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Wyndham Lewis: The Childermass

If you believe in Purgatory, it is unlikely that you believe that it will be some sort of combination of life at the edge of the River Styx and an English public school (for those that do not know, an English public school is an expensive private boarding school) but that is more or less what Lewis gives us. This and the subsequent two books (there was meant to be a fourth but it was never written) are about life after death as Lewis has imagined it. The story starts off with Sattersthwaite (known as Satters) who is wandering, lost, around Purgatory, having arrived there some ten days ago, after having been killed in World War I. Satters is one of those lost, flabby, weak men, wholly dependent on others. He is therefore fortunate to meet Pullman (Pullers) a stronger, more determined man, whom he was with at public school. It is Pullman that shows him around, who explains to him what is going on and who the various denizens of purgatory are, who explains the geography (which is based on a space-time convergence and not like Earth geography), who explains who gets into Heaven (clearly visible from Purgatory) and why and who essentially baby-sits Sattersthwaite, who is only eighteen months his junior. The fascinating part of this section is the geography of Purgatory, with its view of heaven, its changing rivers, its space-time curvature and its variable weather. The whole nature of Purgatory is that it is not what it seems, as things appear and disappear and are not necessarily where they were the day before.

Purgatory, if Lewis is to be believed, while having these science fiction features is also a bit like England, Indeed, Pullman and Sattersthwaite come cross a mock eighteenth century England with miniature people including Thomas Paine, with whom Sattersthwaite has an altercation. But they eventually make their way to the main camp, where they live and sleep and this is where the book is far less interesting. Purgatory is run by the Bailiff. He is somewhat like a public school head boy, ruthless, arbitrary and often violent. He has his crowd of followers who adore him but also his opponents. It is he who decides who gets promoted (and who gets relegated). He claims to make it easy for everyone and be their friend but clearly is not. Much of the rest of the novel consists of the Bailiff getting involved in often complex (and to me, very boring) theological arguments with the various people in the camp, particularly a group known as the Hyperideans, followers of Hyperides, one of the characters. Pullman and Sattersthwaite virtually disappear at this point, only reappearing at the end (and in the subsequent novels). This is definitely a novel of two halves. We will learn more about Lewis’ view of the after-life in the two subsequent novels.

Publishing history

First published 1928 by Chatto and Windus