Saturday, May 19, 2007

Saturday Book Review: The Narnian

I've taken to reading biographies lately. One reason being that I'm an appalling judge of character, so anything that helps me get a grasp on what makes humans tick has got to be good. Another reason is a growing curiosity about people who I only know through books - all right then, writers.

So I've been interested in Alan Jacobs' 2005 biography of C S Lewis: 'The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C S Lewis' for a while now. Alan Jacobs is a apparently 'Professor of English and the director of Faith and Learning Program at Wheaton College in Illinois', and has a blog here (it's mostly cut-and-paste from other magazines, though). Everyone knows who C S Lewis is, or at least used to be: the writer of the Chronicles of Narnia, and a whole lot of other stuff too. These days, it's mostly the other stuff that tends to interest me: not that I don't love the Chronicles - I do - but after reading the books a certain number of times, your geeky obsession starts looking for other objects of obsession. That's where books like Out of the Silent Planet (the first in a science-fiction trilogy); The Screwtape Letters (Christian satire, in the form of letters written from a demon, Screwtape, to his student); The Pilgrim's Regress (a modern allegory, partly drawing on John Bunyan's writing); or, indeed, any published version of his collected or selected essays that I can get my hands on.

As the title suggests, though, 'The Narnian' is centrally concerned with how and why Lewis came to write the Narnia books. Its release date, in 2006, sort of suggests that the publishers wanted it to coincide with the release of that awful Hollywood version of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. It's much more than that, though; it ranges from Lewis' childhood, the traumatic loss of his mother, his experiences in the first world war, his encounters with Yeats (in person, twice) and Chesterton (in writing), his strange relationship with Janie Moore, and his late-in-life marriage and romance with Joy Davidman. It's really a biography of Lewis' mind, causing Jacobs at one point to make the curious statement -

... we will soon explore the contours of that inner life. But first, the external world remains to be dealt with.

I'll say! This is written at a point before any of Lewis romantic encounters, and even before his experience as a soldier during the first world war. External events, indeed!

More curious is the statement that comes at the beginning of the second chapter:

... one might very well assume, upon reading this passage, that our author would hold up as a shining counterexample to Experiment House the great tradition of the English public school... but one would be so, so wrong.... And near the end of his life he wrote to a child who had read his Narnia tales, "I was at three schools (all boarding schools) of which two were very horrid. I never hated anything so much, not even the front line trenches in World War I. Indeed the story is far too horrid to tell anyone of your age.

Actually, Jacobs is wrong. In several of his essays, Lewis defended the English public school system, and it would be interesting to know why. One reason would be because Lewis disliked what may have been a modernising tendency of Government schools: but it's hard to know. Jacobs notes at one point that Lewis did not read newspapers or periodicals: this can't have been entirely true, because Lewis wrote a number of articles and essays for publication in these periodicals; his book, 'Mere Christianity' was initially a series of radio talks given on the BBC; and 'The Screwtape Letters' were initially a series written for a newspaper. You wouldn't know it from this book, but he was a committed conservative: this much is clear if you read his essays. It is curious that this part of C S Lewis' mind is ignored. It's not because Jacobs doesn't want to be critical of Lewis. (In the later part of the book, he lays into Lewis for his anti-feminism). Maybe Jacobs didn't want his biography to be too long and complicated; so, examination of Lewis' religious life is in, politics are out. Still, that's no excuse to say things that are untrue.

In a similar fashion, Jacobs dances around Lewis' decades-long relationship with Janie Moore. One onlooker to this relationship says that they are clearly 'devoted' to one another. Lewis' brother, Warnie, detested Moore and the 'mysterious' hold she had on her brother (though he was quite happy to live together with them at Lewis' house, the Kilns). Jacobs never seems to know whether he should tell too much, or too little, and how much he should tell. Do we really need to know what the wife of an academic who once held a talk on C S Lewis thought about his private life? Apparently, we do, even if it is relegated to a footnote. Lewis himself was quite happy to keep his private life private; shouldn't this be respected? However, Jacobs deals sensitively with her decline and death; once he describes her death, he notes 'Nothing more needs to be said.' But later - he can't help himself - he again starts wondering about the relationship between Lewis and Moore. He does a lot of talking about what Lewis didn't want to talk about, that much is clear!

