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That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis
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May 17, 2016

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** spoiler alert ** That Hideous Strength has important weaknesses as a integrated narrative. From the start Lewis doesn't establish comfortably the place or identity of the narrator: sometimes it seems to be the familiar invisible one, sometimes he allows himself to comment on his characters as Mr Lewis. There are less skillful moments where he actually speaks to the reader as though in a lecture room, telling you directly about a character instead of allowing the independent actions thoughts and feelings of the character build up all we need to know. Again, in several places there is a rather creaky 'join' between a description of the countryside, or a country station, and the narrative, slightly too obviously a direct description of the writer's experiences. For me these sort of things weaken the impact of the book as a novel. From about halfway into the book,however, all these impressions ceased to count, and he really finds his feet. From then on to the end, it really worked strongly and well. It's memorable: it creates a world of images that will remain in the mind, and that I will go on thinking about.

I don't share Lewis's Christianity, but I should think to enjoy it, find it worthwhile, the reader would need at least an agnostic openness to his ideas and belief. Otherwise we are left with the efficient analysis of Orwell's review, which deconstructs it to what he sees as 'in essence...a crime story, and the miraculous happenings, though they grow more frequent towards the end, are not integral to it.'

In this section, Mark is imprisoned by NICE, an organisation operating autonomously from the state, and believes that his life is in great danger:

What a fool - a blasted, babyish, gullible fool - he had been! He sat down on the floor, for his legs felt weak, as if he had walked twenty-five miles. Why had he come to Belbury in the first instance? Ought not his very first interview with the Deputy Director to have warned him, as clearly as if the truth were shouted through a megaphone or printed on a poster in letters six feet high, that here was a world of plot within plot, crossing and double-crossing, of lies and graft and stabbing in the back, of murder and a contemptuous guffaw for the fool who lost the game? Feverstone's guffaw, that day he had called him an 'incurable romantic', came back to his mind. Feverstone... that was how had come tp believe in Wither: on Feverstone's recommendation. Apparently his folly went further back. How on earth had he come to trust Feverstone - a man with a mouth like a shark,with his flash manners, a man who never looked at you in the face? Jane, or Dimble, would have seen through him at once. He had 'crook' written all over him. He was fit only to deceive puppets like Curry and Busby. But then, at the time he first met Feverstone, he had not thought Curry and Busby puppets. With extraordinary clarity, but with renewed astonishment, he remembered how he had felt about the Progressive Element at Bracton when he was first admitted to its confidence; he remembered, even more incredulously, how he had felt as a very junior Fellow when he was outside it - how he had looked almost with awe at the heads of Curry and Busby bent close together in Common room, hearing occasional fragments of their whispered conversation, pretending to himself the while to be absorbed in a periodical but longing - oh, so intensely longing - for one of them to cross the room and speak to him. And then, after months and months, it had happened. He had a picture of himself, the odious little outsider who wanted to be an insider, the infantile gull, drinking in the husky and unimportant confidences, as if being admitted to the government of the planet. Was there no beginning to his folly? Had he been an utter fool all through from the very day of his birth? Even as a schoolboy, when he had ruined his work and half broken his heart trying to get into the society called Grip, and lost his only real friend in doing so? Even as a child, fighting Myrtle because she would go and talk secrets with Pamela next door?

He himself did not understand why all this, which was now so clear, had never previously crossed his mind. He was unaware that such thoughts had often knocked for entrance, but had always been excluded for the very good reason that if they were once entertained it involved ripping up the whole web of his life, cancelling almost every decision his will had ever made, and really beginning over again as if he were an infant. The indistinct mass of problems which would have to be faced if he admitted such thoughts, the innumerable 'something' which would have to be done, had deterred him from ever raising these questions. What had now taken the blinkers off was that nothing could be done. They were going to hang him. His story was now at an end. There was no harm in ripping up the web now for he was not going to use it any more; there was no bill to be paid (in the shape of arduous decision and reconstruction) for truth. It was a result of the approach of death that the Deputy Director and Professor Frost had possibly not foreseen.

There were no moral considerations at this moment in Mark's mind. He looked back on his life not with shame, but with a kind of disgust at its dreariness. He saw himself as a small boy in short trousers, hidden in the shrubbery beside the paling, to overhear Myrtle's conversation with Pamela, and trying to ignore the fact that it was not at all interesting when overheard. He saw himself making believe that he enjoyed those Sunday afternoons with the athletic heroes of Grip while all the time (as he now saw) he was almost homesick for one of the old walks with Pearson - Pearson whom he had taken such pains to leave behind. . The hours that he had spent learning the very slang of each new circle that had attracted him, the perpetual assumption of interest in things he found dull and of knowledge he did not possess, the almost heroic sacrifice of nearly every person and thing he actually enjoyed, the miserable attempt to pretend that one could enjoy Grip, or the Progressive Element, or the NICE - all this came over him with kind of heart-break. When had he ever done what he wanted? Mixed with the people whom he liked? Or even eaten and drunk what took his fancy? The concentrated insipidity of it all filled him with self-pity.

In his normal condition, explanations that laid on impersonal forces outside of himself the reponsibility for all this life of dust and broken bottles would have occurred at once to his mind and been at once accepted. It would have been 'the system', or 'an inferiority complex' due to his parents, or the peculiarities of the age. None of these things occurred to him now. His 'scientific' ourtlook had never been a real philosophy believed with blood and heart. It had lived only in his brain, and was a part of the public self which was now falling off him. He was aware, wihout even having to think of it, that it was he himself - nothing else in the whole universe - that had chosen the dust and broken bottles, the heap of old tin cans, the dry and choking places.
One of the interests of this book is how remarkably old-fashioned in some ways it is, evoking a vanished 30s and 40s Britain; and how completely contemporary other aspects, such as NICE, appear.


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