Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Review of: The Detective Fiction Reviews of Charles Williams 1930-1935, edited by Jared Lobdell (2003)

The Detective Fiction Reviews of Charles Williams 1930-1935, edited by Jared Lobdell.McFarland & Company: Jefferson NC, USA & London. 2003. pp 213

As its editor candidly admits, this volume is a strange hybrid, or sandwich - nonetheless it made a significant addition to my understanding one of the most enigmatic of writers and men that I have encountered.  In an important respect, because of this book, I have had to revise my opinion on a very important aspect of Williams.

The meat of the sandwich runs from pages 23-117 and is a complete run of Charles Williams's reviews of detective novels as published in various newspapers - these tend to be about 3-400 words in length and cover 3-5 different books.

Around this filling there is a valuable and necessary introductory essay on Williams in relation to detective fiction, and a closing essay (which I could not really engage with, due to my ignorance and indifference) on the 'Golden Age' of detective fiction (this being the name given to the era when Williams was reviewing) - followed by an appendix giving background on the authors and books which Williams reviewed (and an index!).

So the book's ideal reader would be someone who is very interested both by Charles Williams and also by detective fiction. Unfortunately, I am only half of this ideal reader, having very little interest in or knowledge of detective fiction - although I am not averse to it, and enjoyed finding out a bit more.  

For me this books' importance is simply that these detective fiction reviews are very well written. Well written, I mean, from a purely technical point of view. Williams had very little space to write, and an enormous amount to say - and there is, of course, a limit on how 'good' such journalism can be.

Clearly, reviewing a book - itself typically light entertainment - in the space of a few sentences, and trying not to give away any 'spoilers' about the plots ... well, we cannot expect Williams to plumb the depths of the human condition. And he doesn't - but Williams does maintain a high standard of interest, a light and witty tone; and as a bonus Williams sometimes insinuates  a pregnant aphoristic morsel or two, hinting at vistas beyond, for those who are alert and interested.

But the main point about these pieces is that Williams task was very difficult and he did it very well: the writing is clear, accessible, entertaining.

So now - thanks to this volume - the question is answered that so many of us who have struggled and struggled with trying to piece together an understanding of Williams's obscure and often constipated novels, essays, plays, theology and his late poetry ... could Charles Williams write, or not? 

I had previously said No. That Williams was obscure because he could not write clearly. But.. I WAS WRONG.

Williams could write clearly, he was technically adept: therefore his obscurity is wilful, deliberate, intended - presumably part of what he was trying to do.

This pleases me! Because it would be awful to struggle with the sometimes-extreme obscurity only discover that nothing lay behind it but technical ineptitude.

Because of this book, now we know for sure that Williams was able to write in a 'normal', highly professional, fashion. We can therefore struggle with his obscurities, confident that (however irritating) it is part of his style; there is some reason for it - he has hidden some-thing, and we are meant to work hard to find it... presumably because hard work is necessary for us really to understand what it is that he wants us to understand.   


Ben Pratt said...

Bruce, thank you for doing the legwork to discover this eye-opening nugget! I hadn't bothered with Williams even after hearing about him from you partly because of the same uncertainty you felt about such a daunting project being worthwhile. Now that this particular obstacle is removed...,

PrisonerNumber6 said...

I recently acquired this insightful tome myself. At the very least I'm willing to agree that Lobdell has move the study of Charles Williams a step further along in terms making his thought more understandable to the general reader.

In terms of making his writings more accessible, well, that's still hard for me to say, really. I agree with your assessment that it's more likely Williams actively chose the gnomic style for all of his novels in order to both hint at and hide something. In terms of strategic choices, this makes sense. In terms of aesthetic the result is, I'd have to say, "interesting". I think it would be a mistake to call them bad or just say "I don't get it". The reason why is because I've taken a lot of aesthetic enjoyment from Williams' novels, and yet it just occurred to me the other day that my enjoyment wasn't like the kind I would get from, say, Lewis or your average decent blockbuster. This was something else. The best word I can find for it at the moment is "Contemplative enjoyment", if that even makes any sense (which it probably doesn't even to me).

For instance, I've just gotten near the end of "The Place of the Lion" and I can say I've liked the story overall. The thing I realized, however, as I neared the end, is that the action doesn't exactly build to what anyone today would consider a regular climax. The closest we get to the regular adventure-thriller denouement is the rescue of Damaris and, that's it. You could argue that Quentin's rescue is trying to duplicate that scene, yet if so it strikes me as a "secondary", not "primary" resolution. The funny thing is, I still enjoyed it. Besides, there is more than one way to tell a story, and sometimes those works of fiction (fantastic or otherwise) can often get their best impact by ending on a quiet, instead of a loud note. What this proves I don't know. I've described more the nature of fiction in general, and not Williams in particular. In many ways measuring his fiction on the aesthetic level is still a challenge.

By the way, John Granger has a new book coming out in about four days to this writing. You can read all about it at his HogPro site. Though you ought to know.

Bruce Charlton said...

@PN6 - Good points. I first tried to read Place of the Lion thirtysome years ago, and found great difficulty simply understanding what was happening - however, I have re-read and enjoyed it many times since. The difficulties of Williams style in general do make him enigmatic, and each re-reading adds to understanding in a satisfying way - rather like decoding a secret message.