|Wyndham Lewis, author of The Childermass, was also an important painter in the Vorticism movement, which is another branch of the area of modern painting that includes Cubism and the Futurists (Italian and Russian.)|
The Childermass (1928)
by Wyndham Lewis
Chado and Windus Publishers, original edition.
It's easy to get hung up on the idea that one could read 1001 novels in a life time, without even realizing that even if you CAN, obtaining those novels could be ruinously expensive or time consuming or both. For me, the 1001 Books project has broken down into four modes of acquisition: Purchasing on-line/in stores (through 2009), obtaining free versions on my Amazon Kindle (through early this year), checking them out from the San Diego Public Library system and requesting them from other libraries and having them sent to the San Diego Public Library near my apartment.
Of these, the most interesting category is books that have to be requested, usually from University of California San Diego or San Diego State University. The Childermass is the most recent example of a book that would be essentially unobtainable without that last category. Online, it will run you fifty bucks. The there is no Kindle version of the text. So I wasn't entirely surprised when the copy that arrived from the University of California San Diego Social Science and Humanities library appeared to be a first edition, that appears to have spent time in India/Pakistan according to a sticker placed inside the cover.
All in all it's an arrival consistent with the 1001 Books statement that it is a "forgotten masterpiece of Modernism." It's also book one of a trilogy, but the second two books weren't written for another thirty years. The Childermass is literally incomprehensible without either reading about or having the text explained before, during or perhaps even after the reading. The two main characters are English soldiers killed during World War I. They are both in purgatory. The authors description of this purgatory is reminiscent of science fiction/fantasy writing and represents a main reason for continued interest in the text.
The two wanderers make their way to the court of the Bailiff, who rules over purgatory with a mixture of cruelty and sarcasm. The last hundred or so pages take the form of play/philosophical dialog between the bailiff and a variety of supplicants. Taken as a piece I could see why it is both considered a "masterpiece" and "forgotten" at the same time. There is no plot, and much of the stylistic innovation is parody (Finnegan Wake era Joyce is singled out) or serves to obscure (lack of a narrator.)
There are moments of interest though, the landscape descriptions, a strange interlude where the characters discuss the existence of "space-time" as a new dimension, and that's it really. The Childermass clearly anticipates both the existentialist dramas of the 1950s and the sci-fi stream of consciousness of William Burroughs, but rather suffers in comparison to both.