These are minor criticisms. The bulk of the book is an involved inquiry into Lewis' Christianity. Key concerns of Lewis (immortal life, morality, Christian tradition) are examined at length. Then Jacobs returns to the Chronicles and examines how these concerns appear in those novels. It's a curious method; at times, the books are treated almost reverently, as if they are a Biblical text from which the meaning is to be discovered. The arguments are rigorous and the philosophical questions are interesting; it's just a pity that the focus is so narrow. It would be interesting, for instance, to see more of a focus on how Lewis' ideas appear in his science fiction trilogy. (Apart from a few examples of intellectual pulp - the 30 page psalm at the end of 'Voyage to Venus', for instance - they are astounding and original works: Arthur C Clarke with some Milton chucked in).

One more disagreement, and a geeky one this time: Jacobs refers at one point to the respective achievements of C S Lewis and Tolkien, seeming to preference Tolkien's achievement as the greater (couldn't find the page for this, I'll have another look later). I think this is wrong, wrong, wrong: Lewis' literature had a far deeper and more original mind than his great friend, Tolkien, as is shown in the way he comes to grips with many different forms of literature from different ages. Even when Lewis fails to achieve his aims in literature (as in parts of his science fiction trilogy) the ideas are always interesting, and remain as an inspiration for later writers. Try as I might, I never get the same sense of intellectual exhilaration reading Tolkien as I do reading Lewis.


But then, this is the book I paid for. Jacobs writes well about a much loved author, and his book is certainly worth reading.


TimT said...

There we go: book review, as it is. I'm off to Wunderkammer now!

Steve said...

Well Tim, as you would know from my past comments, you get high marks from me for preferring Lewis to Tolkien. But - what wasn't there to like about the first Narnia movie? I thought it a very satisfying adaption.

Karen said...

There's nothing at all the matter with the review, Tim. You are too hard on yourself!

Perhaps the problem is the title. The main title suggests a concentration on the Narnian books, but then the subtitle has both "Life" and "Imagination", which leads one to expect somewhat more than a study of Christian theology within Lewis' oeuvre. From what you've said, the author (sorry, can't remember the name- I should really cut and paste into Word before I comment, shouldn't I?) sets out to do "a literary life" and then, perhaps because of consideration of markets, etc, drops in this other stuff about the personal life, almost as an afterthought.

As for the question of how much of the personal life is out of bounds, that's always a difficult question. I'm inclined to be more liberal about this, especially in cases where the main players are deceased, but it really depends on the writer. With many writers the personal life and the work are quite fused.

How do you feel about Philip Pullman? (I haven't read any, but I've being meaning to).

Sorry to hear about the character judgment. I'm a good judge of character, but sometimes I form strong and immediate dislikes, which I try to suppress in the interests of fairness, only to find that I really should have gone with my original intuition.

Karen said...

been meaning to! Grrrr!

TimT said...

Steve, I suspect the Narnia books need to be handled in a very special, original way to be translated to film. They're such a unique pastiche of allegory, science fiction, fantasy, myth, satire, and nonsense (in the Lewis Carroll sense): they are, in effect, very literary. Watching them is not the same thing as reading them. Anyway, when I watched the films, I couldn't get emotionally involved with any of the characters, and the central Aslan narrative didn't come off because, well, imagining a talking lion and seeing a talking lion are two different things entirely. For me, earlier BBC versions worked much better (maybe because I was more forgiving as a child).

Karen, I fear I've been too hard on Jacobs, since this biography really does dignify Lewis' philosophy. There are references to a number of other Lewis works, including some relatively obscure ones (early poetry publications, etc). Apparently Jacobs favourite Lewis book is '16th Century English Literature (Excluding Drama)'. So one can hardly accuse him of jumping on the Narnia blandwagon!

