Sunday, 24 July 2016

A review of Grevel Lindop's "Charles Williams: The Third Inkling" for The Salisbury Review

Who was Charles Williams? The author of Charles Williams: The Third Inkling explains:
I first heard about Williams during my horror-writing days: his name was forever being dropped by the genre's cognoscenti, and his novels sounded intriguing - but, in those pre-Amazon days, they were almost impossible to get hold of. Now, they're all available in paperback, or you can instantly download all seven of them to a digital reading device for 82p! I can't guarantee that you'll enjoy them - but I'm absolutely sure you'll never have read anything like them before. Here's a review of Lindop's utterly fascinating biography written for the next issue of The Salisbury Review:

Charles Williams is a writer more read about than read. His novels - unlike those by his more illustrious fellow Inklings, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien - have never appealed to the general reader, and aren’t really suitable for children. I’d long meant to read the seven “spiritual shockers” he produced between 1930 and his death in 1945, so, when I heard that this biography was on the way, I downloaded them onto my Kindle and set about working my way through them. If that sounds like a chore, it proved anything but. The first two, in particular, are thoroughly entertaining. In War in Heaven and Many Dimensions, bands of goodies - including a dashing young duke, an ageing archdeacon, the Lord Chief Justice, and Prester John (no, really) - battle gangs of witchcraft-practicing baddies for possession of a sacred item - the Holy Grail in one, the Philosopher’s Stone in the other - which, if captured by the forces of evil, will spell disaster for the world. While Williams’s themes have subsequently become commonplace thanks to a host of fantasy/horror writers from Dennis Wheatley to J.K. Rowling, they were original for their time. So why didn’t Williams’s fiction, admired by the likes of C.S. Lewis and T.S. Eliot,  bring him fame (and money, of which he was always chronically short)?

Partly, I suspect, it’s because the writing is too dense, the tone too uneven, the characterisation rather wooden, and, as Williams’s poetic mentor Alice Meynell put it when commenting on his latest batch of poems, “the meanings are rather crowded.” Williams - whether writing poetry or prose - always seems to be trying to squeeze too many ideas onto the page. Even so, the early books are distinguished by their sheer verve and inventiveness - but do they qualify as “literature”? C.S. Lewis certainly thought so: he described reading The Place of the Lion (the third novel) as “one of the major literary events of my life.” Writing about the same book, and War in Heaven, T.S. Eliot was more cagey: “I have found these two books so exciting that I am incapacitated from making any purely literary judgment of them.” When Williams’s penultimate novel, Descent into Hell (generally regarded as his masterpiece), was rejected by his regular publisher, he spent considerable time rewriting and reshaping it. But, while it’s better-constructed and more carefully-written than his other novels, parts of it remain as impenetrable as Finnegans Wake. Despite its opaqueness, its rather confusing jumble of themes, and its evident failings as a conventional work of fiction, it is nevertheless a startlingly original, thought-provoking and troubling novel (it’s genuinely frightening, but in a more adult way than earlier works). It was fairly well-received at the time, but the reviewers disappointed Williams by treating it as a conventional supernatural thriller, entirely missing what the author called (with justification) it “unusualness”.

As a man, Williams was as unusual as his books. On the surface, his was a rather conventional early 20th Century literary life, except, perhaps, for his childhood. He was born into poverty in North London, where his father scraped a living writing sentimental stories for magazines until increasing blindness forced a move to St Albans, where the family ran an unsuccessful art materials shop. Charles won a scholarship to the local grammar school, and eventually attended UCL for two years until the money ran out. He eventually found employment as an editor for the Oxford University Press in London. He was a heterosexual High Church Anglican, who married and produced one psychologically troubled son, with whom he never bonded. A workaholic, he spent his spare time writing novels and poems, as well as journalism, plays, and a variety of works of theology, literary criticism and biography. A bit of a leftie, he regularly lectured at adult education classes in London. When OUP moved their London operations to Oxford during WWII, he became an Inkling, and his friend C.S. Lewis arranged for him to deliver lectures on poetry at the university. He was an expert on Milton, and his animated lectures, delivered with a unique cockney/Hertfordshire accent, were apparently mesmerising. As the war ended, Williams was being considered for the role of Oxford Professor of Poetry, but died before a decision was reached. (The University awarded him an honorary degree, but that was for his distinguished OUP career rather than for his writing: despite its acceptance of him, Williams considered Oxford “a kind of parody of London”.)

None of this explains why he wrote such startling novels, with (for their time) such odd themes. And it hardly accounts for the marked originality of his teeming imagination. A bout of childhood measles left his eyesight severely impaired - he had no depth vision (the first his mother knew of it was when, during a walk on open fields at Highgate, the five-year old Charles looked towards the familiar public clock which told them when it was time to go home, and said, “Oh, the clock’s gone.”) As his biographer puts it, “…his lifelong sense that the world could at any moment dissolve into a magical realm of sinister unreality or heavenly illumination was perhaps founded on a lifetime’s visual uncertainty.” As a teenager, he suffered an unspecified mental “explosion”, which left him with a permanent tremor so pronounced that he always had to be shaved by a barber.

Despite being a Christian, he nevertheless became an active member of two esoteric “magic” sects - the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross. (If there is an over-arching theme in Williams’s works, it’s a fascination with spiritual/creative energy, and role ritual can play in releasing it.) While remaining sexually faithful to his wife during a somewhat troubled marriage, he became addicted to mildly sado-masochistic relationships with young women “followers” (a type of relationship which recurs in his novels, minus the erotic undercurrents). While these entanglements made him feel guilty, he believed that the energy resulting from unrelieved sexual desire fed his poetic creativity. He wrote books of theology, but some of his views were distinctly eccentric - for example, his belief that the sexual act was somehow akin to the Mass. He received short shrift when he tried this idea out on C.S. Lewis, who nevertheless admired Williams’s theory of “the practice of substituted love”, whereby one person could supposedly relieve another’s anxieties and sorrows by agreeing to feel sad or frightened on their behalf (which seems to be what everyone who writes for the Guardian does all the time).

As far as Williams is known at all these days, it’s because of the cult status his fiction enjoys. My only real quibble with Grevel Lindop’s excellent biography is that his conviction that Williams was “a great poet” leads him to overpraise the poems at the expense of the novels - as did Williams himself, who saw verse as “my proper job”. Some of the poetry is interesting, certainly, but I tend to side with Phillip Larkin - a friend of Williams’s at Oxford - who admired the writer’s novels and literary criticism, but “couldn’t give a fart for his poems.”

Despite never enjoying robust health - he would die at the age of 59 from intestinal tuberculosis resulting from the unpasteurised milk he drank as a child - and despite being a frail, trembling chain-smoker, Williams seem to have had a powerful effect on many who met him. One Catholic critic who attacked his poems as blasphemous, but who later became a friend, reported that Williams “…came into my own life like a thunderbolt.”  A theological college tutor who shared a long car journey with the writer one evening reported feeling that “lightning might flash out from the ends of his fingers at any moment.” After one discussion during which an Inkling had expressed a desire to burn Williams, C.S. Lewis half-jokingly described his friend as “eminently combustible.” One gets the feeling that, had he been a wicked man, Williams might have become the leader of a sinister sect. Fortunately, he appears to have been a genuinely good man. Long after their association had ended, one female follower who had excused herself from participating in Williams’s S&M “rituals” nevertheless said of him: “He remains the most remarkable and good man I’ve ever met…He prepared me for recognising strains of goodness in people, and the strains in Charles were pure gold.”

Let’s hope this excellent biography leads more readers to Williams’s novels: if nothing else, “unusualness” is guaranteed.

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