Most book reviews are pretty simple things to write. All you need to do is talk about the plot for a while. You describe the characters and their interactions. You mention the style in which the book is written. You intersperse your review with quotes designed to back up your points and generally pepper your writing with a feeling that yes, indeed you have read this book and yes, your opinion should be trusted.
Occasionally, however, a book comes along that refuses to kowtow to the rules of other reviews. It has no plot, so you can’t describe that. It has only one character so there are no interactions to speak of. The style is like no novel you’ve ever read before and any quote you pull from it is just going to sound like academic discourse rather than a work of fiction.
“Prosperity knits a man to the world. He feels that he is finding his place in it, while really it is finding its place in him.”
“Gratitude looks to the Past and love to the Present; fear, avarice, lust, and ambition look ahead.”
C S Lewis’s seminal classic the Screwtape Letters is just such a book. Published in 1942, the novel takes the form of a series of letters written from a senior demon named Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood. Wormwood is on Earth tempting a man into damnation. Screwtape is in hell watching the situation from afar and providing his inept nephew with advice as well as admonishing him for his incompetence. We only ever read Screwtape’s half of the correspondence.
That’s where the philosophical discourse I mentioned comes in. Screwtape writes like a university lecturer speaking to a hall of students. His language is learned, his discourse is frank and laced with bitterness. Like Casey Cep writes in The New Yorker, it’s like theology in reverse and it’s like nothing else you’ll ever read.
Over the course of thirty-one letters, Screwtape lectures his nephew on the various ways to undermine faith and promote sin in humans. This is interspersed with observations on human nature and Christian doctrine in general. He makes a lot of interesting points.
“Whatever their bodies do affects their souls. It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out…”
But there is no ‘plot’ here as such. Sure, things happen. We learn that the human which Wormwood is tempting converts to Christianity. We learn that the human falls in love, that he worries about the war raging throughout Europe, that he has a strained relationship with his mother. But it’s all very theoretical and distant to us. Screwtape writes about these things like a doctor talking about a patient and there’s little opportunity to relate.
Easier to relate to is Screwtape himself. His depiction of hell, for instance, and the way it is structured is a real highlight of the book and one of the more interesting examples of damnation I’ve come across in my reading. There’s no fire and brimstone here: Lewis’s hell is a dull, bureaucratic place stripped of any sort of fun. The sins which 99% of its inhabitants have committed are paltry things and Screwtape delights in the fact that most of them seem surprised to learn they ever sinned at all.
“It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one–the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”
The way that C S Lewis is able to get inside the head of a demon and make it feel both believable and (shockingly) relatable is nothing short of genius. Screwtape feels like a living, breathing character. It’s true that he undergoes no character development over the course of the book but what else can we expect – he’s a demon? Likewise, nothing really happens to Screwtape. All the ‘plot’ happens to nephew and the human he is tempting. Even so, I found myself gaining a fondness for the titular demon. He is both extremely clever and yet very foolish at the same time. This is no more obvious than when he talks about his enemy (God):
“All His talk about Love must be a disguise for something else – He must have some real motive for creating [the humans] and taking so much trouble about them. The reason one comes to talk as if He really had this impossible Love is our utter failure to out that real motive. What does He stand to make out of them? That is the insoluble question.”
However, I’m not sure if I can honestly say that I enjoyed this book overall. One of the things I’ve always found most admirable about Lewis’s writing is the way he is able to distil extremely complicated philosophical issues into simple-to-grasp analogies and moments of character. Screwtape and Wormwood seem like they would have a lot of chemistry together on page. They both apparently hate each other. They both believe they are better at their job than the other. They are both held back from hurting each other by the convoluted hierarchies of hell. But we never get to see this first hand. Just like the book’s plot, it’s only ever inferred.
In comparison with Lewis’s other books, this absence is all too obvious. In Out of the Silent Planet, for example, we follow the main character as he interacts with all sorts of strange creatures in a search which ultimately culminates in him discovering who he himself is. In Perelandra we see an Eve analogy being tempted by the devil and how the main character’s attempts to keep her from sinning only in turn lead her to sin in other ways. In my favourite book of all times, Til We Have Faces, we learn how easily someone can use love as an excuse for selfishness without even realizing it.
These things teach us something about ourselves and human nature in general. We don’t need to be told them: we see them through character interaction and dialogue. In the Screwtape Letters, however, we would need to be told them – lectured them as of a teacher from the front of a classroom. That, for me, is where this book fell down. Philosophical discourse has its place in writing certainly, but given a choice between being shown something and lectured it, I would choose the showing every time.
Overall I liked the Screwtape letters but it left me feeling conflicted. If I wanted to read a book of Lewis’s philosophy I’d have read Mere Christianity or one of his other non-fiction books. The Screwtape Letters, however, fills an odd niche in writing: not quite a work of fiction yet not quite a book of philosophy either. It’s a curiosity, hard to review, even harder to sit through and ultimately not one which I would recommend in comparison with Lewis’s other works.
“Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”