10 November 2013

5-Minute Brown

I'm reviewing three new Lewis biographies for Sehnsucht: The C.S. Lewis Journal. Here are selections from my thoughts on the second of these. 

A Life Observed: A Spiritual Biography of C. S. Lewis by Devin Brown is sweet and engaging, yet also insightful and well researched. Its greatest strength, I believe, is that it approaches Lewis' life through the theme that Lewis himself claimed was the theme of his earthly existence: sehnsucht or “joy.” This means that the majority of the biography veers dangerously close to being just a paraphrase of Surprised by Joy, but manages to avoid that fate by bringing in passages from all of Lewis' works and setting them against SbJ

Indeed, this is as much a study of Joy in Lewis' life as it is a straight-forward biographical account, weaving together light literary analysis with the story of the life.

This analytical, thematic approach means that Brown sometimes departs from a chronological narrative, occasionally relating events out of order to emphasize their relationship to the story of Joy. Yet he always signposts these with clear markers (such as “but we are getting ahead of ourselves,” 4) to avoid confusing the reader.

The style is lovely: simple, clean, elegant, and inviting. The focus on Lewis' spiritual life, while not original, is valuable. Brown takes especial care in tracing the steps of Lewis' thought (on naturalism, for instance, or in the “moves” of the divine “chess game” that brought him to faith).

While this biography is, as I have said, lively, intelligent, and informative it suffers from two enormous omissions that may very well prove fatal: Mrs. Moore and Charles Williams are almost completely erased from this account.

Leaving Mrs. Moore and Charles Williams out of the story of Lewis' life is like leaving Queen Elizabeth I and Christopher Marlowe out of an account of Shakespeare's; they were probably the fifth and sixth most influential people he ever encountered—after Warnie, Tolkien, Barfield, and Joy Davidman. (Arthur Greeves may belong in that list, but he was arguably a man more influenced than influencing).

Mrs. Moore receives less than three full pages in Brown's work (104-6). Any intelligent reader of All My Road Before Me or the Collected Letters knows that the story is very complicated and sordid.

Charles Williams did more than any other person, after Barfield and Tolkien, to form Lewis' thoughts, books, and behavior. Their friendship was extremely important. They taught one another about new theological varieties of love. They each inspired the other to be a better writer, a better friend, and a better Christian. Lewis wrote in a letter right after Williams' death: “I also have become much acquainted with grief now through the death of my great friend Charles Williams, my friend of friends, the comforter of all our little set, the most angelic man.”

All this to say: Brown's negligence in treating Mrs. Moore and Charles Williams seriously lessens the value of his otherwise excellent book. This is still the one biography I would recommend to you!

No comments: