Wardrobe and peace

Lydia Millet explains what draws her into C.S. Lewis.

Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book, is an excellent critical study of C.S. Lewis that dwells on how children and adults approach Narnia, but she certainly isn’t the only grown-up Lewis fan. The late, great David Foster Wallace once put The Screwtape Letters in the No. 1 spot of his top-ten-books list. Lydia Millet, author of the novels Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, My Happy Life and How the Dead Dream, also likes to revisit the Oxford don’s fantasy worlds. Here, she tells TONY what draws her into the wardrobe.

I read once that you’re a big C.S. Lewis fan. Do you have a favorite?
I lean toward The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. In fact, I read a passage from it at my father’s funeral—the part where Reepicheep, the aging, fierce warrior-mouse, finally reaches the paradise he’s always sought: the Utter East. My father was a devoted reader of Lewis, and so all the children in my family were raised at least part-time in that magic country. And when my father died, because he was a 19th-century romantic and a bit of a warrior-mouse himself, I couldn’t help but see him there, laying down his sword and stepping off the boat into the silver water at the world’s end. He was a secular man, unlike Lewis, with a love of fairy tales and talking animals that he handed down to us. But images from all the books have stayed with me—even from The Last Battle, which some have decried as overly dark and steeped in the Book of Revelation and heavy-handed Christian didacticism. I love them all.

So you were introduced to Lewis as a child. Do you read Lewis differently as an adult?The supposed barrier between children’s literature and literature written for adults is fully permeable to me. I had no idea when I was a child that the Narnia books were a Catholic project, and when I read them now all that allegory, be it ever so neat, still lies very much in the background. I apprehend it, but it doesn’t fill my field of view. And I don’t object to it, either—unlike Philip Pullman, a great and towering figure in magical fiction for young readers, who sets himself up in opposition to Lewis and Lewis’s religious agenda and whose work I also deeply admire. For me Lewis’s strengths simply lie elsewhere.

Has his work influenced you as a writer?
You’d be hard-pressed to find a direct evocation of Narnia in my fiction, but increasingly, as I grow older, an appeal to the imagination and to hope infiltrates the way I write. Nor am I afraid of having an agenda other than art for its own sake, so maybe that’s a little bit of Lewis right there—an impurity, say. I welcome impurities. When I was a beginning writer I defined myself by closing off emotional avenues, but now, more and more, I write toward emotion. I look to create moments of access to feeling and to the power of imagining—if not different worlds, at least a world where magical transfiguration is possible.

Allegory details Laura Miller returns to Narnia.»