C S Lewis: The Boy Who Chronicled Narnia by Michael White

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

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Category: Biography
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: It's a concise and readable biography, though written in a somehow workmanlike and sparkless manner. For those simply interested in a quick look at the man who created Narnia it might be just the thing, but it omits large areas of Lewis' interest and applies modern therapeutic and curiously lukewarm values to his life.
Buy? No Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 288 Date: July 2007
Publisher: Abacus
ISBN: 978-0349120683

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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 rather obvious. Lewis didn't write 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 apart from brief mentions in the text, 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 there are also quite illuminating and contain relatively more background information too.

White pays a lot of attention to Lewis' complex and fraught relationship with his father. He frequently refers to Jack's judgements of his father Albert as unfair and biased, and looks for their source in the subconscious resentment and blame for his mother's death that Jack might have felt. However, failing one's child in the time of the most acute emotional need after his mother's death when he was only 10, when instead of offering comfort and solace Albert slid into depressed drunkenness punctuated by rage; sending a recently bereaved child to a boarding school run by a sadistic psychopath and not doing anything despite repeated pleas for rescue and not seeing off one's son who's being posted to the killing fields of France are surely 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 rather 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 pictures?

There is also a 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 subtle criticism of building the whole life round the life of mind which is a running thread in the whole book.

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, often 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 tiresome). The friendship with Tolkien and the late-blossoming love with Joy Davidson are covered well.

The writing is competent if rather pedestrian, with a sprinkling of surprisingly lacklustre anecdotes and several failing 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 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.

Those interested in how a story of a life and the content of life's work can be woven together in a fascinating tale might enjoy this autobiography of a scientist.

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Buy C S Lewis: The Boy Who Chronicled Narnia by Michael White at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy C S Lewis: The Boy Who Chronicled Narnia by Michael White at Amazon.com.


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