, of course, he has his antagonist, Otto Kreisler – a very grotesque avatar of evil. And sex, in its Freudian definition, is their battlefield…
‘Sex is nationalized, more than any other essential of life, it’s just the opposite of art there: in german sex there is all the german cuisine, the beer-cellar, and all the plum-pudding mysticism of german thought. But then if it is the sex you are after that does not say you want to identify your being with your appetite: quite the opposite. The condition of continued enjoyment is to resist assimilation. A man is the opposite of his appetite.’

If Tarr is shown as a somewhat inert, naïve and short in willpower incarnation of Faust then Otto Kreisler is a wicked caricature of blockheaded Mephistopheles. Consequently, the combat of good and evil turns into a colourful farce…
‘Humour and pathos are such near twins that Humour may be exactly described as the most feminine attribute of man – and it is the only one of which women show hardly any trace! Jokes are like snuff, a slatternly habit, whereas Tragedy (and tears) is like tobacco, much drier and cleaner. Comedy being always the embryo of Tragedy, the directer nature weeps. Women are of course directer than men. – But they have not the same resources.’

Each thing in the world has its opposite and those opposites are in an eternal conflict. And this struggle of opposing forces is a foundation of any progress.
Profile Image for Paul Bryant.
2,178 reviews9,218 followers
June 26, 2017

Even people who thought Wyndham Lewis was a great writer, such as George Orwell, said stuff like

Enough talent to set up dozens of ordinary writers has been poured into Wyndham Lewis’s so-called novels … yet it would be a very heavy labour to read one of these books right through


I’ve come across a few well regarded authors with unreadable styles, meaning that you have to be some kind of rarified Everest-scaling Arctic-Sea-kayaking type of reader to be able to get through this stuff, never mind actually like it. Or could be you just have to be a BDSM type. Maybe in some murky underground scenes your partner leaves you alone in a gimp suit with just a copy of The Recognitions by William Gaddis and mouldy loaf for a whole week. Or could be

Naked Lunch by William Burroughs
Concerning The Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli by Ronald Firbank
Miss Macintosh my Darling by Marguerite Young
Darconville’s Cat by Alexander Theroux
Our Lady of the Flowers by Jean Genet

All of these have made me run out into the street bleating like a mountain goat. They had to use a tranquiliser dart gun on me.

So Wyndham Lewis joins this select execrable scurvy crew. I have lifted a sample quote from another GR review because it was better than the one I was going to use :

Her lips were long hard bubbles risen in the blond heavy pool of her face, ready to break...Grown forward with ape-like intensity, they refused no emotion noisy egress if it got so far. Her eyes were large, stubborn and reflective, brown coming out of blondness. Her head was like a deep white egg in a tobacco-colored nest. She exuded personality with alarming and disgusting intensity

Let’s say this is supposed to be funny. Whatever, it makes me want to run out into the street bleating like a mountain goat.


The introduction dangles the delicious prospect before us of a novel which satirizes the various artistic cliques in pre-World War One Paris and their intellectual and philosophical absurdities.

So if that is your poison and you fancy the idea of people with heads like deep white eggs in tobacco coloured nests, step right this way.

Profile Image for E. G..
1,112 reviews668 followers
March 9, 2019
Note on the Text
Select Bibliography
A Chronology of Wyndham Lewis
Map of Paris


Appendix: Preface to the 1918 American Edition
Explanatory Notes
Glossary of Foreign Words and Phrases
Profile Image for Eddie Watkins.
Author 6 books5,451 followers
October 8, 2014
Tarr is a novel at war with itself, with tensions raging at not only the level of style and content, but at the level of the book itself in that it exists in a few versions, being altered and revised by Lewis as it suited his fancy and his temper and his ever-mutating world view, and so even subsequent editors have been at war in their attempts to produce a definitive version. What emerged from these various levels of war is a book in many ways more revolutionary than Ulysses.

