The Authentic Voice

One of the best biographies I have ever read is: C.S. Lewis, The Authentic Voice by William Griffin. It is unlike any other biography that I have come across, in that it is not a continuous narrative of Lewis’s life, but rather a collection of chronological vignettes that together give a much more rounded picture of the man than would a traditional style of biography. Some of these snippets last for several pages, but many of them are short two- or three-paragraph descriptions on encounters he had with people, speaking engagements, books he was reviewing, students he was tutoring, walking trips he made with his friends, conversations he had with various people, his loves and his hates. It is a highly entertaining volume in which each chapter is a year of Lewis’s life from his inauguration into a teaching position at Oxford, in 1925, to his death in 1963. Nevertheless because it is broken into fragments of his life, the book can be dipped into anywhere.
The copy I have is somewhat dilapidated, so I guess I must have read it half a dozen times.  An example of the style of the little sections in the chapters is an episode involving a tutorial with a student who walked in late, snickering to himself. When Lewis asked him what was so funny, the guy answered, “I’ve just been walking through a graveyard and I saw the headstone of an atheist that read ‘All dressed up and nowhere to go!’ Quick as a flash Lewis responded, “I’ll bet he wishes now that that were true…”
What emerges from the book is a rounded picture of the man, from little habits he had (flicking cigarette ash on his carpet – he maintained it was good for the fibers), turns of phrase he used (The Oxford History of the English Language, for which he wrote a long section on Medieval English poetry and which he referred to as OHEL), ways in which he practiced the Christian virtues (his generosity in giving away substantial chunks of his royalties to friends in need and other charitable causes), rivalries he entertained (with T.S. Eliot for example), and his friendships (with members of the Inklings and others), but most of all his brilliant mind and his peerless academic knowledge.

One reviewer for the Chicago Tribune noted that “Lewis walks onto the stage almost immediately, speaking as if in a one- character show, and hold our attention… to the very end… One comes to experience him with a rare directness, and the biographer seems to disappear and leaves the reader standing face-to-face with his subject. For anyone interested in the Inklings and their works and lives I would highly recommend this biography. It can be purchased on for a piffling sum.

Labels: , , ,