I haven't read Pullman, though he and Phillip Hensher, who hate Lewis, are quoted at the end of this biography. (Hensher accuses Lewis of 'corrupting the minds of young people through allegory', just the sort of peevish insult you'd expect of a boring op-ed writer).

There's a note in Auden's writings somewhere about how biographers often delve too far into their subjects private lives, and 'it doesn't really change things if they're dead'. I sort of agree about that. Then again, one could take the approach A D Hope took - throw in a number of red herring's into one's correspondence so that whoever, inevitablly, gets a hold of it will not know what is true and what isn't.

Karen said...

I somewhat agree with you about the Narnia film - or maybe my position is somewhere between yours and Steve's. I found it perfectly fine and satisfying as a piece of entertainment, but I didn't feel any real emotional connection and the Aslan part didn't work at all (although it's very hard to do- I actually think it works best in the cartoon!).

But maybe it is to do with not being a child. For instance, I liked Star Wars as a child and now I just can't stand it- both old and new installments.

I have fond memories of reading Lewis as a child, but I think I can relish both Lewis and a bit of anti-Lewis in the shape of Pullman. I've got this lovely little book Pullman did called Lyra's Oxford.

I think sometimes writers are too precious about critics and protest too much! I suppose it's wrapped up with the peculiar contradictions of writing- exhibitionism fraught with an excessive concern for privacy. It's both pleasurable and intensely embarrassing to be so anatomised.

Caz said...

The assumption that a writer's work is deeply informed by, or may be elucidated from, a close and often hideously distorted examination (think “reality tee vee) of their private history is wrong-headed.

I have often been put off a perfectly good writer by having made the mistake of reading about them.

Of course, it's even worse if you know an author personally, and the deep disappointment that comes from realizing that while some may be charming company, and certainly in possession of an enviable vocabulary, in general, they do not – probably cannot possibly – live up to the depths, charms and lucidity of their own work. They are, in the flesh, ordinary, as are their real biographies.

Karen said...

Alexis needs to come into this conversation!

I certainly don't claim that there is some sort of equivalence between the life and the work or that all writers may be better understood by examining their biographies. Of course many writers are dull or even unpleasant people, but I don't find that that diminishes my enjoyment of a fine piece of literature one iota. There's a very rich tradition of literary biography which has far higher aims that simply dredging up tawdry secrets. Particularly with a major figure like Dickens or Eliot, literary biography offers an opportunity to engage with the broader ideas running across an entire oeuvre and to gain a better understanding of that writer's position within the intellectual and artistic debates of their own time, with an implicit recognition that writers do not work in a vacuum and will be influenced (to a greater or lesser extent) by personal and historical events. The best literary biographies reflect upon the process of reading both life and work in a very nuanced way and do not make any pretense to a complete and unmediated reconstruction of events.

Caz said...

Gee, I learnt all of that when I studied literature too.

TimT said...

There's a very rich tradition of literary biography which has far higher aims that simply dredging up tawdry secrets.

Bah to tawdry secrets! I much prefer tawdry lies! Lenny Lower, for instance, wrote a tall story where his heroes parents both 'died months before he was born'. But you're right.

I've always enjoyed the concept of dialogues, which have the suggestion that, even nowadays, you can pop over to Socrates place and enjoy some badinage and literary talk over some cups of wine, or whatever the available drink is. The idea is similar to letters, or speeches, or what not, because there's always a sense of an ongoing conversation. Maybe that's part of the attraction of biography for me now; I'm such a selfish bastard that not only do I want to argue with everyone alive today, I want to join in on the arguments that were cut off hundreds of thousands of years ago!

What I'm trying to say, in a roundabout way, is that sometimes you can meet the writer in many different ways: you meet them in a very intense, one-on-one fashion in their literature; and in real life you may, or may not, meet them in a different, but also interesting, fashion. And biography might be another way of meeting them.

Caz said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
TimT said...

The play version of that Didion book is running on Broadway and the New Yorker trashed it. The words 'The theatrical equivalent of taking a gun to a knife fight' are quoted.

Email: timhtrain - at -

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