The author of a study of Lewis and his works I have been reading in tandem with Tarr says that Ulysses was a revolution of style, but beneath the mind-boggling pyrotechnics of the stylistic surface there exist characters whose consciousnesses are essentially unaltered from 19th century norms. In Tarr, he argues, Lewis fused an experimental surface style with a comparably experimental and new consciousness in his characters. It seems accurate to me, and as an added plus it isn't nearly as "difficult" a read as Ulysses. Lewis was deeply involved in much of the intellectual ferment involved with creating a "new man" and a new consciousness around the time of his writing- from Nietzsche to Bergson to Freud - and marshaled the bulk of his immense and varied talents to infuse his works with a new way of seeing and being in the world, involving an unresolveable enmeshment in the physical world coupled with a Promethean artistic effort to be partially separate. And though his ultimate world-view was essential tragic and bleak he had a corruscating, chiefly satirical, humor.

And here's where more wars come in. Wyndham Lewis was a very complex man, with natural urges sprouting out in many directions. He was part Dionysian wild-man, part Apollonian aloof-man, part introvert, part man of action, part tragic, part comic, as interested in the depths of being as the shallow and labyrinthine conflicts at the level of social life. He was also a born contrarian of monstrous proportions who thrived on conflict. To manage to embody his works with the multitude of inner and outer conflicts existing simultaneously in his being was part and parcel of his staggering abilities.

The novel itself is titled "Tarr", and the first chapter follows Tarr, a painter, during his daily routine from cafes to friends' studios to a conflict with his fiance; but the main character is actually a German named Kreisler who could've stepped straight out of Dostoevsky - a tumultuous man of conflict, at once comic and violent. The novel is set in Montparnasse at the height of the artist's scene there and doesn't stray from that milieu. Kreisler is an artist, but within the confines of this book never actually produces any art. Instead he gets embroiled in a ridiculous affair prompted by his inability to get his dress coat out of hock so he can attend a party - which adequately illustrates the comic side of his character. He then gets embroiled in a sex conflict with a Pole (Lewis is fairly obsessed with race) who he attacks and eventually duels - which illustrates the violent side of his character.

This is a novel that could be as interesting synopsized into its narrative essentials as analyzed at its stylistic level as probed beneath both to piece together a psychological/philosophical/aesthetic world view that is thoroughly authentic and resolutely centered on human life in its fullest potential.

Wyndham Lewis is a neglected master of both paint and words, and if you're like me and would like to lessen this neglect you'll have to find this in a library, as it's out of print and used copies are outrageously priced. And I remember when this was in every used bookstore, for cheap! (note: prices have since come down and I now actually have my own copy)
Profile Image for Anima.
432 reviews54 followers
March 10, 2019
Introduction: “Tarr’ suggests several possible origins. It may be the nickname for a British sailor who can stay masterfully afloat in the metaphorical sea of Paris (‘All the nice girls love a tar!’ Lewis later writes in another context); it may suggest the sticky tenacity, and perhaps the blackness, of his intellectualism; it may allude to a story by Edgar Allan Poe, ‘The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether’, in which madmen take over an asylum. But it also suggests the German ‘Tor’ (‘blockhead’) a near-homophone that appears in Kreisler’s consciousness in the text (p.99). And although ‘Tor’ can mean ‘fool’ in the sense of a spiritual innocent (as in the libretto for Wagner’s Parsifal), Tarr is no holy naïf, no Dostoyevskian Myshkin to counterbalance Kreisler’s Stavrogin. He is at bottom just another version of the self-important artist, one of the ‘unscrupulous heroes’ that haunt the Vitelotte Quarter, who, as Lewis warns in the novel’s first paragraph, are’ largely ignorant of all but their restless personal lives’ (p.7). Tarr’a Apollonian pronouncements ultimately prove no more capable of securing for him a ‘healthy’ division between sex and art than do the Dionysiac excesses of Kreisler. The novel’s final words introduce the names of Tarr’s future sexual partners, and they suggest that supposedly superior artist will become trapped in an irresolvable vacillation between women like Bertha- who are maternal, Romantic, and intellectually threatening- and women like Anastasya, who are intellectual extroverts and thus dangerous to male ego.”
Profile Image for Erwin.
7 reviews
March 13, 2008
If you were to take with you on vacation Wyndham Lewis's Tarr as a beach read, it'd somehow manage to kick sand in your face. It isn't breezy, nor especially pleasant. There really isn't a character to like in the whole work. And, upon finishing it, you'll feel as if you spent a long time at a greatly demoralizing task like checking behind the testicles of prisoner after prisoner for crack rocks or razor blades.

