Sunday, December 4, 2011

New Lewis Fiction

So, Friday the new issue of VII arrived, containing as its lead article the first publication ever of some early (circa 1927?) fiction by C. S. Lewis, here given the title the "EASLEY FRAGMENT" (THE EASLEY FRAGMENTS wd have been more apt, given that it consists of two disconnected pieces). This is something Lewis scholars have known about for a long time -- three sentences were quoted from it as far back as 1973 -- but it's only now seeing the light of day. It's quite brief: nine pages in Warnie's original transcription in THE LEWIS PAPERS and taking up pages 5-12 & 12-15 in this edition* -- and thus less substantial than, say, THE DARK TOWER (sixty-four Ms pages); more along the lines of AFTER TEN YEARS (fifteen Ms pages and similarly consisting of two disconnected pieces). Even so, I'm impressed with the generosity of the Lewis Estate in allowing this new Lewis story to appear in a scholarly journal rather than, say, in some new edition of complete short fiction by CSL.

As for the piece itself, the first chapter is a first-person account of a Bristol doctor visiting his late father's family in Ulster for the first time not long after the Great War (in which he served in the trenches, while they stayed safe at home wrapped up in their own concerns). Having always taken them at their own evaluation, he learns that they are not at all as they presented themselves in their own guilelessly self-serving accounts in the letters he has occasionally received from them. The fragment breaks off, however, before we actually get to meet them; all we get is a bit of the narrator's background and his long conversation with a self-satisfied cadger of drinks he runs into on the ferry over. So Lewis's "Irish novel" doesn't actually get as far as actually landing in Ireland itself -- though, to be fair, he opens by claiming that 'Belfast' begins at the Liverpool ferry terminal. Lewis's goal is clearly to let unlikeable characters reveal their character flaws through their speech, completely unaware of what a bad light they show themselves in, while the narrator forebears to make comment. Jane Austen cd pull this off; unsurprisingly it turns out the young C. S. Lewis had not mastered the art.

The second fragment is sometime later in the internal chronology of the story and consists of an argument between the doctor and a minister. The doctor's aunt is suffering from a terror of damnation, and the doctor accuses the minister of driving her mad with such nonsense. The minister responds that he considers a concern over salvation or damnation as a sign of mental health, not madness. The scene is not v. interesting as a piece of fiction (too talky; a thin fictional frame for a philosophical debate), but as documentation of Lewis's views it's fascinating. We know that at the time he wrote this,** Lewis was, from all accounts, in agreement with what he presents here as the doctor's point of view (the doctor also resembles young CSL in other ways we need not go into here). And yet we know that within a few years, Lewis had swung around 180 degrees and was fully in agreement with the minister's view. So can this passage be taken as a prefigurement of his shift? Or an example of how totally he switched his deepest held convictions? Or can it be read as occupying some middle ground, a way-station on the path?

The other interesting thing about this fragment is how it fits into the biographical narrative of Lewis as a failed author, which I discuss in my piece on his famous bargain with JRR Tolkien that resulted in THE LOST ROAD, OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET, PERELANDRA, THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH, THE NOTION CLUB PAPERS, and THE DARK TOWER.*** It was through his discovery of A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS and THE PLACE OF THE LION, and through that bargain, that Lewis concluded that genre fiction was the right medium for him, while Tolkien though he made a good-faith effort discovered the opposite was true for him: he had to follow his own, sui generis course. So it's interesting to see CSL here try his hand at a sort of local-color fiction, another genre outside the mainstream of his day.

And with this publication, I think we have pretty much all CSL's significant work now in print, except for his unfinished Morris-ian Arthurian romance THE QUEST OF BLEHERIS (about sixty pages) and his philosophical papers (which really shd be published in conjunction with Barfield's interlocking responses.

--John R.

*between brief headnote, notes, bibliography, and commentary by the editiors (David C. Downing and Bruce R. Johnson), it takes up pages 5-26 of this issue (VII. vol. 28).

**assuming Warnie got the date right, which seems a reasonable enough assumption -- esp. since he was compiling THE LEWIS PAPERS while living w. CSL (as I understand it, they were actually typed in a side-room in Lewis's office at Magdalen), and he cd easily have asked his brother when the work dated from. Were it not for that, I'd have thought it from the early twenties rather than towards the end of the decade.

***cf. my essay appearing in TOLKIEN'S LEGENDARIUM [2000]

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