A review of “Letters To An American Lady,” by C.S.Lewis, Edited by Clyde S.Kilby

Before reading these letters I made the incorrect assumption that they were between C S Lewis and Joy Gresham, before he married her.

They are not.  They span the 13 years before his death (November 1963 on the same afternoon as the death of JFK) and are to a widow four years older than Lewis, Mary, “a southern aristocratic lady who loves to talk and speaks well.” This, together with the JFK link, I learnt in Clyde S.Kilby’s useful and concise Preface.  Mr Kilby, who edited the volume, puts the letters in context by summarising the key themes in Lewis’s theological thought that find their way into the letters, and highlighting the key events in Jack Lewis’s life that the letters cover.

In the course of these letters, Professor Lewis moved home and work from Oxford to Cambridge, met Joy, married her, and suffered her  loss, and became ill himself.  The letters become increasingly poignant as they chart Lewis’s decline, and end a few months before his death, with Lewis explaining he can only write letters that communicate “more of a wave of the hand.” 

The correspondence is one-sided.  Mary wished to remain anonymous.  But we gather that she was beset by problems at work, with unfair and jealous colleagues, with money and housing problems, and her poor health is a recurring theme.  Towards the end Jack jokes that between them it’s like a race to the grave.  Often, Lewis’s letters open with an “I am sorry to hear…” and you feel that Mary used the correspondence to offload and to seek to understand her suffering of various kinds.

Lewis addresses these themes of sufferings with many of the concepts of Christianity and ideas he describes in his other works; the sense of being refined by fire, of life being a disturbing dream before the true awakening (an idea repellent to many and not only of the humanist/atheistic creed), of the attempt at spiritual discipline being more important than the outcome, and more.  We can also find some of his other ideas on sins and virtue, of demonic interference, of man’s relationship to animals, and many others.

Lewis’s letters are brief and so these themes are often concisely and clearly expressed, and sometimes in a hesitant and testing way, as if he was thinking them through for the first time.  This, and together  with the minutiae of everyday domestic life and its joys and frustrations that the letters capture (cats, the weather, work and so on) the letters have a kind of warm ‘ordinariness’ around them.  There’s very little reference to politics and world events (a quoted reference to McCarthy as America’s Hitler stands out) but more on the societal and religious trends that Lewis finds antagonistic and disquieting, e.g.  the increase in liberal theology). 

The references to his marriage and Joy’s illness and subsequent death are poignant and powerful more for what they leave out.  There is no self-pity, no opening of the soul as “With the Grief Observed.”  Lewis is too mindful that he has his correspondent’s interests to attend to as well.  But we get a sense of the immense pain in the gaps and silences between the letters.

Jack Lewis, due to his fame as a writer and apologist for the faith, had many, many correspondents, and the Preface points out he felt duty bound to answer them all.  And so a common complaint in these letter is the amount of letters he has to address on a daily basis, and helps account for the brevity of the letters themselves.  But they are also testament to Lewis’s sense of service and duty to those who came to him looking for answers.  And it is testament to his power and skill as a thinker and writer that many still do.

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A review of “I Will Hold My Death Close,” by Stant Litore

The story of Jephta in Judges 11 is a problematic one.  Jephta the mighty warrior makes a vow before battle that he will sacrifice the first thing that crosses his path on his return home if victorious, probably thinking that this will be handy straying cattle.  He is victorious and alas, the first thing he sees on his return home is his daughter dancing out to meet him.  Not keeping his oath to God is unthinkable so she has to die, after a brief respite to wander the hills with her friends and bewail her virginity.  An over simplistic reading of the text seems to endorse the cruel and capricious God that some of the ‘new atheist’ movement like to cite (it gets a special mention in Richard Dawkins’s “The God Delusion”).  However, it misses the important fact that this action is not performed by God but by men.  And the text implies the vow is rash and foolish.  Also, some commentators argue that the Hebrew says that the young woman’s fate is not death but enforced chastity.

Considering the controversy is relevant when reading Stant Litore’s latest tale from the world of the Zombie Bible, which is loosely based on the tale, because he takes these tensions and runs with them.  The Zombie Bible uses the undead to magnify the malaise of spiritual famine or emptiness and the terrible conduct it can generate.  And Stant’s take on the tale is that the violent, predatory and devouring action of men towards women is as cruel and horrific as that of the flesh eating of the undead.  It’s a weakness that gets projected as a deity in its own right.  And so Jephta’s daughter, never in the original tale given the dignity of a name, finds herself ready to be sacrificed to it.  Stant contrasts this idea of God with one the daughter’s mother conjured up in songs and tales, a graceful sprit that runs like a deer beside the fleeing young woman.

