Thursday, August 8, 2013

English Literature in the Sixteenth Century by C.S. Lewis-- a Wonderful Book

I've been going through a tough time in the last few weeks (all prayers very welcome), but I have been taking some solace in the book I'm currently reading. As I mentioned in a previous post, I am working my way through The Faerie Queene, but I have taken a breather from that (and it's tough going) to read English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama, by C.S. Lewis. I actually picked it up to read the chapter about Edmund Spenser, but after that I found myself drawn to start back at the beginning and read through the whole thing.

It was C.S. Lewis himself who wrote, "You can't get a cup of tea big enough or a book long enough to suit me". It's a deliciously cosy quotation, and I wish it applied to me, but it doesn't-- apart from the tea part. (And even then, really good tea is a rarity, unless you make it yourself-- the tea in caf├ęs and pubs is barely tolerable.)

It's rare indeed for me to come across a book that I enjoy so much that I simply don't wish it to end. But English Literature in the Sixteenth Century is such a book. Even feeling its thickness in my hands is intensely satisfying, in the same way that we relish being surrounded by miles of open countryside as far as the eye can see.

The books I enjoy the most are all works of prose non-fiction. I do read poetry and fiction and drama, and I often enjoy them, but I only derive a glow of straighforward contentment from books where the author is addressing me directly-- and not obliquely, as is nearly always the case with a poet or a narrator. The feeling of distance in the latter case is too alienating. It's like listening to someone who never makes eye contact.

I sometimes feel guilty about this. I feel guilty especially for not having any appetite for novels or for short stories. The enchantment that works on other people is simply lost on me. I cannot get wrapped up in the story. Even the layout of a page of fiction makes me groan. It seems like a waste of paper, a waste of a book, a simulacrum of a book. It all seems as tiresome as those painful role-playing exercises in training courses.

I can't help feeling there's something unnatural about novels. Stories are magic, yes. There is something in every human heart that craves stories, that thrives on stories. But are novels really-- stories? What organic relation is there between a fireside tale and a four-hundred page novel full of subtle psychological observation, direct speech, and detailed description? How can something so flaccid and abstract be related to an actual anecdote-- which is always compressed, urgent (even at its longest), and which involves a teller, a listener and a setting? It does not seem to be the case that the novel is an elaborated or heightened version of the orally-told story-- it seems as though it is something entirely different, a Frankestein's monster of ink and paper. And, especially in more "literary" novels, with their preference for suggestion and obliqueness and unreliable narrators, I find myself getting frustrated. Why won't the writer just get to the point and tell me what this is all about? What kind of arrogance keeps a guest standing for so long?

I dearly love listening to people telling stories, especially their own stories. I love, for example, the show on the Catholic TV channel EWTN, The Journey Home. On this programme, one guest each episode talks for an hour about his or her conversion to the Catholic faith. The narrative here (or in any example of a person telling a story they know and care about) is always unforced, effortlessly artistic, and incomparably more vivid than (I think) the unreal narrative of a novel. A real-life narrator telling a real-life story will indeed dwell upon details, and often these are the most delicious part of the tale-- I remember one woman on the show described how she watched a bird flying outside her window, and compared it to a plane visible in the same sky, marvelling at the God-created beauty of the one and the comparative ugliness of the other. Such little vignettes or images are an almost universal features of real-life storytelling ("I can still see him sitting there with that look on his face..."). But in novels, we get detailed description of almost everything, no matter how insignificant. And the narrative plods painfully through its chronology, feeling obliged to give some kind of sense of time's passage, unlike a man telling a story in a pub, who will blithely and wisely skip over weeks and months and years in a moment, if the story requires it. Real stories have no filler. But novels are mostly filler.

My point about urgency should not be misunderstood. I absolutely don't mean terseness, or economy for its own sake, or sparseness. Think of somebody telling a story he passionately cares about. Will he be inclined to leave out a single detail that strikes him as important or interesting? Not at all. He may well embellish. He may well spin out the best parts. He will dwell lovingly on the parts that seem most interesting to him. He will digress. But he will certainly not spend minutes on end atmosphere-building, or scene-setting, or character-painting, or any of the other dreary stuff so beloved of novelists. He won't leave out any of that if it's really necessary-- "What you have to understand about my supervisor, he was the kind of guy who..."-- but it will be integrated into the tale.

(Please don't accuse me of being one of those grimly purposeful people who are only interested in finding out what happens next, or in discovering how the story ends-- somebody who doesn't understand the concept of a "grace note", as it is termed in music. A story told with the urgency I describe can be full of incidental details. I've often had the experience of hearing a story-- perhaps an old man's childhood memory, something that happened fifty or sixty years ago-- in which some incidental detail made such a strong impression on me that it's as though I had seen it myself. But such incidental details are only striking, only work, when they come naturally, and are used fairly sparingly-- certainly not the three or four pages of "colour writing" which the novelist exults in.)

Well, I don't expect anyone to agree with such a diatribe against the novelistic format, and really I am just being provocative and grumpy. I agree that there's no demonstrable reason why novels should be a kind of natural development of oral story-telling. And besides, I have the opinion of mankind against me. The most popular novels are those that are least like a fireside yarn. The novels on supermarket and airport racks are usually hundreds of pages long and revel in detailed description. I am perfectly happy to dismiss Booker Prize panels and English Literature professors, but I defer (without irony) to the readers of John Grisham and Celia Ahern books.

