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Wyndham Lewis: Malign Fiesta

The third novel in Lewis’ Human Age series takes us straight to Dante’s Inferno. And, indeed, if we don’t realise this, both Lewis and the denizens of Hell point this out to us. Indeed, Satan (or Sammael, as he prefers to be known) and his assistants make several references to Dante, pointing out that they have created a Lake of Blood (but with red paint, rather than real blood) as well as having tortures akin to those described in Dante, such as a Paolo and Francesca cell. However, this novel is not the English public school novel of the first two books but is full of quite brutal violence. The novel starts as Pullman and Sattersthwaite accompany the Bailiff on a journey at the speed of light from the Third City, where they had been in the previous book, to Matapolis, one of the cities of Hell.

The two Englishmen are first lodged at the house of the Bailiff’s mother. They are expressly forbidden from leaving the house unaccompanied for, if they do, they are warned, they are certain to be arrested by the police and quite likely to find themselves taken for escaped sinners and sent to the punishment cells. The Bailiff’s mother is not a friendly person. Like many other denizens of Matapolis, she had been responsible for punishing sinners. There are two types of people in Hell. The first are the angels, who had left Heaven with Satan, and the second are the mixed offspring of angels and men. The Bailiff and his mother are of the second type. She tells Pullman about some of her work as a punisher and quite gruesome it is. Pullman only seems to be mildly affected by the description. Eventually Pullman is taken to meet Sammael, who seems like a respected businessman, articulate and friendly. Pullman is given the tour over the next few days. He is taken to the punishment cells where he sees the sinners being punished (including the modern version of Paolo and Francesca). He is also taken on a tour of the pits of hell with Sammael himself. They are accompanied by a French woman, who has been a wicked sinner and we see directly her very unpleasant punishment. Again, Pullman does not seem too perturbed.

We gradually learn about the structure of Hell and its relationship with Heaven. It seems that Sammael considers himself God’s equal, both being angels. He had left, not for the traditional reasons but over some disagreement and is now contracted by Heaven to publish the sinners from Earth at which, he feels, he and his men have done a good job. However, he is not particularly happy with the situation, not least because he feels he is punishing humans purely because of God’s outmoded rules. Sammael himself believes women to be the root cause of most problems and is very much against them. He also feels that it is now time for a change as Christianity is going to die out soon.

Pullman and Satters are moved to a special place in Angeltown where Sammael has been trying to build a sort of university, using learned sinners he has collected, so that the angels, who do not seem very bright, can be educated. Pullman is initially allocated to this role and soon becomes head of the university but, in particular, he becomes Sammael’s special adviser and gives him detailed advice on how to deal with God and God’s devious activities to undermine Hell. This is the best part of the book, with Pullman seeming to be almost a Goebbels-like figure to Sammael’s Hitler, preparing propaganda, setting up a spy network and so on. He does a very good job, too but, like Edmund Pevensie in the Narnia Chronicles, will repent the errors of his ways.

Lewis brings us a conclusion, with the inevitable battle between Heaven and Hell. Though this is the last book published by Lewis in this series, he had planned a fourth book, which would have been like Dante’s Paradise. He left behind a first chapter and a brief outline of what happened, in which he states that Pullman clearly favours the divine. The whole series is definitely fascinating but I cannot believe that it is anyone’s idea of the afterlife, whether they are religious or not.

Publishing history

First published 1955 by John Calder