on 24 May 2009
The subject of the Childermass is the immediate arrival at a life after death, a place and state described in touristic detail. With David Lindsay's Voyage to Arcturus - a very different but equally intriguing masterpiece - it creates a complete world of its own, offering a tourist's/traveller's-eye account of a parallel universe. J.G.Ballard has something of Lewis's style, though his work doesn't equal the imaginative intensity of Lewis's vision. Both men lived through horrifying wartime experiences, Lewis as a soldier in the 14-18 war. All three books of Lewis's trilogy are very readable - Childermass is the first and best. The sequels were written later with a more general readership in mind. The Childermass is worth buying for the opening chapters then keep going until the Bailiff appears, a figure worthy of Cervantes. Chapter One opens:
'The city lies in a plain, ornamented with mountains. These appear as a fringe of crystals to the heavenly north.'
A hardened realist's view of the City of God
Few are actually their own worst enemy, Lewis unusually was. And this a man who styled himself The Enemy, of tradition, of old art, of everything; who delighted in baiting the Left, in the early '30's writing favourably of Hitler (he later recanted. And he wasn't alone in liking Early Hitler). This book, notably the eponymous first book, is a quite astonishing achievement, impressing Old Possum Eliot considerably. Unusual in being as useful with a brush as a pen, Lewis creates a language of astonishing Expressionist power, lapidary with show-off words (are you reading Mr Self?)and in his Bailiff he creates a figure combining Mr Punch, the Devil, and the author in a weird and wonderful persona guarding us from Heaven and vice versa. Once described as 'Theological Science Fiction' it is not an easy read, there are longueurs aplenty but it is assuredly one of THE great modernist texts. Yes the characters are resolutely two dimensional (if that), but as vehicles for prose that generates its own microworld of forces and colours, piquancies and farces, mickey takes and assertion, it is as much a tour de force as anything the Joyce Lewis scorned ever wrote. You must try it: if you hate it, you can give it to someone else so they can feel clever. And if you love it, you have a friend for life.
The word sui generis was made for this stupendous brick of a book; try just the first page, you'll see.