Yet, the novel succeeds on its own terms. Lewis's puerile Nietzscheanism blares from every page, and his prose is as jagged as his Vorticist paintings. But Lewis really was the modernist's modernist (sorry Joyce fans, but it's true), almost singlehandedly introducing Cubism to Ruskin-worshiping Albion, and, of course, shaking up the literary scene with his journal, Blast. In Tarr you see just this sort of modernist: a writer not afraid to take risks, not reluctant to enrage a reading public fattened on the solicitous complacency of realist novelists.

Make no mistake, the guy was a fascist and a raging misogynist. But he was also a great artist.

Oh, and take special care to get only the 1918 edition; Lewis heavily revised Tarr in the twenties, much to the novel's detriment.
Profile Image for Thomas.
433 reviews61 followers
April 29, 2016
everyone in this book acts weird and wyndham lewis keeps comparing them to machinery, or livestock, or pieces of meat. there's some funny scenes, like wyndham lewis stand in spouting philosophy at people who aren't really interested, wyndham lewis stand in trying to break up with his curvy german gf, kriesler attempting to borrow money, kriesler going to a party and sabotaging it deliberately for no reason, it's pretty cool.
Profile Image for Bob.
825 reviews66 followers
February 4, 2015
Perhaps in reaction to the sometimes cardboard cut-out quality of the good guys and concomitant mustachio-twirling music hall melodrama villains in Victorian fiction, the early 20th century gives us a new kind of protagonist. Döblin's Franz Biberkopf and Céline's Ferdinand Bardamu are both anti-heroes who might have been modeled on Lewis's Kreisler.

It is notable that Otto Kreisler is somewhat more developed as a character than the eponymous Tarr, whose appearances in the first part (called "Overture") and concluding chapters serve to bookend the story of Kreisler himself.

Structure aside, Lewis's prose is rocky and doesn't allow the reader to go on auto-pilot - a sample description of a woman we are supposed to understand is powerfully attractive.

"Her lips were long hard bubbles risen in the blond heavy pool of her face, ready to break...Grown forward with ape-like intensity, they refused no emotion noisy egress if it got so far. Her eyes were large, stubborn and reflective, brown coming out of blondness. Her head was like a deep white egg in a tobacco-colored nest. She exuded personality with alarming and disgusting intensity."

These kind of modernist books can be tough going if there is no real plot so it helps when this one gets quite gripping for 50 pages, centered around an anachronistic duel (the setting is the Parisian expatriate artist community of 1910 or so) which goes quickly from farce to as tragic as Lewis's unsentimental tone allows.
Profile Image for Monty Milne.
848 reviews39 followers
December 13, 2018
I didn’t like this, although it held my interest to the end, and has a certain curious power. The early chapters are the worst, because the dialogue feels so false and affected and pretentious. The most interesting character, Otto Kreisler, is at times treated in blackly comic fashion – his absurd performance at a party, combining breathtaking insults with anarchist dance moves, made me laugh aloud….but later on the smile froze on my lips as I read of things which are Not Funny in the slightest. The casual, offhand treatment of a Rape scene made me ponder the morally unbalanced nature of the writing, just as the earlier chapters made me ponder its lack of intellectual balance.

In the end, Kreisler’s end gives us neither schadenfreude nor pity: I could not feel for him either sympathy or revulsion. This mirrors my feelings for the book as a whole, and although stylistically I can see it is a new departure, for me at least it feels like an unsuccessful experiment.
Profile Image for Judith Rich.
446 reviews5 followers
July 23, 2019
Pretentious misogynistic twaddle.

Another book about artists moaning how broke they are while they wait for their cheque from Daddy, who surprisingly seems reluctant to support them and thinks they should get a job.

To be honest, if I hadn't taken this on holiday I'd probably have abandoned it.

