What Lawrence was on about

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.

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18 responses to this post.

  1. Excellent post. I agree with your sentiments and I also found your writing extremely compelling. One of the best blog posts I’ve read in a while.

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    • Hello Clint, and thanks for that. Unfortunately, I don’t have much to say about Lawrence since, as I said, I don’t really understand him. But I reckoned that if one has nothing to say, one might as well dress it up to give the impression that one does! 🙂

      Reply

  2. Posted by Erika W. on April 15, 2011 at 11:35 am

    I was a teenager in the late 50s and Lawrence was really going from strength to strength at this point. My reactions were similar to yours. He was one of my first husband’s favorite three authors (the other two were Rider Haggard and Zola, what an odd trio but he died as a young man) and I really tried hard to scoop out equal enjoyment. I even felt an affinity because I was conceived as a result of my parents reading Lady Chatterley–they adjourned to the garden to be children of nature and my mother never forgot the discomfort of the dried holly leaves hiding under the grass.

    Returning to Lawrence in my 50s I did find a lot of pleasure in his short stories and his poetry but as for the novels–oh dear.

    Reply

    • Hello Erika, Zola, Rider Haggard and Lawrence seem about as unlikely a trio as may be imagined! And I like our story also about Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

      I have actually admired some of Lawrence’s short stories. It’s probably because, given the nature of the form, there isn’t much room for indulging one’s idiosyncracies. But he did have a very strange way of looking at the world!

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  3. Posted by Caro on April 16, 2011 at 4:32 am

    “what bothers me about Lawrence is that he was a looney”

    More of a looney than Doestoevsky, Himadri?

    I haven’t read Lawrence for a very long time (in fact I wondered if I had ever read him, but I did read Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and am pretty sure we studied Women in Love once), so can’t comment on the specifics of your post. But while I understand you like the depth and importance of theme and thought behind writing, surely the writing is also important in assessing the skills and worth (not the right word perhaps, but I can’t think quite what is) of a novelist. If Lawrence’s writing is lacking, then he is ipso facto not to be as highly rated as another author who combines both facets.

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    • Me: “…what bothers me about Lawrence is that he was a looney”

      Caro: “More of a looney than Doestoevsky, Himadri?”

      Hello Caro,
      That’s a good question, and in asking it, I think you’ve anticipated some of the issues I was hoping to discuss in more detail in future posts. The principal issue I think is this: to what extent must one be in sympathy with the author’s viewpoint to appreciate that author’s work?

      For me, Lawrence and Dostoyevsky, very different though they are, form an interesting pair. Both are – to stick with my facetious, inelegant and rather politically incorrect formulation – “loonies”. I don’t mean they were mentally ill (although Dostoyevsky was epileptic): I mean that both of them viewed the world in a manner significantly at odds with anything that may be called “the norm”.

      Should this be a problem? In theory, the answer is “no”. We do not – or, at least, we should not – go to literature merely to have our own views confirmed. Literature should challenge us, and present us with new and different perspectives, new and different ways of looking at things. Inevitably, some of these perspectives will be very different from our own, and will make us feel uncomfortable; they may even disturb us. And if one doesn’t want to feel uncomfortable, or even disturbed, by what one reads, then it’s possibly best to avoid serious literature altogether.

      Up to this point, I don’t think I have a problem. But what concerns me is this: what if the viewpoint presented is so very alien to one’s sensibilities, that one can’t even begin to share it? I don’t feel this with Dostoyevsky, but I do with Lawrence. In Dostoyevsky, there was much that passed me by, much that I failed t take in adequately, much that frankly seemed to make no sense at all. But equally, there was also much that gripped and excited me in ways I don’t think any other novel has done. Dostoyevsky’s perspective is so very different from my own, that it required an immense effort on my part to enter his fictional world, and, while I won’t pretend that my attempt to enter this worlds has been entirely successful, I think I did get enough out of it to recognize the existence there of something very special. But in Lawrence’s case, this hasn’t happened. It may be that I haven’t yet put in enough effort; it may be that, as I change over the years, I will come to see that which had previously eluded me; or it may be that Lawrence is just not for me. The last of these options is the most likely. But I do sense something there – something that I cannot come close to grasping (his concerns, whatever they are, are not mine), but something that, nonetheless, prevents me from joining in with the currently fashionable Lawrence-bashing.

