I’ve always been fascinated by literary relationships. This one is among the more intriguing!
Upon reflection it seems a very gracious decision for The Classics Club to allow me to include my 55 list among the ranks. This book in particular is, beyond any stretch of the imagination, definitely not a classic. There is simply no way to spin it as such. It is the diary of a mostly obscure man who was the brother of a famous author. It is really a very great read, but it is more a specialty reading for certain enthusiasts.
Warren Lewis and his brother “Jack” (C.S. Lewis lifelong nickname) were inseparably close. They purchased a house together when they were in their 30’s and spent the rest of their lives under the same roof. While Jack was undoubtedly a devoted brother, it seems that Warren was far more attached to Jack as the only person he really felt he had maintained a deep connection with throughout his life.
The book is broken into 3 oddly-timed, untitled sections, but I would break it into 4 chapters based on the various lifestyles and tones portrayed in seasons.
Early Adulthood – Warren stayed in the army after WWI as a career soldier. He did not enjoy army life but felt it would be an easy way to retire as an early pensioner, which he did before his 38th birthday. The first section of the book covers his tours of duty in China, weekend visits to the home called the Kilns which he was already jointly purchasing with Jack and the old Mrs. Moore (Minto, as they called her, was the mother of Jack’s dead WWI brother-in-arms, Paddy Moore) in Oxford, and general army life.
Pre-WWII Retirement – From the end of 1932 to the start of World War II probably marked the highlight of W.H. Lewis’ lifetime. He had retired young, moved into the Kilns with Jack, was able to start taking annual “walking tours” with his brother, and was not yet plagued by alcoholic tendencies. He found delightful ways to keep himself busy both at home in Oxford and in frequent and long holidays. He owned a river boat, which he lived on for seasons at a time. At this time all his earlier plans had come together.
Post WWII – Lewis was called back to duty during the Second World War. He did not see combat but was promoted to the rank of Major. He stopped writing in his journal for the majority of the war and there are a number of subtle differences in the way he writes afterward. He frequently makes discouraged remarks about food rationing, destruction, and rebuilding efforts. He begins to really loath the housing situation at the Kilns. While he expresses constant dissatisfaction about his and Jack’s home life with Minto, the group of friends known as the Inklings really flourishes in this era. In these days he begins to have a very serious and sometimes de-habilitating alcohol problem.
Post Minto – The brothers lived with Mrs. Moore for nearly 40 years and while everyone else seemed to universally acknowledge that she was a singularly unfair sapping and discomforting force in Jack’s life, he seems never to have complained or swayed in his devotion. They endured domestic horrors that taught Warren to stay away for months at a time. By the time she passed the brothers were getting to be old men themselves and the post-Minto years are marked by C.S. Lewis’ short and painful marriage to Joy Gresham Lewis and by general decay. This section is defined by the sicknesses and deaths of many friends and eventually Jack himself, whom Warren feared outliving his entire life. He lives beyond his younger brother by nearly a decade, and his loneliness without him is highlighted by his entries about technological modernizations, spiritual shortcomings, and thoughts on his own weakening and coming death.
I would really highly recommend this book to a few certain groups of people.
The title itself is misleading because huge portions of the entries have nothing to do with Jack Lewis. It is much more of an honest insight into the mind of his brother regarding all aspects of his own life. That being said, it is still one of the best texts I have read for intimate thoughts on C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Inklings in general. Any scholar can write a thousand pages on a man’s life and a group’s dynamics, but to have one from among them providing a small collection of situational anicdotes and circumstantial ponderings on the men themselves is far more revealing as to their personalities. Anyone who enjoys their works will probably find this a worthy endeavor.
I would also recommend this book to fiction lovers, war history buffs and Anglophiles. The book is full throughout of W.H. Lewis’ thoughts and mini-reviews of the books he was reading (constantly and voraciously) and descriptions of wonderful places he has been visiting in China, both U.S. coasts, Scotland, England, Ireland, and his own back garden. The man loved books (reading and re-reading everything from Homer and Wordsworth to Dorothy Sayers), walking, and the seaside, and his descriptions of landscapes in both wonderful and rough weather can be quite poetic. As I mentioned before, his general attitudes and thoughts here and there give the reader a very interesting and unique insight into the life of a middle class, British man whose adulthood was forged by WWI and rocked to its core by WWII. These things obviously are peripheral, but they are some of the most consistent material throughout.
