(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Self Condemned, which concerns the strange life of an English emigre in Canada, took Toronto off the map. The first part of the novel, which attempts to explain and justify Rene Harding’s reasons for leaving England in 1939, is emotionally but not intellectually convincing. Harding, whose rational premises are mistaken, deliberately drives himself to ruin. He moves blindly out of England without ever clearly explaining why he left and moves to Canada without any realistic sense of what he will find there. His Secret History of World War Two led The Times of London to call him “fascist-minded.” His most impressive intellectual quality is a power of analysis so penetrating that nothing can withstand its intense and ultimately destructive scrutiny. Perhaps the most forceful reason for abandoning his profession and his country is expressed in Harding’s confession: “Through looking too hard at the material I was working on, I saw the maggots in it, I saw the rottenness, the fatal flaws; had to stop earning my living that way.”

The Hardings refuse to sail on the Athenia and later hear that it has been torpedoed only one hundred miles from their own ship. War is announced as they are crossing the Atlantic; to avoid submarines, they zigzag to the north, bound for Greenland. They ultimately arrive in Momaco, Canada, a town devoid of all character and charm, a living death from which no speck of civilized life could ever come; it is a variant of Mimico, a suburb southwest of Toronto on Lake Ontario: “The place was the grave of a great career: the barren spot where you ceased to think, to teach, or to write, and just rotted away.” The timorous academics of the university in Momaco are anti-English and close their ranks against the renowned outsider. Harding is cut off from all money in England, has to buy copies of his own books from secondhand dealers, and becomes a columnist on the Momaco Gazette-Herald.


(The entire section is 808 words.)


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

It is easy to read Self Condemned as an autobiographical novel, although to take it as point-by-point accurate autobiography would be a mistake. The book’s protagonist, René Harding, and his wife, Hester, leave Britain for Canada in the year that World War II erupts and, like Lewis, settle around Toronto. Harding arrives in Canada with little notion of what he will do there, but soon he is employed at the University in Momaco, whose anti-British faculty members do not accept him and make him feel always the outsider.

The Hardings endure the cruel winters holed up in the Blundell Hotel, where the boring routine of their lives oppresses and depresses them. The news that they get from the radio is discomfiting, and the future seems tenuous at best. When the hotel burns down, the Hardings are further dislocated. Lewis writes of the fire as the Italian poet Dante wrote of the tenth circle of Hell. Fire and ice intermix in the cold Canadian night as firefighters pour water into the inferno.

When the hotel’s manager finds that the owner set fire to the building to collect the insurance, Mr. Martin, the owner, murders her to avoid detection. Shortly after the fire, Harding is invited to teach in the College of the Sacred Heart, which offers a more hospitable environment than he found in Momaco. The priests, eyeing him as a possible convert, treat him with warmth and deference.

If Harding feels disembodied in Canada, his wife...

(The entire section is 551 words.)


(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Chapman, Robert T. Wyndham Lewis: Fictions and Satires, 1973.

Kenner, Hugh. Wyndham Lewis, 1954.

Materer, Timothy. Wyndham Lewis the Novelist, 1976.

Meyers, Jeffrey. The Enemy: A Biography of Wyndham Lewis, 1980.

Pritchard, William. Wyndham Lewis, 1968.