      As for the question of the quality Lawrence’s writing:

      People often talk about something being “well written” or “badly written”, but they rarely, if ever, specify what exactly they mean by that. If one’s criterion on “good writing” is that sentences must be elegantly phrased and polished, then Lawrence frequently fails the test. But that’s not because he couldn’t write polished prose: I could easily find examples of Lawrence’s prose that is as elegant and as polished – and also as expressive – as the best. Clearly, the decision to jettison polish and elegance was a deliberate artistic decision on his part, and, before we condemn it, we must consider why he had consciously made such a decision.

      It seems to me that when authors have a very individual and idiosyncratic perspective to impart, they have to find a new language: conventional ways of using language is not adequate for what they want to communicate. Writers such as Melville, Dostoyevsky, and, yes, Lawrence, found that what they wanted to communicate lies at the very edge of what language – as it had been used till then – is capable of communicating. So they had to find new ways of using language. And Lawrence clearly felt that if elegance and polish had to be sacrificed along the way, then so be it.
      Was it worth it? I think the answer to that depends on whether or not one is in sympathy with Lawrence’s vision. I, personally, am not: but clearly, there are many intelligent nd perceptive readers who are. And I can only put this discrepancy down to personal temperament. I am not personally in sympathy with Lawrence’s aims, and, that being the case, the means towards those ends can strike me as absurd, overblown, or, worse, simply tedious. But those who are in sympathy with Lawrence’s aims clearly feel otherwise. For them, Lawrence had clearly succeeded in communicating with his writing something very special, something which could not have been communicated any other way. And, given the Lawrence’s writing has succeeded in doing this, there is a strong case for saying that his writing is actually very good, despite its frequent inelegance and lack of polish.

      Also, Lawrence was an experimental writer. (As was William Faulkner, who is a great favourite of mine, and who, like Lawrence, is not for all tastes either.) It is only to be expected, I think, that when one experiments, not all experiments will succeed equally well. And Lawrence, like Faulkner, frequently failed – even by the estimation of his own admirers. But that does not invalidate the experiments, especially given how spectacular the results are when they succeed.

      Lawrence is not, I admit, for me. Maybe some day, I’ll change enough to come round to him: but as it is now, I can’t find a way in. However, he wrote with intensity about big things: unlike so many contemporary novelists I come across, he didn’t content himself merely with trivial people experiencing trivial emotions. And for this reason alone, I find myself rather liking the chap, and thinking that I really ought to give the Rainbow ad Women in Love another try.

      Reply

  4. I really liked Women in Love but that’s been as far as it goes with Lawrence, I’m afraid. Although recently I bought a copy of The Lost Girl for some inexplicable reason.

    Reply

    • I think The Rainbow and Women in Love are generally reckoned to be his masterpieces. The two novels essentially form a diptych: the Brangwen sisters, who are two of the main characters in Women in Love, are both introduced in the earlier novel.

      I read both of these novels back in my stdent years, and whiel I sensed their power, and even found myself enthralled by certain episodes, it didn’t, taken as a whole, make much sense to me: I was left wondering much of the time what these novels are about. But given the veneration in which they are held by their admittedly shrinking band of admirers, I really should try them again.

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  5. Interesting that you feel he is so alien, and you are a Brit. I read Chatterly’s Lover a while ago – others stories are too far back to recall – and I rather enjoyed it. Didn’t quite see it as a ‘great novel’ beyond the terrific storm it created, i.e. as a work of literature rather than a public event, but I found it compelling.

