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Lewis seen through his friendships

22 November 2013

It's a pity that those friends remain in the background here, says Jonathan Boardman

C. S. Lewis: A biography of friendship
Colin Duriez
Lion £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9  (Use code CT544 )

I RECALL the thrill I felt when my interview at Magdalen College, Oxford, in December 1982, was conducted in the rooms that C. S. Lewis had occupied in his more than 30 years as a Fellow there. I had waited in the sitting-room in which the first readings of The Lord of the Rings had been given - and for my 19-year-old self, this had a surprisingly forceful emotional power.

Over time, I guess my "privileging" of the works of the literary circle known as The Inklings has declined (though I would probably still rank J. R. R. Tolkien as the Roman Catholic who has most influenced my interior life); and I guess that C. S. Lewis himself, even as we approach the 50th anniversary of his death, is in that inevitable phase of critical disfavour which only time, and possibly a partisan "Christian" readership, might cure.

Here he is, in his uncompromising "blokey" persona, striding out from Magdalen's New Buildings on the front cover of Colin Duriez's recent addition to Lewis studies. This account of Lewis's life is unexceptional, from Northern Irish childhood, through an eclectic education, to the Flanders trenches, to Oxford, Headington, and beyond. (There is, disappointingly, no account in the book of how he would have made his weekly journeys to Cambridge after his election to a chair there.)

It is all sound stuff, as "sound", somehow, as its subject. The intentional brevity of the work means that the friends who are shown constantly to have played important parts in the working through of what Lewis would publish (including every genre essayed: poetry, literary criticism, Christian apologetic, science fiction, and children's books) remain "bit parts". I would have preferred the book to abandon a chronological presentation of the life, and approach the always enigmatic figure of Lewis directly through the friends, giving us more of them in order to see more of him.

One strength of the book, however, is that it emphasises Jack Lewis's Irishness: the most controversial aspect of his life, his 30-year ménage with the Dubliner Janie Moore, a woman old enough to be his mother, somehow becomes clearer in this light.

Duriez clearly wishes to be honest in his presentation of the author, and he achieves this; but this study of Lewis's friendships will inevitably appeal most to those who are already his friends.

The Ven. Jonathan Boardman is Archdeacon of Italy and Malta, and Chaplain of All Saints', Rome.

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