Wednesday, June 30, 2004

That Hideous Strength by CS Lewis

Lee assures me my life is: "You either want to shag it, or read it and brag about it."

Like all devastatingly hurtful things, there is some truth in this. So, I'm now going to brag about That Hideous Strength - a grown-up scifi novel written by that Narnia bloke.

It's weird. You can tell it was written in the days before "sci fi" was established as a genre. There are no busty wenches or big spaceships. It's all magical realism, allegory and Dark Forces.

Bits of it read like Evelyn Waugh writing an episode of Alias set at Oxford. There are rooms full of clubby men drinking porter and plotting the downfall of civilisation. There are ancient mystical codes. There are agents and counter agents. Doomy portents in dreams.

It's about a married couple, Mark and Jane. While Mark is kidnapped by a group of scientists intent on world domination (called NICE), Jane gains psychic powers, and meets a group who are working with people from Venus to thwart NICE.

Mark is seduced by power - this bit of the book is very clever, and riffs off both Orwell with some smug ease.

Jane, however, embarks on a allegorical journey, redolent with Christian mysticism. This is all very well, until we meet a character called Mr Fisher-King.

It soars out of control from here on in - It turns out NICE are trying to dig up Merlin. The villains are a man called Wither - a wonderfully absentminded old dodderer who manages acts of great evil almost by accident. And then there's the female chief of police. A dumpy woman. Dressed in leather. Who smokes cigars. She's surrounded by similarly dressed women policemen. And she is called Fairy Hardcastle.

She's splendid, but appears to have burgled her way into the book through a masturbatory fantasy of Lewis. Gigglesome highlight is when she tortures Jane - it goes something like:

"Hold her down, Daisy!" said the Fairy, bending Jane towards her with an expert flick of the knees. "We've got 10 minutes, my pretty. That should be plenty."
As Jane struggled against the two women holding her down, the Fairy tugged at her dress, exposing an acre of pale shoulder.
With a lipless smile, the Fairy ground down her cigar against the flesh."

Anyway, it all rolls on quite merrily, gradually choking in clotted allegory in a way that wasn't irritating in the Narnia books, but is a touch too ripe here. The last scene features two elephants making love in a celery patch.

1 comment:

Nicholas said...

This book is the last in a trilogy of books written by "that Narnia bloke" who was perhaps the greatest Medieval scholar EVER. It is necessary to read ALL of the books to understand his use of metaphor and the richness of his allegorical prose.
The book is wonderful, and is not quite sci-fi, but - in true Lewis fashion - a kind of magnisplendid hybrid.

It is sad that in these modern times, his books have fallen prey to such hackneyed attempts at literary criticism.