Descent into Hell

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As a theological argument, Descent into Hell may make for good fiction, but as a novel, it leaves much to be desired. While many proclaim this the finest of Williams's works, that proclamation probably needs some scrutiny and qualification to make any sense. Perhaps the acclaim is for the interesting concept and final delivery of the book; if so, the acclaim may be justified, as the novel presents one of the more interesting climaxes in the Williams oeuvre, and the most explicit and consistent spelling out of Williams's pet doctrine of substituted love.

However well or poorly it may function as speculative or practical theology, it does not function well as a novel, not even as a novel of ideas. There are several reasons for this. The prose is tortured to the extreme, taking a long time (even for Williams) to get to the point.

The dead man had stood in what was now Wentworth's bedroom, and listened in fear lest he should hear the footsteps of his kind. That past existed still in its own place, since all the past is in the web of life nothing else than a part, of which we are not sensationally conscious. It was drawing closer now to the present; it approached the senses of the present. But between them still there went---patter,patter--the hurrying footsteps which Margaret Anstruther had heard in the first circle of the Hill. The dead man had hardly heard them; his passion had carried him through that circle into death. But on the hither side were the footsteps, and the echo and memory of the footsteps, of this world. It was these for which Wentworth listened. . .

And on, and on, and on, and on. "But between them still there went. . ." Between whom? Between the past and the present, between Wentworth and the dead man, between the people of the Hill. The writing is murky, unclear, imprecise, unfinished. There are few pages in the book that do not display at least one hefty lump of prose to match the above. There is about the writing nothing clear and precise, but a seemingly endless grinding of the same grain. Had there been somewhat less, the novel would have occupied perhaps two-thirds of its present length and come to a much stronger and more powerful conclusion for being more direct concerning what it was about. Williams plays too coy with his theme for too long.

In addition, there are few real characters in the book. Mrs. Anstruther and the Poet Stanhope speak in cryptic, labyrinthine sentences that suggest more the Oracles at Delphi than any reasonable character. Wentworth, driven by his own selfishness and ego becomes a mockery of himself (although this is the end of utter selfishness) and Pauline isn't quite firmly enough drawn to bear the weight laid upon her shoulders by the plot line.

The story about which these theological speculations are clustered, the presentation of a play by a group of performers at the Hill, is so trivial as to be at points painful. Doppelgangers, Lamias, ghosts or revenants, and personified elementals all loom large, or rather small as Williams isn't the least interested in any of these, and thus cannot cause the reader to evince interest. Williams is interested in his idea which, while fascinating, hardly makes for compelling reading as a piece of fiction.

In truth, nearly every other book of Williams is superior as fiction. No other approaches it (except perhaps All Hallows Eve) in the courage and strength of its initial ideation, nor in the pervasiveness of the coherent center of the book. Nevertheless, ideas rarely make for compelling fiction. And in this case, the idea, glorious in itself needs a better vehicle than a novel for it to achieve effect. And as the idea cannot be in the ascendant here, neither can the novel based entirely upon the effect of the idea succeed.

If one is inclined to read Williams, it may be better to start with nearly any other work and to find one's way slowly back to this. An appreciation of Williams's prose effects and system of writing may sustain one through the reading of this book, but perhaps only barely.

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I've heard Williams mentioned as an author one ought to read, but the passage you quoted gives me pause. It's not that nowadays I don't feel up to reading dense or thematic works, but that my reading time is snatched late at night or at odd moments during the day, and in my weariness or laziness I don't feel up to wrestling with prose that needs to be re-read several times not because of its depth or beauty, but because of its imcomprehensibility.

Still, we have a long weekend coming up, so maybe I'll have a chance to tackle something like Williams then. Any suggestions for an introductory work?

Any my library still doesn't have The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie back in yet. I'm wondering if I'm going to have to bite the bullet and buy it if I want to read it. :)

Dear Mrs. Darwin,

Unfortunately, there are no "starter" works in the canon of Charles Williams. All of theme are dense and sometimes not terribly lucid.

That said, however, there are books that have more plot and less idea to them and which may be useful to start with. For example, I consider War in Heaven to be a nice specific against DaVinci Code nonsense. Williams was a kind of Arthurian Scholar and his book about the Holy Grail is such as to inspire confidence in this.

Many dimensions, about the Ring of King Solomon is also an easier start.

I don't know whether it is easier or not, but I found All Hallows Eve to ring true and to be very easy to read in comparison with other works.

Wherever you start, Williams is not easy going; however, many of his books are worth the effort. I would not put Descent into Hell within that elite circle.



Gee, now I'm embarrassed to admit that I kind of liked it.

Maybe it's because, having suffered through years of ambiguous Episcopal preaching where one keeps trying to figure out what the priest really means, Williams' prose seems crystal clear. (In the Continuing Anglican and maronite churches I go to, I am constantly blown away by the simple clarity of the message.)

Alternatively, maybe I liked it because I paid the most attention to Wentworth's descent - lost inside his own head, which hits a little too close to home - and accepted the rest as a means of getting there.

Or maybe I just accepted the writing style because he was a Brit. In any case, I liked it and found it a pretty quick read.

Dear WA,

Well, I don't know that it is a source of embarrassment; however, it does put you in the minority. In our small group several people couldn't even finish it--in fact only one did, and then only under the durress of thinking that someone else had as well. And even this one wasn't remarkably enthusiastic about it.

And this was odd because she was the one who had suggested it. Moreover, all of us read All Hallows Eve and managed it quite handily.

The difficulty I had was the ponderous prose and the mini-lectures aimed largely at obscurity. The absence of this deadweight would have allowed a superior story to float to the surface and still would have managed the task represented by the author quite handily.

However, that judgment could merely be a matter of my modd. My impression is that the audience for this book is likely to be more restricted than for many of the others. Jeff has already noted that some critics name it his finest. I would be at odds with them; but obviously there is great room for disagreement. Which is kind of the point of having a conversation about it at all. Hopefully with a variety of viewpoints people will have more information on which to base a decision regarding whether or not to read it.

Thank you for writing.



I am a bit surprised at the comments on Williams. I have read and re-read his fiction, with enjoyment, for years. However, beware his non-fiction. In "The Descent of the Dove: a short history of the Holy Spirit in the Church" he refers to our Blessed Mother as "Christotokos", a position specifically condemned by the (Third Ecumenical)Council of Ephesus.



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on June 27, 2006 12:27 PM.

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