Friday, January 20, 2006

Good literary stuff

(no subscription required!) in the latest New York Review of Books, including an interesting essay by Alison Lurie called The Passion of C.S. Lewis:

It is no surprise that conservative Christians admire these books. They teach us to accept authority; to love and follow our leaders instinctively, as the children in the Narnia books love and follow Aslan. By implication, they suggest that we should and will admire and fear and obey whatever impressive-looking and powerful male authority figures we come in contact with. They also suggest that without the help of Aslan (that is, of such powerful figures, or their representatives on earth) we are bound to fail. Alone, we are weak and ignorant and helpless. Individual initiative is limited-almost everything has already been planned out for us in advance, and we cannot know anything or achieve anything without the help of God.

This is, of course, the kind of mindset that evangelical churches prefer and cultivate: the kind that makes people vote against their own economic and social interests, that makes successful, attractive, and apparently intelligent young men and women want to become the apprentices of Donald Trump, or of much worse rich and powerful figures. This mindset could even be called deluded, since in this world a giant lion does not usually appear to see that the right side wins and all the good people are happy. In Narnia faith in Aslan, who comes among his followers and speaks to them, may make sense: but here on earth, as the classic folk tales have told us for generations, it is better to depend on your own courage and wit and skill, and the good advice of less than omnipotent beings.

(Whatever you might say about the bad politics of the Chronicles of Narnia, though, they are among my most-loved childhood books; I read through the whole sequence again and again, with different favorites at different ages.)

Also, and even better, John Leonard writing wittily on Rick Moody (I've never read one of Moody's books; am slightly horrified to see that this one's 567pp., seems too long; more appealingly, though, it has a werewolf subplot... mmmm.... shapeshifting suburban housewives, sounds much more like my kind of novel...). The whole essay seems to me perceptive and fair, and it includes this particularly appealing paragraph:

We bargain in good faith, those of us who will read anything, hoping at least to complicate ourselves, at most to save our souls. Because Rick Moody from the beginning has been so playful, prodigal, spendthrift, heedless, and frisky, because he trampolines and pogosticks all over the map in our heads, because he throws such an excess of colors, textures, ideas, smells, and smarts at us, whether we're ready or not, because he's a deep reader with a second-story touch, a bookworm on a skateboard, we put up with a lot and forgive even more. This doesn't seem to me to be such a big deal—and at any rate, it's the same one we've made with pop culture. In return for vitality, spontaneity, and the occasional hot flash, we pretend not to notice what's skin-deep, addlepated, nasty, brutish, and short.

And this:

So he isn't yet up there with Richard Powers, Mary Gordon, or Kathryn Davis. Neither am I. Neither are you. Why is everybody saying all these terrible things about him?

And useful reflections on why we love to hate McSweeney's et al., and why that's just (or is it?) the inevitable resentment. This paragraph's stylish & pretty irresistible:

But some of the resentment was obviously social and provincial—a clenching of fists and a stamping of feet at the very idea of Rick Moody and his cool-dude buddies, young white male writers from whom books seem to fall like peaches from a tree. ("I am Envy. I cannot reade, and therefore wish all bookes were burnt. I am leane with seeing others eate," Marlowe explained in Dr. Faustus.) Never mind that cohorts of scribblers have always herded together like zebras on the African veldt, the better to dodge the great white hunters and hyenas; that, for mating purposes, protective cover, style tips, and stuff to write about, Lost Generations, Partisan Reviewers, angel-headed hipsters, and ninja hacker cyberpunks have bundled with and blurbed one another. Surely it's better that these cohorts should gather, like Rick and the Jonathans, in arboretums like McSweeney's, than fester in Brat Pack Manhattan nests like Nell's.

Seriously, this one's a must-read for the literary types.

All right, enough NYRB pasting, back to Boswell!


  1. The Narnia books were my absolute favourites as a child too (we didn't have Harry Potter then of course).
    I agree Aslan is a parent-authority figure, as is common in children's literature -- almost all such stories end up with some adult "sorting it all out" at the end (as does a lot of adult fiction!). I don't think that Narnia stories are unique in this regard.
    When I was a child, the religious aspects of Narnia completely passed me by. What I was fascinated by was the sense of "how it all came together", the logical construction of the worlds, and the playing with time. I can still remember the sense of excitement I felt when I read "The Magician's Nephew" quite late on in the series, and put it all together. Based on my own experience, I can only say that children are very good at filtering out what they don't want to absorb. When I read the stories to my own children I was quite taken aback by the religious aspects, having failed totally to take them on board as a child I had not realised they were there. (A similar realisation occurred in reading "What Katy Did", in that it is full of sermons!)
    As for the Donald Trump analogy, daft. Children, and adults, choose their role models. Some may choose Donald Trump (hard for me to imagine) but what has that got to do with Narnia? You might just as easily have chosen Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Marie Curie, Bobby Kennedy, Albert Einstein, Emiline Pankhurst, or almost any prominent "principled" role-model, on the basis of reading Narnia books.

  2. I loved "What Katy Did" too; read it again and again; even at the time realizing that it is EXCEPTIONALLY moralizing! I must get hold of a copy and see what I think now....

  3. I'd never thought of the Narnia books in such a negative way. Perhaps I just accept the dominant figure too easily. The part I love? That not everyone who follows Aslan has to live the same way or be the same.
    Read "Till We Have Faces" to see a different side of Lewis.

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.