Sunday, March 06, 2011

That Hideous Strength

I last read the book over 30 years ago, I think. There may have been another reading early on in there, and I have read excerpts and references to the book.

I find it is a very different book at 57 than at 25. When I first read it I saw much of myself in Mark Studdock (and my new wife in Jane Studdock). What I had remembered of the book included a great deal of the temptations he faced, and his weakness of character he showed in facing them. What I took away from this was "Don't be that guy. And you could, you know." On this reading, I more often think how much I want to warn the young man. I don't see myself at all, nor my wife in Jane. Perhaps the lessons took.

Or some of the lessons, anyway. I see parts of myself in some of the other characters now, including some of the most unattractive. Not so very much - I seem to have found other faults instead - but some things that were not visible in me as a young man, not even in my secret heart, have evidence now.

A word of warning on the reading. I see flaws in the construction of the story that I did not see at first. Most probably, I was so taken with identification with Mark and Jane, and anxious to read any new twist on Merlin, that I was able to disregard weaknesses. The descriptions of the temptations and development of Mark and Jane are believably timed, subtle, and ring true. To be like the conflicts and ambiguities of real life they should unfold slowly, and they do. The other characters, especially the fellows of Bracton and the staff of the N.I.C.E, are likewise plausible and recognisable. I now know some people like them, as I did not when I was in my twenties. But the events surrounding them do not read so believably. It is not that the events could not happen - though of course it is a modern fairy tale and the events are supposed to be sharply drawn, with good and evil unmasked - but that they seem to happen without sufficient set up and cause. Catastrophes have little buildup, and feel inserted for the sake of the plot rather than flowing naturally from previous events.

Lewis seems to have sensed this himself, as he uses literary devices to extend the impression of time at several points. And it is certainly true that events in real life do often seem to descend without cause upon us, showing their origins only in retrospect. We plod along daily with life changing little, then one Tuesday it all upends overnight. However, authors are not allowed to tell stories that way, even if that is more like real life. It jars.

It's an odd contrast, with the internal events of the main characters handled so deftly and precisely, while the exterior events seem at times to fall off a passing vegetable wagon. They add up in the end, and hang together in retrospect, but while they are occurring they take one out of the book a bit.

1 comment:

Texan99 said...

Strange--I didn't have that reaction at all to the timing or plausibility of the external events. I guess I see it as something like mice playing about the feet of the elephants. Things are coming to a head on a higher plane while the humans are rushing about distracted by the daily trials. Eventually the two planes integrate, as the main characters make their critical choices.

"Don't be that guy. And you could, you know."--Strange again. That's still my dominant impression even reading it now at 57.