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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

"Surprised by Joy" by C S Lewis

In the autobiography, the famous Christian writer explains how his upbringing led to his beliefs. As with all his work, it is written in an amazingly simple style and is full of wonderful insights. Furthermore it is surprisingly, sometimes shockingly, honest. Although his description of his 'loss of chastity' at an early age (thirteen?) does not make it clear whether he lost his virginity in a physical sense as opposed to a spiritual one (the details are sufficiently imprecise), the descriptions of life at his public school leave little room to doubt that homosexuality was widely practised (though not, he says, by him).

What emerges is a picture of an extraordinarily clever young man who is amazingly well-read. This picture accords with those given in the biographies I have read and reviewed in this blog:
C.S.Lewis: A biography by Roger Lancelyn Green and Walter Hooper
Jack: C.S.Lewis and his times by George Sayer

My brainy sister Jane who teaches English tells me that 'surprised by joy' is is the title of a poem by Wordsworth which deals with his guilt at feeling a moment of joy when mourning the death of his daughter. She says: "It is actually a very good sonnet, using rhythm particularly effectively."

The Joy referred to in the title of this autobiography is an experience of ecstasy or bliss, such as one might experience when walking in a beautiful landscape or hearing a beautiful piece of music or reading a beautiful poem. I have used the adjective beautiful three times; it seems to me that the Joy that Lewis describes is an essentially aesthetic experience which involves beauty. It isn't pleasure : “Joy is never in our power and pleasure often is.”He makes the point that it is not sexual desire or lust, that these are debasements, but it is an experience of desire. He seems to be talking about a religious, mystical experience of the transcendental. He has a moment of Joy on a walk. “It seemed to me that I have tasted heaven then. If only such a moment could return! But what I never realised was that it had returned - that the remembering of that walk was itself a new experience of just the same kind. True, it was desire, not possession. But then what I had felt on the walk had also been desire, and only possession in so far as that kind of desire is itself desirable. ... to have is to want and to want is to have.

He is pretty hard on his pre-conversion self. For example, he castigates himself for snobbery including chronological snobbery: “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find out why it went out of date. Was it refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? ... One passes to the realisation that our own age is also ‘a period’, and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those wide-spread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.”