The story begins with the daughter fleeing from the undead, forced to physically fight them occasionally in close hand to hand combat.  These scenes, early in the story and later, are visceral, immediate, and you can feel the claustrophobic terror of being smothered and overwhelmed, of losing the battle and failing to evade the snapping teeth, feeling the cold dead breath on your skin.  A scene where a ghoul is dispatched by hands sinking into its face “like hands kneading dough” is not one easily dismissed.  A later fight with an extremely desiccated corpse has the power to generate cold sweat.   The father appears to rescue her, but only so he can fulfil his terrible vow.  She is then bound by her father as he broods by firelight over the sacrificial knife.  As the daughter struggles to come to terms with her fate she confronts the father with the only weapon left to her, words.  The story then plays out with further attacks from the un-dead and further flight.  Will this young woman run to death at the hands of the zombies, at the hands of her father, by her own hands, or redemption?  I won’t stay, but the conclusion is satisfying, audacious, and no cop out.

This is a brilliantly crafted, passionate and intelligent piece of writing.

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A review of Olivia Laing’s “The Trip to Echo Spring”

“The Trip to Echo Springs” is part travelogue, part literary biography of 6 US writers with a central focus on their alcoholism.
Those writers are F.Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemmingway, Tennessee Williams, John Cheever, John Berryman and Raymond Carver. Olivia Laing tackles them in that order, although there is a lot of inter-crossing of their narratives around different themes, e.g. the effects of childhood trauma, and the roller-coasters of their work, love, marriage, the euphoric highs and catastrophic lows, and of course, their disastrous relationship with alcohol.
Laing draws no pat conclusions in looking at the above themes. Her central exploration is that of the relationship between alcohol and writing. Common themes include how these alcoholics both scapegoat their writing for their drinking, i.e. it leads them to places where they have to drink to get through, those intense arenas of the imagination. Another thread in all their writing lives is how drinking damages their productivity. More than one of them seems only to be able to write until midday before giving the rest of their waking hours to the bottle.
There a slight digression into the science of alcoholism and this is a fascinating short precis. Its brevity is partly explained on how little science knows on the subject, and partly because this is literary biography not scientific study.
Without a doubt, Laing captures how seductively these writers describe drinking, e.g. Hemmingway’s “lovely gin,” and she also captures it in her own descriptive passages, how John Cheever consoles himself early in the morning with “scoops of gin” from the kitchen fridge. She also brings out the parallels in these writers work between the cool reliefs of swimming, the cleansing of total immersion in fresh cold water, with a long cold drink.
But she also draws out well the horrors of the alcoholic’s mind and habits, most terribly the destructive effects on others, on partners, spouses, friends, children, anyone who gets between the drinker and the glass. It’s indeed a shock to read of Carver’s casual domestic abuse of his wife, of Tennessee Williams contemptible treatment of his loyal partner Frank ‘the horse,’ the vast sexual carelessness, the worthlessness and contempt with which others are treated. And the pitiable exhibitions they make of themselves. Think of John Berryman soiling himself at work, of public engagements and television interviews delivered in an incoherent stupor, of horrified friends yet again rescuing the manic drinker from some public and frenzied breakdown (an experience of more than one of the writers), and the sheer waste of it all. Laing is not slow to underscore the waste of life when a life is sold to drink, the wasted hours when more could have been written, the wasted opportunities in work and love. There is a romantic myth of how alcohol fuels magical writing. And it may cause or inspire the occasional hit, but how much more does it destroy?
Laing’s passport to writing on this subject is not her own alcoholism, but alcoholism in her family, in an alcoholic partner of her mother. The scenes where she describes being barricaded in her room as a girl against the howling rages of her mother’s partner are very sad. Not being an alcoholic herself lends her some objectivity, and does not strip her of any authority to discuss the subject, as some may argue. This work is structured around a journey, as Laing travels across America to various sites and shrines of these writers, to the New Orleans of Tennessee Williams, to the rivers and seas beloved by Hemingway, for example. She picks up minutiae of dialogue, of flashes of scenery from train windows, whilst the impressions of her journey and what she is studying tumble around in her head. These create bridges between her explorations of the writers. They are always relatively brief but I did find myself being mildly frustrated by them, wanting to return to the writers’ lives. That’s because Laing’s journey is not as fascinating as the writers she describes, although it does give the book its distinctive shape.
Finally, this is great ‘gateway’ reading. I felt urged to revisit play and novels I knew, and those mentioned and described that I didn’t, including Berryman’s work and his semi-auto-biographical and poignantly and tragically unfinished “Recovery.”
This is a great, memorable read on the magic of writing and the seductive but toxic power of alcohol.