Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Review of Bandersnatch by Diana Pavlac Glyer

Diana Pavlac Glyer. Bandersnatch: CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien and the creative collaboration of the Inklings. Black Squirrel Books: Kent, Ohio. 2016, pp. xix, 200 (including notes, bibliography and index). Includes 5 illustrations by James A Owen.

In 2007 Diana Pavlac Glyer published The Company They Keep, which was the most significant biography of The Inklings since Humphrey Carpenter's original biography some thirty years earlier. I found TCTK to be a sheer delight - having read it through at least three times and consulted it frequently.

Glyer's important achievement was to undo the major error of Carpenter's mostly excellent biography, which was Carpenter's insistence that the Inklings was just a group of Jack Lewis's friends and having no other or wider significance: Carpenter was insistent to the point of perversity on this point, even devoting a whole chapter ('A fox that isn't there') to hammering it home. But in this important respect Carpenter was about as wrong as it is possible to be! - as Glyer has proven.

Glyer's first act of clarification concerning the Inklings was to distinguish the small, select writing group who met on 'Thursday evenings' (not always Thursdays, in fact) from the larger, more diffuse group who met to converse at lunchtimes (Tuesday, later Monday) at the 'Bird and Baby' pub.

Having made this crucial distinction, Glyer was able to demonstrate, by hundreds of examples, large and small(lovingly culled from published and manuscript sources), that what held the Inklings together and constituted their raison d'etre was writing: in essence the Thursday evening group was primary, and it primarily existed for reading and commenting-on work in progress.

It was this Thursday evening group who supported and shaped the composition of The Lord of the Rings and other significant work especially from Jack and Warnie Lewis, and Charles Williams. And this was done through a range of interactions from shared enjoyment and encouragement to write, through verbal and written comments to argument and criticism (including, rarely, negative criticism of a damaging type - notably Hugo Dyson's de facto veto on reading Lord of the Rings while he was present during the 1945-7 period, which Glyer believes led to the end of the group).

The pleasure of TCTK and Bandersnatch is that Glyer provides examples of all these interactions - so we get a microscopic close up of the Inklings at work on their main work - which was writing.

I personally would not have wanted TCTK any differently than it is - which is a somewhat haphazard treasure trove of main text and extensive footnotes with the usual scholarly apparatus plus a valuable biographical index (including original material) by David Bratman - but I recognize that this rather seventeenth century style of book is a barrier to many or most readers - who prefer a biography to read more like a novel or at least a personal memoir; and this is what Glyer has provided with Bandersnatch. It contains essentially the same material and argument as TCTK but in a single continuous narrative.

A secondary fuction of Bandersnatch (and also TCTK) is to argue for the importance of groups to writers: a tertiary function is as a kind of self-help book to apply lessons from the Inklings to the forming and sustaining of writers groups.

I believe that Glyer is correct to emphasize the importance of writers groups and collaborations - the Romantic movement was founded in Somerset and Bristol and transferred to The Lake district by Coleridge, Wordsworth and Southey; and the New England Transcendentalists grew up around RW Emerson. More recently I used to know the novelist Alasdair Gray from Glasgow, Scotland - who had been part of a formal writing group presided over by Philip Hobsbaum, and which included other published writers such as James Kelman, Liz Lochhead and Tom Leonard - these continued to work and publish together for some time.

Hobsbaum (who was a poet, critic and university teacher) indeed seemed to have a special gift for forming successful writers groups, as he moved between universities (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philip_Hobsbaum) - perhaps his most eminent group was in Northern Ireland, and included future Nobellist Seamus Heaney.

So, it is clear that many writers benefit from a group of the right kind. On the other hand, the talent or genius must be there for a group to assist in drawing it out - and it is a feature of genius that (purposively - but by trial and error) it seeks the conditions for its own fulfilment - so I would regard writers groups as essentially a spontaneous coalescence of individual genius; rather than, with Glyer, giving the writers group a primary role in creativity.

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