Wednesday, February 22, 2006

50 Books in 50 Years: Book #3

Book #3: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.

This is a fine novel, worth reading. It casts an odd spell, as it starts out seeming fairly straightforward and its underlying questions develop slowly as the book progresses.

To say much more about it would be to ruin the experience of reading it. I'll provide a bit more commentary after the jump for anyone who already has read it, or for those who don't care about being spoiled. (Also for those who don't care about being spoiled, here is commentary from my friend Hayden.)

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It takes quite a while to figure out that the book's narrator is not simply looking back nostalgically on her school days; she is looking back nostalgically on her days in a compound for the raising of human organ farms. She and her friends are clones, and their place in society is to provide three or four organ donations and then die, typically before reaching middle age. One doesn't have to be fantastically alert to know that something odd is afoot (for example, no one at her beloved Hailsham seems to have a family), but the full discovery comes as a bit of a shock.

None of the clones seem to have last names, either, though some have initials. This has been described by some reviewers as "Kafkaesque," and I think that this is an appropriate way to describe it. One very salient point of similarity between this novel and, say, The Trial is the subjects' passivity, even complicity, in their own fate. Josef K. protests his innocence and tries to win his action in The Trial, but never seems to realize that he needn't accept the court at all. He could just walk away, but this doesn't occur to him as an option. Similarly, in Never Let Me Go, the cloned children don't conceive of rebellion — it's not even a possibility. The most they hope for is a "deferment," a short reprieve from their fate. And when even that is denied them, they accept this as if it were a natural phenomenon — a hurricane or an earthquake — rather than a human, and revocable, fact.

Another of my friends was less impressed by this book; apparently the theme of a person discovering that others regard him or her as less than human has already been well mined by science fiction writers. Perhaps; but I still think that Ishiguro does an outstanding job of developing the plot in unexpected directions; and his style is impeccable. Highly recommended.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

50 Books in 50 Years: Book #2

Book #2: C.S. Lewis: A Biography, by A.N. Wilson.

This is a carefully researched, very detailed biography of Lewis. Wilson spends a great deal of time on each of Lewis's major books, as well as on the day-to-day events of his life. He takes a very even-handed approach, giving full credit for Lewis's great scholarly talents and literary ability without trying to hide the man's many character flaws. Lewis was intellectually pugnacious, something of a bully; he made enemies easily; and his wise admonitions about the sins of pride and self-centeredness didn't seem to have much effect on his own behavior. He often comes across as rather churlish. Wilson seems a bit sheepish about having to report this, but he doesn't flinch from it.

This has greatly offended many Lewis's most devoted admirers. Some of this anger is evident in the customer reviews at Amazon: it's especially pronounced among the reviewers who didn't bother to read the book before reviewing it.

One of Wilson's greatest sins, in the eyes of Lewis's fans, is to explode what Wilson calls the cult of the Perpetual Virginity of C.S. Lewis. Apparently a few devotees are convinced that over the course of his sixty-odd years, Lewis never once had sexual relations, not even with his wife Joy. That this bit of pious dogma is contradicted by some quite frank textual evidence in Lewis's writings doesn't seem to bother its adherents. I suppose that it won't do much good to point out that this is a standard that doesn't apply to many literal saints (Augustine comes to mind immediately, but there are many other examples). Indeed, assuming lifelong virginity (contrary to the available evidence) is a standard usually reserved to Jesus and Mary; applying it to Lewis is not just ridiculous but borderline blasphemous.

One remarkable story casts some light on Lewis's intellectual predilections. He had invited a colleague (and fellow Christian), Helen Gardner, to dinner at his home.

Conversation at the table turned on the interesting question of whom, after death, those present should most look forward to meeting. ...'Oh, I have no difficulty in deciding,' said Lewis. 'I want to meet Adam.' H went on to explain why, very much in the terms outlined in A Preface to 'Paradise Lost', where he wrote:
Adam was, from the first, a man in knowledge as well as in stature. He alone of all men 'had been in Eden, in the garden of God, he had walked up and down in the midst of the stones of fire.' ...He was ... accustomed to converse with God 'face to face'.
Be that as it may, Adam is not likely, if she has anything to do with it, to converse with Helen Gardner. She ventured to say so. Even, she told Lewis, if there really were, historically, someone whom we could name as 'the first man,' he would be a Neanderthal ape-like figure, whose conversation she could not conceive of finding interesting.

A stony silence fell on the dinner table. Then Lewis said gruffly, 'I see we have a Darwinian in our midst.'

Helen Gardner was never invited again.
This attitude seems more apt to an American Bible college graduate than an Oxford don, but Lewis's life was full of surprises.

And not just Lewis's life. It's well known that Lewis was a close friend of the fantasy writer J.R.R. Tolkien (long a colleague at Oxford). Wilson comes up with a quotation from Tolkien's collected letters that's a real eye-opener, not to mention jaw-dropper:

Lewis always took the line that Communism and Fascism were equally evil, and this was something which Tolkien and [poet Roy] Campbell could not understand. 'Nothing is a greater tribute to Red Propaganda,' Tolkien wrote, 'than the fact that Lewis (who knows they are in all other subjects liars and traducers) believes all that is said against Franco, and nothing that is said for him ... But Hatred of our Church is after all the only real foundation of the C of E.'
I knew Tolkien was a Catholic, and a conservative, but I hadn't quite put it together that he was — gack — a Catholic Conservative. It's not entirely clear when this letter was written (I haven't been able to consult the original source yet), but its placement in the book suggests some time in the early 1940s, which is still more disheartening. I would have hoped that the brutal experience of fighting the Nazis might have cast their Spanish ideological allies in a more appropriate light.