Overall, this book does provide a thoroughly unexplored side of C.S. Lewis’ life, but, to a greater extent, it displays the admirably honest reflections of a man growing, sometimes poorly, in a world in total upheaval. It ends in gradual and extensive loneliness and decay, perhaps not easy reading for the faint-of-heart.
I have summarized a couple of the most fascinating entries here:
Edward George Bulwer-Lytton is a name with which you are probably unfamiliar but one that has influenced culture for almost 200 years. Bulwer-Lytton was a British politician and extremely popular novelist in the mid-1800’s who coined phrases like “pursuit of the almighty dollar” and “the pen is mightier than the sword.” He also started his novel Paul Clifford with the now famous line “It was a dark and stormy night.”
Here’s what you probably don’t know. The sentence does not end there but, instead of a period, we find a semi-colon and first sentence of the novel actually reads
“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”
It is thanks to this excessively wordy and slightly ridiculous sentence that we have The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. This competition for hilarious and wordy one-liners might have come to be without him, but Bulwer-Lytton definitely earned the namesake.
The concept of the contest is relatively simple. Anyone can submit as many ridiclous and wordy first sentences to unwritten novels as they like and once a year general and genre-specific winners are chosen. You can go to their website and browse through all the previous winners and honorable mentions.
For some reason the absurdity of it all reminds me of P.G. Wodehouse. A great portion of his appeal comes from his construction of deliciously faulty sentences. Anyway, I’m eager to take a crack at it and I think I will begin posting these here under the title of Horrible Starts. Here’s my first! Feel free to share your thoughts or comment with your own monstrous sentence creations!
“Perhaps the house at 2837 North Sutton Road might have appeared quaint and cozy had it stood alone upon a breezy hillside or next to a babbling stream in a glen somewhere; instead, it stood uncomfortably between the new gated community and the squalid and infested complex, like the single bowed and rotting plank one descends when stepping down from heaven into hell.”
Have you ever seen Wild Strawberries? Ingmar Bergman spins a simple tale of an elderly Isak Borg taking a trip and looking back on his life, but its a story that continued to show me things about my own nature for weeks after my first viewing.
Bergman’s writing and film-making is subtle to the point of near-boredom and thus very open for interpretation, but Isak Borg is, I believe, a Scrooge archetype. He is an elderly widower, a well-respected scientist whose life’s work is to be recognized through an award ceremony far away. He travels to the ceremony by car with his daughter-in-law and along the way a series of location-based memories, daydreams, and encounters with other travelers provide him with a chance to contemplate his life and who he has become. He is not a cruel or evil man, but an intelligent and honest optimist whose life experiences have taught him that safety comes in callousness and pessimism. He remembers the young fiancé who left him for his less honorable, rouge brother. He meets innocent youths still eager to debate about God, science, and philosophy. He remembers finding that his wife cheated on him and realizing it had little effect on him because there was no real capacity for love in the relationship. He meets a violently destructive middle-aged couple who are full of animosity and lies. All along, he is thinking, pondering this life he has had.
I was left pondering by the end of the film. The next day I was nearly in shock as I realize its prophetic nature in my own life. I am Isak Borg. I have the capacity to be wondrously captivated by beauty, by people, by optimistic ideals. I make myself available to all kinds of people. I’m eager to be available. And I’m often hurt. I’m let down. My soaring Icarus expectations burn up and come crashing down. I expect to see good and I find evil. So what happens? I become a little less optimistic, a little more critical, a bit more cynical. And, if I’m not careful, I stop paying attention at all and I end up an elderly, wasted Isak Borg.
You hear about this every day. Jaded social workers and burnt out pastors. Angry scientists and self-destructive artists. They all hold something in common. They have all been eaten away slowly by family, friends, lovers, religion, and society at large. Most of them start out striving for something beautiful, for reconciliation, for truth, and for community. Like waves upon breakers, their hope is slowly diluted down, washed away from them.
This is Isak Borg. The young man who wants to care selflessly for others. The man whose kindness is constantly taken at advantage. The man who learns not to feel it anymore. The elder who looks back and realizes it all flew by without his feeling it.
Spoiler alert. Isak Borg changes. He cares no more for his science award. He does care for the young people he has met, and the housemaid he’s taken for granted, and the hopeful scraps of what family he has left, a small time to rebuild in his last days. He still has time to change.
I can only hope that knowing this horrifying alternative is a sufficient start at steering clear of such a future.
Basically, you should definitely watch Wild Strawberries.
