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C.S. Lewis: The Boy Who Chronicled Narnia - Michael White

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Genre: Biography / Author: Michael White / Paperback / 268 Pages / Book is published 2005-11-03 by Abacus

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      19.03.2008 21:55
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      interestingly gosspipy but plodding and ultimately empty biography

      According to the introduction, this biography was devised specifically as a chronicle of the life of the man who chronicled Narnia. White acknowledges that Lewis spent all his life as an Oxford don teaching and studying English language and literature, and that the later parts of his life were devoted to proselytising a rather firebrand version of Christianity, but he sees Lewis primarily as a writer of best-selling fiction, and particularly the Narnia series.

      When first presented, this approach looked like an exceedingly good idea to me, but as the narrative progressed its major drawbacks became painfully obvious. Lewis didn't write the Narnia books until the late 1940's and early 1950's, well into his middle age, and his other novels were also written quite late. He wrote quickly and he didn't write that many volumes of fiction. Thus, by more or less ignoring his other output, White's book feels at times curiously empty.

      White gives good account of Jack (as C.S. was known) Lewis' early life, the humdrum happiness of a comfortable middle-class childhood lived in a large house in Belfast, a son of a somehow unfulfilled solicitor and a clergyman's daughter with a degree in mathematics; the happiness that shattered to pieces with the death of his mother and the subsequent parental failure of his father. The sections that describe Lewis' education, his entry into Oxford and getting established as an academic are also quite illuminating and contain relatively more background information.

      White pays a lot of attention to Lewis' complex and fraught relationship with his father, but I often felt he comes to this relationship with preconcieved ideas. He frequently refers to Jack's judgements of his father as "unfair" and "biased", attributing them to Lewis' subconscious resentment and Jack blaming his father for his mother's death.

      However, do we really need to llok for subconcious sources? Albert utterly failed his son in the time of the most acute emotional need when he was greiving for his beloved mother, aged only 10. Instead of offering comfort and solace Albert slid into depressed drunkenness punctuated by rage; sent the recently bereaved child to a boarding school run by a sadistic psychopath and did nothing despite repeated pleas for rescue. He also failed to see off Jack when he was being posted to the killing fields of France. These are surely, good enough reasons for justified resentment and anger, with no need to invoke the subconscious?

      As his subject matures (but is still very long way from writing his novels), White's approach starts to show its limitations. The story of a man who lived an extremely active life of the mind, for whom intellectual analysis and understanding of ideas was the main mode of functioning, is quite often reduced to external events of life and incessant, persistent speculation about his feelings and emotions. I did not expect detailed summaries of academic works, or analysis of all his Christian writing, but considering how important a part they played in Lewis' life, ignoring their content leads to a rather biased picture which leaves a reader even slightly interested in non-fictional work of Lewis feeling cheated.

      At times it seemed like a life of a visionary artist told by a hairdresser and an accountant: interesting, sometimes titillating, but what about the paintings?

      There is also a recurring and peculiarly philistine concept of "real life" (from which Lewis was, apparently, isolated) that seems to include all mundane practicalities as well as big life and death events and even passions, but for some reason exclude all creations of intellect and art. This ties well with the criticism of building the whole life round the life of mind which is a running thread in the whole book: modern psychobabble applied with no respect for the subejct or context.

      On the plus side, White certainly attempts to explore the emotional engines that powered C.S. Lewis and it concentrates heavily on relationships with other people as a source of his creativity. As much as this approach is limited, it is also interesting in a gossipy way, although endless speculations on whether Lewis had had sex with Janie Moore, his 26 years older companion with whom he spent most of his life and whom he called 'Mother' get very tiresome. The friendship with Tolkien and the late-blossoming love with Joy Davidson are covered well.

      The writing is competent if ploddingly pedestrian, with a sprinkling of surprisingly lacklustre anecdotes and many falied attempts to enliven the text. There are few things as sad as reading "one must wonder" and immediately thinking "no, why would one wonder about THAT?", or seeing the likes of "interestingly" and "surprisingly" followed by a report which is neither. But nothing in the style truly jars and it all fits together well, in a concise and readable narrative.

      The intended audience for this book are probably people who love Narnia and who might be interested in the private life and career history of a man who wrote the stories, but would be put off by the biography that offered a full coverage of Lewis' intellectual life. Those looking for even perfunctory exploration of his ideas have to look elsewhere.


      This review was originally written for www.thebookbag.co.uk and I gave this book 3 stars then. It's been now a while since I read it and as I think about it, I get more and more annoyed. Thus, 2 stars from this reviewer as for now, though it would be 2.5 if dooyoo allowed me.


      288 pages Abacus paperback.

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    • Product Details

      In 1997, THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE was voted the most influential book of the twentieth century by teachers, librarians and parents in the UK. The last six US Presidents have all claimed C. S. Lewis to be one of their favourite writers (as have Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair). He was an acclaimed academic, a renowned Christian thinker and apologist, the author of dozens of non- fiction books and a founder member of The Inklings (with J.R.R. Tolkien). Lewis fought in the First World War trenches and became a famous broadcaster known as 'the apostle to sceptics' during World War II: his newspaper articles and radio programmes were well known. He led what was considered by many of his contemporaries to be a rather bohemian life in Oxford, living with a much older woman, a widow named Janie Moore. Late in life he married an American divorcee who (as documented in the movie SHADOWLANDS) died tragically of cancer four years into their marriage. Michael White's biography is an accessible yet erudite study of a subject who has immense and lasting international appeal.