Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963) is best known as the author of The Chronicles Of Narnia but was also a professor of English at both Oxford and Cambridge. He was also internationally renowned as a lay theologian and Christian apologist. A. N. Wilson is an award-winning novelist, biographer and popular historian. Both men had relationships with religion that would be described by Facebook as “complicated.”
At the moment, though, I want to discuss the book in which they connect, Wilson’s biography of Lewis, entitled simply, C. S. Lewis: A Biography.
It’s a wonderful book. Wilson is a sympathetic biographer, accepting the flaws of his subject and understanding what had brought them about and even managing to explain them away in the context of his life. I hadn’t read much Wilson at the time (and very little in the time since) but he struck me as a careful researcher who backed up his writing with as much evidence as he could muster and engaging in very little speculation where there was little or no proof. For a reader who was interested in origin of an author’s work, too, Wilson is superb: the sections of the book devoted to the creation of Lewis’s books is terrific, although often coy about the actual writing process, which, since it is different for each writer, fits the tone of the book admirably. Where he succeeds most, though, is in the presentation of Lewis’s world. His relationship with J. R. R. Tolkien is presented as the great friendship of two creatives who both love the same things but who sometimes have differing views about it. Lewis’s oldest friend, his childhood neighbour Arthur Greeves, is also shown in a light that reflects Wilson’s own feelings about friendship but expressed in words that Lewis had written in Surprised By Joy:
“Many thousands of people have had the experience of finding the first friend, and it is none the less a wonder; as great a wonder (pace the novelists) as first love, or even greater.”
But it is with Lewis most dominant relationships – his brother and father, then with Mrs Moore and, finally his wife, Joy – where Wilson excels. I don’t believe that he has much truck with how Lewis (referred to as “Jack” throughout the book) was treated by them during his life, but he doesn’t dismiss the love that was in those relationships nor underestimate how much they meant to Lewis, either.
For me, though, I love how Wilson writes about Lewis’s relationship with the written word. This is a book written by a fellow bibliophile. Each book of Lewis’s is discussed throughout the biography, some more than others. Often, we are given clues as to where each one comes from, or how events in Lewis’s life affected the creation of them. It’s a great insight, and one that is often best explained by a fellow-novelist, as Wilson is. This awareness of the place that literature holds is something that really endeared this book to me when I first read it. The intertextuality of Lewis’s life as shown here was an awakening for me: I had already begun exploring literature and developing my own tastes, but I didn’t really get how texts could overlap and show a new perspective on an existing work or illuminate a situation properly until I read about how Lewis’s reading of Matthew Arnold’s “Sohrab And Rustum” explained his relationship with his father and how he interacted with him afterwards. I did go off and read “Sohrab And Rustum” (it is great, by the way, and Arnold did become one of my favourite poets) and, while it wasn’t as impactful on me as it was on Lewis, I did appreciate what his relationship with his father had been like and was able to fill in a few more gaps in that “text”.
It also taught me that loving a moment in literature beyond appreciating the arrangement of words was fine as well. Wilson recounts Lewis’s reaction to the death of Balder when reading Norse mythology and it resonated deeply with me. I was never as erudite a child as Lewis appeared to be, but I do remember moments when I was just overwhelmed by what I was reading and needed to have a moment to recover…
… I feel the need to vent a little here…
I’ve mentioned elsewhere how growing up as a reader was not terribly difficult. My whole family read, and I was fortunate enough to attend schools where reading was valued as an activity in and of itself, without the caveat of “It’s good for you.” I had teachers who took joy in reading and discussing literature not just as puzzle pieces that needed to be decoded but as something that was fun.
Having said that, I also had some friends who enjoyed reading as much as I did, if not more, and who were always happy to share their latest discoveries and talk endlessly about them. We were not mocked, nor were we ostracized for this.
So, I did not grow up in an atmosphere that was in any way hostile to being bookish.
Why, then, did I find so much joy in a book that celebrates the life of an author who also found excitement in books? Despite not needing to, I felt validated. Because Lewis enjoyed books. He was a snob in a lot of ways, but he also knew that a good story well told trumps nearly any other metric you might use to measure literature. He also really loved a good story.
And this love and enjoyment is celebrated here. Wilson understands his subject wonderfully and has complete empathy for him when he displays his feelings or lets his emotions get the better of him. And Lewis did that a lot. He could be quite annoying at times, especially if he disagreed with you, but if you won him over, he was your staunchest ally. But his passion sometimes becomes off-putting: there is more than one sequence involving moments where Lewis, as a recent convert to Christianity, is talking to Tolkien, a lifelong Catholic, about his relationship with God in a way that quite embarrasses Tolkien, who keeps his deity at a very respectful distance.
Which is how we are with our passions and obsessions, isn’t it? We make our loved ones feel a little awkward because they just don’t get what it is that we find so exciting about a subject. And vice versa, too. But it’s often that sort of excitement that makes them and us so interesting to one another. There’s a lot of my loved ones that I’ve learned to be very quiet about my hobbies around because they have no genuine interest in it, and we speak in only the most general terms about our inner lives, having bonded over other, bigger, things that have nothing to do with our lives on the side. There are others with whom I only have those side interests but we have no less of a bond. It comes down to, as Lewis knew, how those bonds support an existing relationship.
For someone like me, who struggled with how to get along equitably with people (and still does), that’s a big lesson to be learning.