When I was a teenager back in the 1970s, the position of D. H. Lawrence in the literary pantheon seemed unassailable. Eager to sample as much as I could of what was highly regarded, I read as many of his works as I could lay my hands on. And I put down my failure to appreciate these works to my lack of understanding.
Lawrence’s stock has fallen greatly since then (although there remains the odd Booker Prize winner who, despite current fashions, is happy to sing his praise), but, while my incomprehension remains, I prefer not to join in the chorus of disapproval. Indeed, the very fact that he is so deeply unfashionable these days rather makes me warm to him, and wish I liked him better. Certainly, many of the arguments made against him seem to me to be of little importance. His politics, apparently, were suspect: I suppose if his novels had been written specifically to promote whatever dubious politics he had, that would have been a serious consideration; but since they weren’t, it isn’t. I’m told also that he was humourless; and, of course, by modern standards, that is an unforgivable crime. But once again, this doesn’t bother me: if it’s a good laugh I want, I can always reach for my Wodehouse books: I don’t see why I should demand that every writer should make me laugh.
I’m also told that Lawrence wrote badly. Well, yes, it is certainly true that much of his prose is vague and maddeningly repetitive; but that is only to be expected of a writer who, no doubt quite legitimately, saw the act of writing as not so much an attempt to depict with a finality what is, but, rather, to explore without any thought of finality the various possibilities of what might be. No: Lawrence’s awkward repetitiveness, his frequent clumsiness in striving after that which by its nature cannot be pinned down to anything definite – none of this bothers me. And in any case, it is surely obvious that when he put his mind to it, the old boy could write as well as anyone.
What bothers me about Lawrence is not that he couldn’t write: what bothers me about Lawrence is that he was a looney. I have returned to his works – often to his shorter fiction – frequently, in the hope that with my passing years, my own view of life may have changed to the point where Lawrence might start making some sense. But try as I might, I just cannot figure out what it is he is writing about. He seems to be a creature from some alien planet: whatever concerns he had are no doubt profound and important, but they aren’t my concerns, they have never loomed large in my life. And by no stretch of the imagination – and I have tried stretching my imagination as far as it can go – can I share them.
But I do not want to dismiss Lawrence either, because, whatever one might say about him, he was never bland. I admire artists who have an intensity of vision, even though, as in this case, the nature of the vision eludes me. I understand a fury in his words, but not the words.