Read as one of 1001 BTRBYD - I see there are another 4 by this author on the list, so that's 4 more I won't get round to reading before I die!
188 reviews
December 4, 2012
Lewis is a much underrated writer. Though his prose is rather convoluted at times, and the narrative sometimes gets swamped in observational details, the individuality of his style is on a par with contemporaries such as Joyce and Eliot. Tarr is an early novel, and reveals Lewis's developing philosophical and artistic viewpoint, as well as the antagonistic persona that would later come to dominate his reputation. The characters are rather like ciphers, as in Huxley, but none the less fascinating, and the descriptions at times descend to deliciously biting satire. A reprobate novel with substance.
Profile Image for Patrick.
28 reviews6 followers
October 15, 2011
I feel like Tarr is a book that keeps one wondering. Why are the characters so strange?
Who is Tarr, and what does the title of the book has to do with the semi-protagonist?
Another question that puzzles me is that the book starts of so hype, we get introduced to
characters that are hard to analyze, and to understand. Lewis' "Tarr" is a good work of literature
but also a very strange one. I feel that eventhough Lewis paints a picture of a delusional
Kreisler, he Kreisler is the only charcter in Lewis story that I felt I understood.
But yeah it's a must read nonetheless.
Profile Image for Lewis Lacook.
Author 6 books8 followers
June 9, 2018
If I could be convinced that Lewis was poking some fun at his own pretentiousness in the character of Tarr, I might award it three stars. The depiction of Kreisler was for me much more interesting; but I was put off about a lot of the focus on nationality and the general pretentiousness of the aesthetic ideas. This novel veers perilously close into letting its characters be flat symbols. I don't feel Tarr is an actual person, and if I feel Kreisler is a bit more defined it's probably because it's easy to identify with the shadow side of the human condition. In all, I was disappointed in this.
49 reviews2 followers
March 3, 2011
This may end up being one of my favourite books. If you like slow-moving tragedies that also make you laugh out loud; if you like tales of former aristocrats living on tick in abject poverty; if you enjoy casual racism between Western European races, then this book is for you.
Profile Image for Isabel.
186 reviews1 follower
July 21, 2019
I found everything about this book to be completely exhausting and after about 160 pages (or a little more than half way into this 280 page book), I flung it to the floor with an enormous exhale. How does this have more than a one star rating, and did the person who listed this on the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list actually read this book?!?! Can I give a book zero stars?

So what didn't I like? In short, everything.

The character development is totally lacking. Not only are most of the characters unlikeable, but they are also completely one-dimensional. The plot is relatively nonexistent. In such cases you expect that perhaps the novel is a shell for something more interesting - a unique philosophical viewpoint or the exploration of a new idea or a new literary style - but that didn't seem to be the case here.

The prose in some sections of the book was so completely overworked that I found my eyeballs rolling back inside my head in total exasperation. And, to top it off, I didn't find anything unique or particularly engaging in the style. In fact, there were portions that seemed totally derivative. Some of Kreisler's "exploits" - which I put in quotes simply because they are so undramatic such that the use of the word exploit seems to connote too much intrigue - reminded me of Notes from the Underground. After about 75 pages I tried to read some criticism online in an effort to discern why on earth anyone might have found this book to be worth their time. The answer (perhaps) seemed to be the book's satire and dark humor. I went back to reading, but I would be hard pressed to identify anything that was darkly (or otherwise) humorous or satirical in the novel.
38 reviews
February 1, 2021
Right around a 2.25 to 2.5... going with a 2 based on my instincts. Best described as a satirical, modernist look at the bourgeois class in Paris in the 1910s. Definitely a dense, "English class" type of novel. Hard to recommend for leisurely reading. Can be difficult, demands your attention to avoid missing the details.

