Thursday, May 14, 2009
Davis, Jordan. "Into the Wardrobe: C. S. Lewis's NARNIA." THE NATION May 25, 2009.
Miller, Laura. The Magician's Book: a Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia. Boston: Little, Brown, 2008. In his criticism and the Narnia books, Lewis puts a premium on lush physical description, going beyond sight and sound to emphasize smell, taste and touch whenever possible. And he has the knack for what Soviet critic Viktor Shklovsky called ostranenie, or "enstrangement"--presenting familiar objects, scenes, feelings or even religious beliefs in an unfamiliar light so that the reader can experience them as if for the first time. These are indispensable qualities of Lewis's best work, but they do not in themselves explain the fervor with which young readers form lifelong attachments to his stories. In The Magician's Book, Laura Miller has written an account of returning as an adult to the Narnia books, trying to understand what in them stunned her 9-year-old self into a life of wanting nothing more than to read. It is a strange, often dispiriting book, announcing itself as both memoir and literary criticism; in fact, Miller submerges her own story and never quite focuses completely on the work at hand or, for that matter, on what in Lewis's reading helped lead him to create an imaginary place she once longed to visit. Miller's declared goal is to illuminate the Narnia books' "other, unsung dimensions, especially the deep roots of the Chronicles in the universal experiences of childhood and in English literature." What Miller ends up doing is revisiting for a while the pleasure of identifying wholeheartedly with a character in a story. This immersion, incidentally, was a particular interest of Lewis's. His remarkable book-length essay An Experiment in Criticism is an attempt to suspend labeling books as good or bad. Instead, looking closely at what people do when they read, he works from the premise that discussion of books takes place only among that small, odd group of readers who take pure pleasure in reading and rereading books not for self-improvement or snob appeal but because going even a few days without reading makes them ill. The many, he writes, read books to gratify personal wishes, finding what they look for, as opposed to hearing what the books have to say, experiencing what they mean to do to the reader. Unfamiliar description is, for this kind of reader, an impediment, "like trying to sell him something he has no use for at a price he does not wish to pay." And the necessary conditions of good writing--excitement, mystery and what comes of seeking happiness--are mistaken for sufficient. Lewis diagnoses the habit of reading to identify with characters as "castle-building," the egoistic fantasizing dramatized in the (soon to be remade) Danny Kaye comedy The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. It is, he acknowledges, a pleasurable way to read, and it isn't fatal. He cites Anthony Trollope as an example of someone who began as a castle-builder and who went on to imagine worlds not entirely populated by himself. But for a critic, it is not the ideal mode when looking for what makes a book. There is, after all, something besides the reader to find. . . . Read the rest here: http://www.thenation.com/doc/20090525/davis/single?rel=nofollow.