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May 2007
 
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The Uncelestial City, by Humbert Wolfe (1930)

BEING forgotten is a common novelistic fate. Humbert Wolfe's afterlife fantasy The Uncelestial City has sunk so far into oblivion that no one remembers it's a fantasy. One throwaway quotation survives, usually misquoted and attributed to Hilaire Belloc or the prolific Anon:

    You cannot hope
       to bribe or twist,
    thank God! the
       British journalist.

    But, seeing what
       the man will do
    unbribed, there's
       no occasion to.

The grim truth is that The Uncelestial City is a book-length posthumous fantasy in verse, whose high point of sprightliness is that aphorism. Perhaps sensing that the public will tolerate only so much rhymed narrative, Wolfe added fragments of prose "Argument":
"The late Mr. Justice Crayfish finds himself ascending a flight of steps to a gate. He recognizes the gatekeeper as one whom he has known and loved once."
Beyond the gate, Crayfish sees the Celestial City, but must first retrace his steps through the Uncelestial City of his own past life. The gatekeeper, an allegorical Christ/Orpheus, fiddles a musical accompaniment while the judge relives career highlights. Passing sentence of death, for example, and steering the jury to find an anti-war poet guilty under England's ludicrous blasphemy laws.

Suitably harrowed, Crayfish reaches the exit to the Celestial City on its hill. The road has been long and purgatorial, paved with high-minded doggerel, and (alas) it fades rapidly from memory. Only that gag about newspapermen remains.

The London publisher was Gollancz, later famous for its sf.

—David Langford

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