    But I also find it extremely weird. I chalked it up to my American distance from the intensely class-bound and sexually repressed nature of early 20th century British life. Still, I could imagine that living in England then, or now?, could sort of drive one crazy…(Probably the sexual repression is exaggerated in hindsight.) I have been a raging Anglophile off and on in my life, but I’ve been there enough to see how English society might drive a certain type of individualist round the bend. Am I too far off here..?

    Reply

  6. Posted by Sue Gedge (Klara Z) on April 23, 2011 at 3:23 pm

    Wow, Himadri! My eyes almost popped out of my head when I read that comment about Lawrence being a ‘loony’—not because of the sentinment, because arguably there are some very unbalanced books in the canon (‘The Plumed Serpent’ for example!), but because I’m not used to you using such colloquialiasms. And you’ve really thrown down the gauntlet there!
    But yes, you’ve certainly got a point. Lawrence had some very odd ideas about ‘blood darkness’, ‘blood brotherhood’ and sex, but n the other hand, he was a pioneer and a visionary, and he was also capable of writing sharply observed social realism (Ursula’s experiences as a teacher in The Rainbow, for example.) And I think ‘Sons and Lovers’ is a masterpiece.
    Decades since I read Lawrence, and having studied and read him so heavily in the 1970s, maybe I’ll never return to him. But if I do, it wll be to re-read some of his short stories. inuonerrsrgeeiot ime

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  7. Hello Lichanos & Sue (if I may answer you both in one reply, it would perhaps save my repeating myself) –

    I remember some time ago on a discussion board describing Tolstoy as a “looney”, and being taken to task by someone who told me very seriously that I was out of order, that the Soviet Communist governments often silenced their critics by diagnosing them as mentally ill and locking them up, etc etc. I tried to explain as best I could that I had no intention of silencing anyone (least of all my favourit enovelist Tolstoy), and that words aren’t always used to denote their strict literal meaning, and that from the context I thought it obvious that I had used “looney” as a shorthand for “wildly eccentric”, that i meant it as a bit of a joke, etc. etc. However, I suppose that incident should have taught me a lesson about not being too flippant about serious matters. But then again, since this is my blog, I can write here as I like, so there! 🙂

    Lawrence was, it seems to me, very English in some senses, but not in others. My own background is very mixed, in that although I have now lived in England for the greater part of my life, I am an Indian Bengali by birth & parentage (and also, to some extent, by upbringing); and that, furthermore, I grew up in Scotland. I do know, however, a number of people who are very English (in terms of background, birth, residence, cultural values, etc) but who, nonetheless, cannot stand Lawrence. Conversely, two of Lawrence’s greatest admirers amongst contemporary literati are Howard Jacobson (of English-Jewish background), and Amit Choudhuri, who, like myself, is an Indian Bengali by birth and by upbringing. I suppose it all goes to demonstrate how our literary sympathies can cross boundaries!

    Lawrence had, I think, a great sympathy with the English landscape: the background of the English countryside in novels such as The Rainbow or Sons and Lovers is very powerful, and seems often to recall the novels of Hardy (whom Lawrence greatly admired). But Lawrence felt deeply out of sympathy with the English cosmopolitan literati, and, again like Hardy, was no part of the establishment.

    I like the intensity in Lawrence’s writing; I like the fact that he took life seriously, and that he dealt with big themes, that his works did not depict merely trivial people experiencing trivial emotions. All of this makes me want to like Lawrence. But Lawrence’s viewpoint is at far too great a variance from my own: he appeared to see in our physicality, and, especially, in sex, a sort of mystical transcendence; he seemed to view sex itself with a sort of mystic awe and wonder. This is, in a sense, very unEnglish, as the English view of sex tends to be irreverent, and tends on the whole towards the bawdy and the humorous rather than towards Lawrentian awe and wonder. In this context, Lawrence’s deadly seriousness about sex can appear embarrassing and uncomfortable. And yes, I must confess that I often feel embarrassed and uncomfortable – not by Lawrence’s frankness or the explicitness about sex, but by the deadly seriousness with which he deals with it. I tell myself that there is no reason why literature shouldn’t make us feel uncomfortable – indeed, some of the very greatest literature can make us feel very uncomfortable indeed – but ultimately, I cannot force myself to see through Lawrence’s eyes.

