Review: C S Lewis: A Life – Alister McGrath

lewisWhen I first saw this book, C. S. Lewis: a Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet I wondered why anyone would want to write another biography of C S Lewis.  After all, George Sayer, A N Wilson, Roger Lancelyn Green, Walter Hooper have all published biographies of Lewis.  Most Lewis fans will also be familiar with William Nicholson’s excellent biographical screenplay Shadowlands which has been produced on both stage and screen.

However, the highly qualified Alister McGrath (Professor of Theology and Ministry Kings College London and Senior Research Fellow at Oxford University) explains in the preface to his book, the huge significance of the publication of the collected letters of C S Lewis during 2000-2006 which has added 3,500 pages of source material to our knowledge of Lewis and provides a “continuous narrative backbone for an account of Lewis’s life” which was not available to earlier biographers.

I am now very pleased that I have read McGrath’s book for three reasons.  Firstly, it reminded me of how important Lewis has become as a writer and thinker. Secondly, it definitely draws out some elements of Lewis’s life which I hadn’t fully understood before.  Thirdly, it is a very readable biography, not over-long, nor too scholarly and full of interest throughout.

Earlier biographers were reluctant to cover some of the darker sides to Lewis’s character.  McGrath’s new biography does not flinch from some of the more controversial sides to Lewis, such as his relationship (probably an “affair”) with a Mrs Moore which started when Mrs Moore’s son Paddy, a close friend of Lewis was killed in the First World War.  Lewis had managed to serve in the same regiment as his best friend but was soon hospitalised with trench fever and later wounded by shrapnel, returning to Britain, while Paddy was lost in action.  An intimate relationship soon developed between Lewis and Paddy’s mother and there is now a consensus among scholars that Lewis and Paddy’s mother continued as lovers for many years.

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Review: The Hare with Amber Eyes – Edmund de Waal

Edmund de Waal is a renowned ceramic artist who’s work has been exhibited in Tate Britain and the Victoria and Albert Museum.  He can trace his ancestry back to a wealthy Ukrainian family who made their fortune from grain exporting and later banking, and who had spacious and luxurious homes in Vienna, Tokyo and Paris.  When Edmund inherited a collection of 264 tiny Japanese netsuke carvings from his Uncle Ignace, he felt prompted to investigate their place in the family history.  The Hare With Amber Eyes is the result.

The book opens with De Waal studying in Tokyo in 1991 while on a two year scholarship, visiting his Uncle Iggie (Ignace) in his home in Tokyo, which he shares with Jiro, his partner of 41 years.  Ignace has a wonderful collection of netsuke which has been in the family since the late 19th century.  Three years later, Uncle Iggie dies, and Jiro writes and signs a document bequeathing the netsuke to Edmund once Jiro himself has gone.

When Edmund eventually owns the netsuke he finds himself greatly intrigued by the history of this remarkable collection, and realises that all he really knows are a few anecdotes, which become thinner in the telling.  The only answer is to carry out a proper investigation into their story –

How objects are handed on is all about story-telling. I am giving you this because I love you. Or because it was given to me.  Because I bought it somewhere special. Because you will care for it.  Because it will complicate your life.  Because it will make someone else envious.  There is no easy story in legacy.  What is remembered and what is forgotten?  There can be a chain of forgetting, the rubbing away of previous ownership as much as the slow accretion of stories.  What is being passed on to me with all these small Japanese objects?

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Review: Life as a Literary Device – Vitali Vitaliev

British readers may remember Vitali Vitaliev from his time as Moscow correspondent on David Frost’s 1990s television programme, Saturday Night Clive, and many broadcasts on BBC Radio 4. Vitali was born in the Ukraine, eventually defecting to the West, living in Britain and Australia, and eventually returning to London where he is a successful journalist and writer.

Life as A Literary Device, is partly biographical, partly reportage, and partly miscellaneous musing on life.  The book consists of  “seemingly disjointed snippets of real life, they connect by association alone – the random pieces of coloured glass that from themselves into a pattern if viewed through that wonderful children’s toy, the kaleidoscope”.

Early in the book he writes of being influenced by the Russian writer Valentin Kataev, the founder of a literary style which he called “mauvism” – “a literary device consisting of the complete negation of all literary devices”.  The term mauvism comes from the French word “mauvais” meaning “bad”, and as Kataev himself wrote, “I am the founder of the latest literary school, the mauvistes,  the essence of which is that since everyone nowadays writes very well, you must write badly, as badly as possible, then you will attract attention”.