He is withering about his schooling at what he calls Wyvern but is in fact Malvern College. He describes the fundamental structure with the sporting Bloods at the top and the endless jockeying for position. There was an acknowledged undercurrent of homosexuality. CSL is pretty relaxed about sex. As he says: “Cruelty is surely more evil than lust.
  • “A Tart is a pretty and effeminate-looking small boy who acts as a catamite to one or more of his seniors ,usually Bloods. Usually, not always. Although our oligarchy kept most of the amenities of life for themselves, they were, on this point, liberal; they did not impose chastity on the middle-class boy in addition to all his other disabilities. Pederasty among the lower classes was not ‘side’ or at least not serious side; not like putting one's hands in one's pockets or wearing one’s coat unbuttoned. The gods had a sense of proportion.”
  • “The Tarts had an important function to play in making school ... a preparation for public life. They were not like slaves, for their favours were (nearly always) solicited, not compelled. Nor were they exactly like prostitutes, for the liaison often had some permanence and, far from being merely sensual, was highly sentimentalised.”
  • “A boy goes to a Public School precisely to be made a normal, sensible boy - a good mixer - to be taken out of himself; and eccentricity is severely penalised.”
  • “The whole structure of Bloodery would collapse if the Bloods played in the spirit of play, for their recreation; there must be audience and limelight.”
  • “When oppression does not completely and permanently break the spirit, has it not a natural tendency to produce retaliatory pride and contempt? We reimburse ourselves for cuffs and toil by a double dose of self-esteem. No one is more likely to be arrogant that a slave.”
There is humour:
  • “My brother ... announced every morning with perfect truth that he had done five sums; he did not add that they were the same five every day.”
  • “How a small boy who can neither flirt nor drink should be expected to enjoy prancing about on a polished floor till the small hours of the morning, is beyond my conception.”
  • “It took me years to make the discovery that any real human intercourse could take place at a mixed assembly of people in their good clothes.”
  • “I am one of those on whom Nature has laid the doom that whatever they buy and whatever they wear they will always look as if they had come out of an old clothes shop.”
He also makes some brilliant observations:
  • "They had the talent for happiness in a high degree - went straight for it as experienced travellers go for the best seat in a train.”
  • “‘The trouble about insects is that they are like French locomotives - they have all the works on the outside’. The works - that is the trouble. Their angular limbs, their jerky movements, their dry, metallic noises, all suggest either machines that have come to life or life degenerating into mechanism.”
  • “There were books in the study, books in the drawing-room, books in the cloakroom, books (two deep) in the great bookcase on the landing, books in a bedroom, books piled as high as my shoulder in the cistern attic, books of all kinds reflecting every transient stage of my parents’ interests, books readable and unreadable, books suitable for a child and books most emphatically not.”
  • “The ugliest man alive is an angel of beauty compared with the loveliest of the dead.”
  • “Having once tasted life, we are subjected to the impulse of self-preservation. Life, in other words, is as habit-forming as cocaine.”
  • “Those who think that if adolescents were all provided with suitable mistresses we should soon hear no more of ‘immortal longings’ are certainly wrong.”
  • “The materialist’s universe had the enormous attraction that it offered you limited liabilities. No strictly infinite disaster could overtake you in it. Death ended all ... The horror of the Christian universe was that it had no door marked exit.”
  • “The sword glitters not because the swordsman sets out to make it glitter but because he is fighting for his life and therefore moving it very quickly.”
There is Joy in the elegance of the writing of CSL; in the way that he can pin a feeling with a metaphor or write a description that is so exactly spot on that you can re-experience what he is describing. There is Joy in the unfussy simplicity of his writing: it is like a street of Georgian houses; it is death to the baroque and the rococo. I might not accept his theology but he makes some pretty cogent philosophical points and I am ever charmed by his style.

Other books by this remarkable and prolific writer which are reviewed in this blog:

Of course he wrote the Narnia children's books as well.

February 2019; 190 pages

Other memoirs reviewed in this blog include (in order of how much I enjoyed them, favourites first):
  • Memoir of the Bobotes: by Joyce Cary: a brilliantly written memoir of the author's time as a medical officer during the Balkan Wars (pre World War I): the writer became a novelist and his craft shows; full of humour and keen observation
  • My Family and Other Animals (and the sequels) by Gerald Durrell: Beautiful descriptions and hilarious accounts of an eccentric family living on the Greek Island of Corfu between WWI and WWII
  • A Pattern of Islands by Arthur Grimble: a well-written, frequently humourous account of Pacific paradise
  • Bus Stop Symi by William Travis: the account of three years spent on the remote and at the time unspoilt Greek island of Symi: well-written, charming and amusing
  • Surprised by Joy by C S Lewis: an account of the famous author's life, mostly from the perspective of his Christianity: beautifully written
  • A Death in the Family by Karl-Ove Knausgard: the first volume of a series in which the author, in the guise of writing novels, portrays real people with real names: the writing is brilliant
  • Beautiful People by Simon Doonan: The story of a young gay man: well-written with moments of marvellous humour
  • Teacher Man by Frank McCourt: the third volume in the series that started with Angela's Ashes
  • The Politics of Washing: Real Life in Venice by Polly Coles: a reasonably well-written account of a year spent living in Venice
  • A Detail on the Burma Front by Winifred Beaumont: a nurse's story from one of the theatres of World War II: more compassion and humour: reasonably well-written
  • Whatever Happened to Margo: Margaret Durrell's account of running a boarding house in Bournemouth: sometimes muddled but often funny
  • Rabbit Stew and a Penny or Two by Maggie Smith-Bendell: an interesting and reasonably well-written account of a Romani Gypsy childhood
  • Not for the faint-hearted by John Stevens: the autobiography of a senior police officer; probably best for those most interested in this sort of story
  • Forty Years Catching Smugglers by Malcolm Nelson: the memoirs of a senior customs officer; probably best for those most interested in this sort of story

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