    His masterpieces are often considered to be that diptych The Rainbow and Women in Love. In the introduction to a recent edition of the latter, Howard Jacobson refers to it as ranking with Ulysses as the greatest English language novel of the 20th century: if Ulysses was the great comic novel of the century, he decalred, then Women in Love is the greatest tragic novel. Of course, it is pointless to reduce literature to the level of a competitive sport, and obviously Jacobson was being provocative. But it nonetheless does provoke me to try out these two novels again (The Rainbow and Women in Love) and see if I could get a bit more out of the this time round than I did the last.

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  8. he seemed to view sex itself with a sort of mystic awe and wonder…Lawrence’s deadly seriousness about sex can appear embarrassing and uncomfortable

    Yes, definitely. Deeply personal, I would say, and ‘eccentric.’ I wonder if he enjoyed sex himself? Cf. Wilhelm Reich for an almost absurdist counterpoint. Some writers are too deeply personal to allow us to empathize with their view, unless we share it – perhaps he is one for you…and me.

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  9. At first I thought you were discussing T. E. Lawrence, a great man who seems to fit your criteria quite accurately as well! But I really enjoyed your discussion on him, it was incredibly interesting and thought provoking.

    I loved this line especially, “I’m told also that he was humourless; and, of course, by modern standards, that is an unforgivable crime.” A great sentence that really stood out!

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    • I haven’t read The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which, from all accounts, is among the finest of books about war. (Yet another book I must get round to!) My knowledge of TE Lawrence is restricted, I admit, to the David Lean film, which marvellously entertaining though it is, shouldn’t, I suspect, be mistaken for history. But from the little I know, TE was in his own way as eccentric as DH!

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  10. I’m coming to the party after most have the guests have left I’m sure. Lawrence is associated with the tedium of school for me, which is too bad becaause the Sons and Lovers Trilogy has the great advantage over much contemporary writing that it is about something. What was he on about? I see him as fox terrier pointing forward to where we stand today, and I am thankful that his view triumphed and his “pornography” now seems nothing like.

    I got over my bad memories by reading the letters of Charles Olson and Robert Creeley, two writers who veneratedLawrence,particularly for his Studies in Classic Amercian Literature. Now, there’s a book to get your teeth into. There is someone actively engaging with reading. It is not all about elegance and phrase-turning. There is a vital purpose, a thread of fire in good writing.

    Curiously for me, whether he was a “good” writer is irrelevant. Contemporary literary fiction might be finer but it doesn’t have the balls.

    Enjoying your blog by the way!

    Reply

    • Hello Jason, thank you for this (and other) comments, and welcome. Sorry I have been so late in replying. And don’t worry about being late to the party: I am always happy to re-open old discussions!

      I have read (and have posted about) a fair amount of Lawrence since writing the above, and, while I am somewhat less bemused than I had been, I still find his worldview puzzling in many respects. But that is as it should be: a writer who engage with life as intensely as Lawrence does should challenge us.

      I have been looking at Studies in Classic American Literature also, and it is indeed fascinating. Whatever difficulties I may have with Lawrence, I admire the seriousness nd intensity of hi engagement with whatever he wrote about.

      Lawrence’s writings are no longer seen as obscene, but I am not sure Lawrence has triumphed. Paradoxically, Lawrence had, it seems to me, a strong streak of puritanism in his nature: he insisted that our sexual urges be taken seriously, and deplored the trivialisation and cheapening of what he regarded as some of the most vital and important aspects of our humanity. I think he would have been appalled by modern prevalence of pornography!

      All the best,
      Himadri

      Reply

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