All the same, it is non-fiction which speaks to my own depths, especially non-fiction of an extended esssay type. And the more I read of C.S. Lewis, the more I admire him. His prose is balanced and judicious without ever being dull or impersonal. And (in the book I am discussing) he re-animates literary and religious and cultural debates that are centuries old, so that the reader finds himself caught up in them.

I had to pull out some of the plumbs of this pudding for my good readers. Here they are, pretty much at random:

"Modern paralells are always to some extent misleading. Yet, for a moment only, and to guard against worse misconceptions, it may be useful to compare the influence of Calvin on that age with the influence of Marx on our own; or even of Marx and Lenin in one, for Calvin had both expounded the new system in theory and set it going in practice. This will at least serve to eliminate the absurd idea that Elizabethan Calvinists were somehow grotesque, elderly people, standing outside the main forward current of life. In their own day they were, of course, the very latest thing...It was the creed of progressives, even of revolutionaries. It appealed strongly to those tempers that would have been Marxist in the nineteent-thirties. The fierce young don, the learned lady, the courtier with intellectual leanings, were likely to be Calvinists....Had the word "sentimentality" been known to them, Elizabethan Calvinists would certainly have used it of any who attacked [Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion] as morally repulsive."

"Your father, your grown-up brother, your admired elder schoolfellow all loved rhetoric. Therefore you loved it too. You adored sweet Tully and were as concerned about asyndeton and chiasmus as a modern schoolboy is about county cricketers or types of airplane. But against what seems to us this fantastic artificiality in their education we must set the fact that every boy, out of schoo, without noticing it, then acquired a range of knowledge such as no boy has today; farriery, forestry, archery, hawking, sowing, ditching, thatching, brewing, baking, weaving, and practical astronomy...They talked more readily than we about large universals such as death, change, fortune, friendship, or salvation; but also about pigs, loaves, boots and boasts. The mind darted more easily to and fro between that mental heaven and earth; the cloud of middle generalizations, hanging between the two, was then much smaller." [Note that Lewis, writing in 1954, spells "generalization" with a "z", which today gets one accused of perpetrating an Americanism. And Lewis, though actually Irish, was about as English and donnish as they came. I'm going to go on using my "z"s.)

"Dunbar and his contemporaries seriously believed that such entertainment awaited in the next world those who had practiced (without repentance) the seven deadly sins in this. They believed and (doubtless) trembled; yet they also laughed. The mixture of farce and terror would be incredible if we did not remember that boys joked most about flogging under Keate, and men joked most about the gallows under the old penal code. It is apparently when terrors are over that they become too terrible to laugh at; while they are regnant they are too terrible to be taken with unrelieved gravity. There is nothing funny about Hitler now."

"In the comic parts of Sir Thomas More's work we see [the satiric spirit of the late Middle Ages] transformed by a real genius for drollery. Skelton and Heywood are better representatives, though Skelton at his best is too good to be typical. It is a different thing from the Scotch ribaldry of the same period-- the work of heavier men, men who take a long time to get tired either of a moral platitude or a slap-stick joke. A steamy smell of large dinners seems to pervade it all; if worse smells sometimes intrude, that is part of the joke."

[On a translation of Froissart by Sir John Bourchier, Lord Berners]: "It is the sort of writing which, as W.P. Ker said, "is free from any anxiety or curiosity about rules of good taste because it had good taste to begin with." The tempation is to describe it negatively, to say that it is never clumsy, never affected, never strident, and thus to produce the very false impression that it must be like the style of Defoe. In reality it has none of Defoe's workday quality. Its smoothness resembles his as little as the smoothness of springy turf resembles that of a well-laden wooden floor. It is half-way to poetry; full of the author's relish for bright colours, his never-wearying admiration for noble deeds, and his spontaneous tenderness. It is, in one sense, like conversation; but like a conversation in which both tears and smiles may occur and in which there is no check on enthusiasm because it is taken for granted that we all understand one another and that no boorish persons are present."

I could go on and on. I have never read most of the authors Lewis discusses in this book, and I have never even heard of a great many of them, but that doesn't stop me from relishing the great man's prose.

I spent hours this bank holiday weekend reading this book in the Bagel Bar in the Omni Shopping Centre, Santry, drawing my cups of tea out as long as possible to save money, looking up every now and again into the foaming fountain at the centre of the mall. The sounds of life-- the fountain, voices of children and adults, piped music-- echoed in the air. How odd it is that we never seem so receptive to our surroundings as when we are immersed in a book.

One final thing. I can't help relating the fact that Lewis's style is so lucid, calm, humorous, trenchant, common-sensical and sane to the fact of his Christian faith. It seems to me a funny paradox that the most sane and balanced people in this world are often the very people who believe that a man in the ancient Middle East walked on water and came back from the dead. But I would contend that this is so. I think this is because Christians have a perspective upon the universe that makes sanity (and cheerfulness, and graciousness, and appropriate sobriety) possible. Christians believe that they stand above the current of the physical world and are not simply eddies within its stream; they can look at it with a certain irony and detachment. Christians believe that there is a purpose to existence and an artistic design to the universe. They can be serious, because they know life matters, and they can laugh, because they know evil is not the last word. One of the reasons I am a Christian is because, looking at human life from that vantage point, it seems to be a landscape and not a chaos.

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