I am pleased to say that Vitaliev does not write badly – far from it in fact, but he has certainly held to the principle of mauvism in writing a book for the Internet age where  “one website routinely carries links to many others.  You open a link in a story that you are reading and it takes you away to another story loosely connected to the first one yet years and/or miles away from it;  you then close the link and return to the story you were reading in the first place”.

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Review: The World of Yesterday – Stefan Zweig

Even since reading Stefan Zweig’s remarkable description of psychological co-dependency in his novel, Beware of Pity, I’ve tried to read every thing I can get my hands on by this fine writer.  In recent years, a minor publishing industry has developed around Zweig, with Pushkin Press leading the way with quite a few volumes of short stories and even an uncompleted novel, The Post Office Girl which I reviewed here.

The World of Yesterday is the final book Zweig handed to his publisher before he and his wife committed suicide in 1942, despairing at the destruction of European culture resulting from by the rise of fascism.  Having a bit of a completist tendency with my favourite authors, it was hard to resist another book by Zweig, particularly one which is both autobiography and memoir, describing literary Vienna’s golden age, and its sad decline through the first half of the 20th century.

Let me say at the start of this review, that despite the adulatory reception this volume had when published by Pushkin Press last year, I found it a very difficult book to read.  This is not conventional autobiography in the sense of describing the relationships and events which formed the subject’s life.  It is really a cultural history, in which philosophical development (and decline) is given greater prominence than the life described.  I found it to be a heavy read, with page after page of solid text unrelieved by any touch of human drama or even humour to lighten it.   When I look at the appreciative reviews elsewhere I feel rather embarrassed to report that I didn’t actually enjoy this book.  I found it not at all difficult to see this book in the context of Zweigs imminent suicide, for it has an air of gloom and failure about it which, while not detracting from its value to those with an interest in the era, on the whole makes it an unhappy and depressing read.

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Review: How to Live, A Life of Montaigne – Sarah Bakewell

Like many people, I occasionally flirt with philosophy, but usually find it too abstract and inaccessible – unless of course it is set in the context of a life well-lived (or perhaps not so well!), when the personal story of the philosopher helps his teachings come alive.  For this reasons, I enjoyed reading the books of Alain de Botton such as his Consolations of Philosophy, which manages to extract the main thrust of the great philosophers and apply it to modern problems and complexities.

Sarah Bakewell has provided me with another highly accessible book of wisdom in How to Live – A life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer.  The added value of her book is that she has extracted the core of Montaigne’s thought but set it in the context of a very readable biography, containing not just the story of his life, but also the historical context in which he lived.

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533-1592) had a successful career as a Counselor in the Bordeaux Parliament and in recognition of his services was awarded the highest honour of the French nobility.  However, he tired of public life and at the age of 38 retired to his Chateau to live a life of solitude among the 1500 books in his library, where he began work on his Essays.

Sarah Bakewell has somehow taken the 16th century material of the Essays and has distilled them into a very readable book for the 21st century.  Understanding that few people have the time to wander through the 1000 page original, she had summarised Montaignes messages in 20 chapters, with titles such as:

  • How to Live – Read a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow witted,
  • How to Live – Survive love and loss
  • How to Live – Wake from the sleep of habit
  • How to Live – Reflect on everything, regret nothing.

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Review – The Silences of Hammerstein: Hans Magnus Enzensburger

Most readers in Britain are so well-supplied by books in their own language that they rarely venture into reading books in translation and therefore miss out on the best literature of other European nations. About a third of titles reviewed on A Common Reader are European books in translation and I am pleased to add The Silences of Hammerstein to this number.

Hans Magnus Enzensburger is considered to be Germany’s most important modern poet and is a highly regarded publisher and essayist. But he is little known in Britain, or presumably other English speaking nations.

His book, The Silences of Hammerstein is difficult to categorise, being in parts biographical, fictional and critical. One of its features is the way Enzensburger intersperses his narrative with imagined conversations with the main characters in his book in which he asks them pertinent questions and records the answers he thinks they would give. The book ranges far and wide, and reminds me a little of W G Sebald’s books in the way photographs are insterspersed among the pages, providing enigmatic insights into the narrative.

The Silences of Hammerstein, chronicles the life of a German General and his family as they lived their lives through the 1930s and 40s largely while being largely opposed to the rise of Nazism. Continue reading