Long before The Lord Of The Rings reached publication it was read aloud, chapter by chapter as completed, to Tolkien and Lewis’ little band of creatives, the Inklings. A group of mainly scholars and professors from the Oxford area, the Inklings met on Tuesday mornings and Thursday nights for a pint of beer or cider, a good debate over whatever subjects came to minds, and often a reading of someone’s poem, essay, or story. It was to this group that Tolkien, or more often his son and fellow Inkling Christopher, first read what was then referred to simply as “The new Hobbit”.
Here is the diary entry of Major Warren H. Lewis following his reading of the completed manuscript.
Saturday November 12th, 1949
“I have just finished the MS. [of Tolkien’s] sequel to The Hobbit, Lord Of The Rings. Golly, what a book! The inexhaustible fertility of the man’s imagination amazes me. It is a long book, consisting very largely in journeys: yet these never flag for an instant, each is as fresh as the one before, new colors available in profusion, whether the journey be beautiful or terrible. Some of the scenes of horror are unsurpassed, and there is wonderful skill in the way which the ultimate horror–the Dark Lord of Mordor–is ever present in one’s mind, though we never meet him, and know next to nothing about him. The beauty of Lothlorien, and the slightly sinister charm of Fangorn are unforgettable. Frodo’s squire, Sam Gamgee and the dwarf Gimli are I think the two best characters. What is rare in a story of this type, is that there is real pathos in it; the relationship between Sam and Frodo in the final stages of their journey moved me greatly. How the public will take the book I can’t imagine; I should think T will be wise to prepare himself for a good deal of misunderstanding, and many crits. on the line that ‘this political satire would gain greatly by compression and the excision of such irrelevant episodes as the journey to Lothlorien’. Indeed, by accident, a great deal of it can be read topically–the Shire standing for England, Rohan for France, Gondor the Germany of the future, Sauron for Stalin: and Saruman in the ‘Scouring of the Shire’ for our egregious Mr. Silkin, the town planner (and destroyer)! But a great book of its kind, and in my opinion ahead of anything Eddison* did.”
*Referring to E.R. Eddison, author of The Worm Of Ouroboros(1922), a similar mythological work. Eddison met Tolkien and Lewis before his death in 1945.
My new picture book, Wandlung, has hit the market and is now available in soft cover online and in hardback from me directly. It’s an adventurous tale of a young boy who sets out on a journey to protect his magically transformed best friend.
That’s right! You can sign up to win a free, signed copy of Wandlung at WhatMyKidsRead! Hurry on over and remember, whether you love or hate the story, let me know your thoughts!
One of the biggest gut-wrenching questions asked by the world in the aftermath of World War II was simply,
“How much did the German people know?”
Perhaps the most natural question one asks when confronted with human atrocity on such a scale is simply “How?” How can the people of German claim to have no knowledge of genocide in their backyards, committed by their relatives and neighbors?
It’s telling then, to say the least, to read this entry from the diary of Major Warren H. Lewis, brother of C.S. Lewis, and to recognize the date of the entry and the thoroughly eery foreboding it carries in hindsight. It also begs the heavy question, if an English visitor was able to get this clear a picture this early in history, how could the residents claim to not know anything after things got so much worse?
Saturday 17th November, 1934
“J’s friend and former pupil Pirie Gordon came to tea this afternoon: he is just back from Germany, and talked interestingly about his experiences there. He told us–on authority of the Times correspondent–that in a concentration camp near Munich (?) 40 persons have dies by torture since the camp opened, and 150 of ‘natural’ causes. He notices a distinct falling off in the Nazi enthusiasm, as contrasted with his previous visit in the summer, but admits that in the summer he mixed chiefly with students, and this time with the middle aged. The Term still continues, and people are constantly being arrested and vanishing. He doubts if Hitler is fully aware of the cruelties which are being practiced in his name. A Herr Himmler is head of the Ogpu or whatever it is called, and is the most sinister figure in Germany. There appear to be rumors that Hitler is mentally deranged: it is common knowledge that Goering was in a private lunatic asylum at the time of the Nazi coup–his insanity being caused by excessive drug taking.”
The Railway Children is a book I was unfamilar with when I added it to my 55 List, but so many people mentioned how they enjoyed it that I decided to bump it up to get started on right away. I have only scratched the surface but I have not been dissapointed. Right off the bat the whimsical, amusing-adults-while-engaging-children tone reminded me of A.A. Milne and the extreme swing from charmed living to tragic squalor reminds me of Lemony Snicket. I know I will love the rest of this one.
One sure sign of true whimsy is a work that inplies and includes a great deal of writing of songs and reciting of poems. The point is never that they be wonderful (although they sometimes are) but that they give a creative outlet to the characters and show us that the characters themselves are strong enough to respond to hardship and wonder with creativity. Here is a great poem that the Mother writes and recites in the first chapter of said book. Her 10 yr. old son has been devestated to the point of sickness by the explosion of his favorite new toy engine.
There are many obvious reasons to love J.R.R. Tolkien. As the years go on his son Christopher Tolkien, who is now quite an old man himself, continues to publish the nearly completed works to which his father was devoted. Just when we assume that everything great has been revealed, the author who has been dead for half a century is revealed to have written another riveting tale to add to his impressive cannon.
Aside from his fiction work, however, I am brought back time and again to the philosophical moorings upon which the author founded all of his creative thinking. His essay “On Fairy Stories” is, in my opinion, a breakthrough and little-rivaled treatment of the nature of inspiration and the mystical and supremely natural traits inherent in human creativity.
Apart from this (or perhaps as a part of this), there is one other area of thought that constantly brings me back to considering Tolkien’s creative works, thoughts on creativity, and thoughts on life in general. He was obsessed with everything being layered upon a recognition of death. Death surrounds us. Death defines our lives. Around 1951, Tolkien wrote a 10,000 letter to Milton Waldman of Collins Pub. in hopes of convincing them to include The Silmarillion in their decision to print The Lord Of The Rings. In the midst of explaining the value he sees in what really was his entire life’s work, he makes this clarifying statement
“In the cosmogony there is a fall: a fall of Angels we should say. Though quite different in form, of course, to that of Christian myth. These tales are ‘new’, they are not directly derived from other myths and legends, but they must inevitably contain a large measure of ancient wide-spread motives or elements. After all, I believe that legends and myths are largely made of ‘truth’, and indeed present aspects of it that can only be received in this mode; and long ago certain truths and modes of this kind were discovered and must always reappear. There cannot be any ‘story’ without a fall – all stories are ultimately about the fall – at least not for human minds as we know them and have them.”
Tolkien always returns to contemplate the extremes of falleness against sheer natural beauty, death against the irripressable joy of living. In Tolkien’s work many find that the escape of the good story actually leaves them ready to enjoy their own life more fully rather than longing for a different world. I think Tolkien’s tragic personal history and the closeness of death throughout his formative years built a resilience and awareness in him that ultimately directed his creations and provided that almost indescibable beauty and familiarity which captures his readers.
Tolkien does himself and his work justice when he summarizes his work with a Simone de Beauvoire quote on the mysteries of dying and living.
Recently, I self-published my first book. It is a picture book called Wandlung, and is itself unique in that it is the only idea I have ever had for a picture book. I am writing mostly short stories (some found on this blog under “Fiction“), children’s chapter books, and a fantasy/mythology epic. Wandlung is also unique because it is the only thing I have published this far (using the word “published” generously considering I published it myself with the help of my wonderful Kickstarter supporters!).
Yesterday Jen at WhatMyKidsRead.com did the first review of the book and I couldn’t be more pleased with her critique! Her family’s reviews are really helpful if you’re looking for books for a variety of ages as all of her kids provide their own input along with her perspectives on each title. For Wandlung, she gives a more detailed synopses of the story than I have yet done and goes into each of her family member’s thoughts about the story and illustrations. There is even a video review with Liam, the articulate eldest!
Part of Jen’s review that I really appreciated was something I am expecting to hear often. She reports that her kids liked the story a lot more than she did. She doesn’t prefer the premises upon which the story is founded and the story ending. Jen has wonderful taste in books, so if I wasn’t expecting many adults to respond this way I might have been devastated. But I’m glad about it, because I think out-of-the-ordinary picture books like this one actually teach us something about our children.
I may have said it before, but I’m a bit of a subversive at heart and a large part of what drew me to this story was the fact that the plot is probably more challenging to adults than to children. Wandlung challenges a lot of our modern preconceptions about stories that are good for children.
Kids have a knack for grasping concepts we don’t give them credit for understanding (which can be a good or bad thing in different circumstances) and they can often hear of a hardship befalling a character without flinching. Kids do not require a happy ending. What’s more, I believe that they should continue to cultivate this attitude toward stories and toward life. We learn to be disappointed when we refuse to accept anything other than our preconceptions of a “happy ending.” Kids start out with far fewer expectations than adults.
Anyway, I hope you will take the opportunity to check out the back story posted on the Wandlung page as well as the story itself. I am a much harsher critic of my own mind and I continue to think that this one warrants merit. If you think I’m crazy, please let me know!