Tarr is the story of a love rhombus including the titular Tarr, who is only sort of the main character, Bertha, Anastaysa, and Otto Kreisler, who- get this- in a book written around the time of World War I, is a failed German art student / painter who acts violently and self destructively, leading to a familiar end to anyone who's acquainted with the, uh, character it anticipates. Eerie.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Jennifer.
Author 3 books8 followers
June 29, 2008
This is a brutal and devastating portrait of the fractured mind of European culture during World War I. I recommend it, but know what you're getting into! It kind of belongs with Notes From the Underground, by Dostoyevsky.
Profile Image for Katya Kamyanets.
10 reviews
November 9, 2016
A novel that combines a lot in it.
It's just as trivial as it is complicated.
It can be viewed as an ode to male vanity, of a man who wants to seem more nobel than he is, or as a philosophical novel. The philisophical novel simply displaying the common views of its time, or a nove showing a unique individual position of the author. His position is shown through his characters' opinions and long dialogues about art and life. At the same time, those characters live human lives, they eat, they drink, take pictures, have sex, die, cheat, have children. And their lives are not described without a pinch of humour and mockery, of the vanity, that is mocking itself.
Profile Image for J. Alfred.
1,589 reviews28 followers
February 16, 2018
Not a love triangle but square, as both women are interested in both men and vice versa, but this isn't right either as no one is, properly speaking, in love with anyone. None of the characters are likable or even particularly interesting. The plot involves-- is-- people of various nationalities doing vicious (brutal, socially unacceptable, motivated by vice) things for no real reason. The language does some good things but not enough to make it worthwhile. Like Bernard Shaw but without the charm: for three hundred pages.
Not recommended.
315 reviews8 followers
December 30, 2021
A curious novel lacking any unifying elements other than Lewis's distinctive style, Tarr feels like an early work by a writer still developing his perspective. The numerous revisions and editorial comments in the back of my edition profess to this, as do the interesting-but-undercooked male characters.
10 reviews3 followers
February 14, 2021
Didn’t enjoy this one much. Last chapter pretty good. It’s sort of one of those ones where you are wondering is their talent going to wash away the ills of the person like Mishima or pound or something. It didn’t this guy is the worst.
Profile Image for Pete Camp.
213 reviews8 followers
December 26, 2022
Pompous English drivel about two artists , one German one English, caught in a love triangle or cube actually, written just before World War One , set in Paris. Practically unreadable only my stubbornness made me finish. Pile of out dated crap
15 reviews1 follower
January 2, 2020
To all current and future employers ---- I do not endorse certain subtexts within this novel
Profile Image for Jordan.
92 reviews
October 31, 2021
The last third leaps off the page to justify an early meandering pace. While it isn’t quite Hamlet, hints of a similar tragic genius permeate the finest moments of Tarr.
Profile Image for Alasdair Ekpenyong.
92 reviews19 followers
January 15, 2015
The most memorable part of the novel was just the character formation: Kreisler, Anastasya, and other characters whom Lewis designs as stereotyped representations of Germans, Slavic peoples, and other nationalities. The novel is explosive and dramatic as each of the different characters, their headstrong philosophies, and their national stereotypes come into conflict with each other. I'm interested in the failure of marriage, friendship, or really any other form of bond or social contract to successfully hold these people, and the nations they represent, together in peace. Started in 1910 and completed in 1918, this book definitely represents some of the cynicism and protofascist racism that characterized World War I and the years shortly after.

I apparently read the 1927 version, which was heavily edited and toned-down compared to the first edition. Grab the 1918 edition if you can.
Profile Image for Ian.
859 reviews
December 21, 2016
Published in 1918, but set before the war in the pan-European artistic community in Paris, this story centres on four people, of whom the eponymous artist Frederick Tarr, may be the least interesting. Otto Kreisler, angry, jealous, frustrated and lacking in Tarr's easy charisma ends up fighting a duel over a woman. The two women of the piece, the exotic Russian arriviste Anastasya Vasek and the more staid German Bertha Lunken are both involved with both men. The characters, much like the national politics of the time are stubborn, envious and heading down unpleasant courses. Lewis appears to be a neglected figure - this is top drawer writing.
Profile Image for Spicer.
5 reviews
June 30, 2022
A book for artists and wannabe artists, in fact it's a book about artists and wannabe artists. Presenting the two against each other in the form of the titular Tarr and the miserable Kreisler. Lewis demarcates between the two in as unpopular a way as many of his beliefs, but as equally ferocious and honest. Kreisler, the wannabe artist, produces nothing, sapped of his creative energy from his sexual and romantic pursuits. Tarr, the artist, can never fully care about anyone more than his work—in the end, impregnating multiple women, loving and marrying none of them.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 37 reviews

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