I shouldn't give the impression that this biography is simply an attempt to smear Lewis and his circle. Wilson is never less than fair-minded, and his careful research, clear writing, and sympathy for his subject make the book well worth seeking out.

[Update: Tolkien's letter discussing Franco was written on 6 October 1944. It can be found in the 1981 volume of his letters.]

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

50 Books in 50 Years: Book #1

I read a book! Seven children's books, actually, which I'll count as one adult book.

All the fuss about the Narnia movie inspired me to check out the Narnia books from the library and re-read them. I hadn't looked at them since I was in college, though they'd been great favorites of mine as a child. I read them in order of publication, not in the Narnia-chronological order that the publisher has, for whatever misguided reason, declared canonical.

Some recent discussion of these books (in the New Yorker and at Salon) has pointed out that they tend to be thinly plotted. This is, I think, true only of the first two (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian). Lion moves amazingly quickly; to borrow Fitzgerald's phrase, it has no second act. It's all introduction and climax, with hardly any development in the middle. Caspian's plot is more engaging, but the title character hardly has a chance to develop as a person. And he's not much of a hero: all his problems get solved by someone else, either by Aslan (the series' lion Jesus) or by the Pevensie children from England.

Still, these first two books do a lovely job of introducing the land of Narnia itself, and that's an accomplishment worth praising. I have the feeling that a lot of children would love to live in Narnia, or at least visit it like the human characters. Lewis was very good at mingling the fantastic with the ordinary: it's funny that he spends so much time describing homey meals of bacon and potatoes and mushrooms that are cooked by dwarves and talking badgers.

The third and fourth books, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Silver Chair, are my favorites (plus the sixth, The Magician's Nephew). Dawn Treader takes the characters to places that are outlandish and magical even for Narnians, and it introduces Eustace Scrubb, who seems to have had special significance for Lewis — he's the most interesting human character in this book, and also in The Silver Chair and the final one, The Last Battle. In his adult Christian writing, Lewis put great emphasis on human self-loathing as the path to salvation through Christ; and that's certainly the story he's telling in the case of Eustace, who is magically transformed into a dragon and has to be returned to human form by the series's God character, Aslan.

Eustace is also one of only two characters who are depicted at school. He and his friend Jill Pole are students at "Experiment House," which is Lewis's attempt in The Silver Chair to mock modern educational environments. But Lewis himself was deeply traumatized by his time at a thoroughly traditional public school (he later called it 'Belsen', which in the English context is like calling it 'Auschwitz'), and his jabs at "Experiment House" are mild compared to his depiction of school bullies (who can, of course, be found at any school). The rest of The Silver Chair takes Eustace and Jill to the far north in search of a lost prince; they are accompanied by a large, depressive frog-like character named Puddleglum, whose perpetual gloom is quite funny (to me, anyway). This is one of the best books in the series, provided you skip over the poor attempts at apologetic argument once the prince is freed from his enchantment.

The Horse and His Boy is a great yarn, except that Lewis is at his weakest in depicting the Calormenes, recently described (by Adam Gopnik) as "oily cartoon Muslims who live in the south, wear pointed shoes, and talk funny."

The Last Battle is probably the weakest of the series simply because it's overloaded with theological allegory in place of magic and adventure. Most of the last third (or so) of the book is Lewis wrapping up the series with thinly veiled religious explanations. Nonetheless, the first two-thirds are still quite effective, particularly as Lewis depicts the dreadful events of Narnia's conquest.

The Magician's Nephew is, by contrast, one of the best books in the group. Some of the scenes in this book stuck quite deep in my imagination when I first read them: the creation of Narnia, for example, and Digory's quest for the magic apple, and especially the children's visit to the dead city of Charn.

The overall spirit of this book is optimistic and loving, as befits a creation story; and Lewis gets some little details just right. (For example, when Aslan creates vegetation, the new grass spreads out from his feet as he walks. And the "toffee tree" in a later chapter is a charming idea, and nicely described.)

Reading it as an adult, I also had a much better conception of just how nasty and manipulative Digory's uncle was — as a child, I just took for granted that the main characters weren't going into mortal danger. But as an adult, and a parent, well —! To send children into another world, into who knows what danger! Unthinkable.

The series as a whole holds up pretty well, though I'm much more conscious of (and less patient with) the theological elements than I was as a child. It's nice to see how seriously Lewis took it, for example taking the trouble to make sure that the children's means of getting to Narnia are different in each book. And almost all of the books have elements that should excite the imagination of almost any reader: the rediscovery of the palace treasury in Prince Caspian, for example, or the entry into Narnia in Dawn Treader, or the underground world in The Silver Chair, or the dead city of Charn that I mentioned earlier. I'm glad I took the time to look at these books again.