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Jack: A Life of C. S. Lewis

Jack: A Life of C. S. Lewis

I had read just about everything of Lewis’s that was published,
but I read it all in the 1970′s and early 80′s. All my Lewis books were setting on the shelf; it had been quite a while since I had partaken. Over the past twenty years I might have re-read some of the Narnia stories and I did listen to the audio recording of Lewis reading The Four Loves By C.S. Lewis [Audiobook]
which is very fetching, by the way, and well worth buying the cd’s. The Four Loves was a series of radio talks that was commissioned by the American Episcopal church and Lewis agreed to write and record. But then, when the tapes were shipped to the states the church folks balked at airing them because of the discussion of eros and love in marriage. They thought them too racy for Episcopalian ears. (I learned this little tidbit from Jack, the book I am now supposed to be writing about, which I will do presently.)

George Sayer’s Jack

I was immediately (while perusing the book in the book shop) captured by the preface in which the author recounts his first meeting, as a young student, with the man he would in future refer to as his close friend Jack. The description of the ancient campus and the author’s young thoughts as he made his way to Lewis’s rooms make the reader feel a kinship—a kinship that I felt strongly through all the chapters. So “we are there” with young George Sayer as he climbs the stairs and happens to meet J.R.R. Tolkien loitering outside Jack’s door waiting to squeeze in for a minute to pick up a manuscript. When the previous student bounds out the door “Tollers” goes in and Sayer overhears his conversation with Lewis. How’s that for a proper initiation into life and literature? Of course the year was 1934 and Sayer had never heard of either one of these giants; they had not published their great works yet.

I loved this book. It is factual but personable. The first chapter begins some generations back and brings us down to Albert and Flora, their courtship and marriage and the lives of their two boys, Warren, the eldest by three years, and Clive, born in 1898. The two brothers, though very much different in personality remained closely associated throughout their lives, Warren surviving Jack by ten years.

George Sayer certainly did his homework for this book. Not only does he cite letters, diaries, articles and reviews, he also refers to conversations with the primary players in Lewis’s life. Sayer was not only a biographer, but he was for many years one of Jack’s best friends, of whom there were many. Some of the warmest and most personable passages are the ones in which Sayer relates details of weekend visits and hikes which the two of them, Jack and Sayer, had done. Lewis has sometimes got an undeserved reputation of stolidness and gravity; Sayer shows that he was one of the most fun-loving Britishers who ever lived.

Once while strolling with friends near the Sayer home Jack impulsively announces he is going to bathe and, removing his outer garments, plunges into the river. He seemed to believe any body of water was fair game for a plunge. This was a University lecturer in his fifties! Then once while the two were on a hike, dressed in their usual shabby hiking clothes, they found themselves at an unfamiliar hotel at meal time. Enquiring concerning food and drink, they were sent to the back door and instructed to make sure they had money in their pockets and to see that they wipe their feet—the explanation being the management was expecting “gentry”. (I could almost see it as a scene in John Cleece’s “Fawlty Towers”.) But Jack took it all in stride and the two dignified professors removed their shoes and dined in the kitchen.

Some of the other expanded threads in the book are these:

  • the life-long friendship with childhood friend Arthur Greeves of Belfast
  • the foster mother-son relationship with Janie Moore
  • friendships with J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and other personal and literary friends
  • his scholarly writings and poetry
  • and of course, the popular Christian writings and novels

Sayer does a good job covering the Joy Gresham years. He presents insights into Lewis’s conscience about divorce and remarriage, as well as the cultural and religious climate that surrounded the couple as they entered into an unorthodox relationship—marriage in name only eventually blossoming into real marriage. And we learn of her illness, the priest who prayed for healing, and also Jack’s substitionary prayer that he might carry her pain and illness. She got better for a while but after she died Jack got sick and died—on the same day Jack Kennedy died.

The story of his last days, death bed and survivors was well and sensitively written. He had a good death. He left only £37,772—a small estate for a popular author. He had given away most of what he had earned. He provided in his will for those close to him. But Paxford, the gardener/handyman, was surprised to receive only £100 to which he remarked, “Werl, it won’t take me far, wull it? Mr. Jack, ‘e never ‘ad no idea of money. ‘Is mind was always set on ‘igher things.”