The abiding enigma of D. H. Lawrence

It is too easy merely to read what comes easily. By which I mean, to read only those writers whose perspective is sufficiently close to our own to allow us, while reading, to nod away comfortably in agreement. And indeed, some of these writers may indeed be great, however we may define that much-abused word.

But is this enough? I go to literature, after all, to broaden my perspectives, and the only way I can do this is to encounter writers whose perspectives on life are different to my own: only when I can incorporate these very different perspectives into my own does my own become richer.

If we survey the bewildering range of perspectives offered by literature – in works by authors of all imaginable or even unimaginable temperaments – it very soon becomes obvious that no one reader could possibly respond to them all. There are bound to be certain works that are too alien to the reader’s individual temperament – works that, no matter how meritorious the work, continue to elude. This is particularly the case with writers whose perspectives are extreme and idiosyncratic – Dostoyevsky, say, or Strindberg. (I love Dostoyevsky despite very grave reservations, but my latest attempt with Strindberg has been, so far, only partially successful.) But it’s worth trying: one never knows in which direction which one’s personal perspective is capable of expanding.

It is with this in mind that I wonder if I should make another attempt on D. H. Lawrence. Back in the 1970s, when I was a teenager and introducing myself to the wonders of literature, Lawrence’s stock was very high indeed. In my late teens and early 20s, eager to absorb as much as I could of what had impressed minds other than my own, I read through most of Lawrence’s major work – Sons and Lovers, The Rainbow, Women in Love, St Mawr, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and so on. Many I thought were frankly weak (Lady Chatterley’s Lover, for instance). There were others where I sensed a certain power, but which, all the same, did not make too great an impact on me. No doubt he is a great writer, I felt, but his concerns aren’t mine.

I have since returned once in a while to his short stories, but, once again, they failed to make too deep an impression. I wasn’t too worried by this: one cannot possibly respond to everything. But last night, I read the short story “The Odour of Chrysanthemums”. I cannot remember whether I have read this story before: if so, it clearly did not make an impression deep enough to remain in the mind. But this time round, I thought it was stunning. And I am beginning to wonder whether my concerns have now changed sufficiently with age to bring me closer to Lawrence than I had been before.

The story tells of a miner’s wife waiting for her husband to return in the evening; when he doesn’t, she assumes, with some anger, that he’s boozing in the pub. It becomes clear that the marriage is not a happy one. Eventually, it emerges that her husband has died in a mining accident – asphyxiated – and the climactic point of the story comes when, as she washes his corpse, she becomes aware of how little she had ever known him, how distant they had been despite their physical intimacy, and how, indeed, her failure to know him had asphyxiated the life out of him even while he had been alive.

Such a bald summary cannot convey the depths and subtleties of the story. The quality of the prose is spectacular: the control over the rhythms that of a master; and the imagery often startling. The impact of these few pages is that of a great tragic work.

When Lawrence was bad, he was very, very bad; but at his best – or, at least, when I can understand him, as I think I might have done last night – he was spectacularly good. There was about him so fiery an intensity that the adjective “visionary” is not misapplied. But he does take the reader into emotional and intellectual regions that are deeply uncomfortable, and where the reader may not be willing to follow, or capable of following. At least, I know I have often felt that way.

He was unremittingly serious, both as a writer and also, I believe, as a person. And I can’t help feeling this is one of the major reasons why our age, which demands that even the utmost seriousness must be laced with frivolity, and which regards “humourless” as about the most damning of all criticisms, doesn’t take to him. If so, so much the worse for our age.

Perhaps he is at his best in his short stories, where the form does not allow much space for his indulgences, or for his didacticism. (Too much of his work, especially his later work, is too informed by his ideology, which seemed to become increasingly bizarre with the passing years.) But I want to read at least some of those novels as well. He is a troublesome writer, certainly, but one I think worth taking the trouble over. After all, the very fact that contemporary literati tend not to like him should be a major point in his favour.

I think I need to read more of his short stories, and revisit The Rainbow and Women in Love. It may well be that these works are still too distant from me. But why come to literature at all if one is not prepared to be challenged by that which is alien to one’s natural temperament, and to be led into regions of thought and of feeling that, however uncomfortable they may be, nonetheless give us glimpses of that which had previously been beyond our imagination?

I am currently reading Les Misérables, which, given its immense length, and given further the slowness of my reading, may take some time. But come next year, I think a period of immersion in the works of D. H. Lawrence may well be on the cards. I imagine, at the very least, he will be somewhat different from Victor Hugo!

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23 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by sharon Henning on September 16, 2013 at 7:14 pm

    I have never read D.H. Lawrence. I’d never thought about challenging myself to read what I don’t normally enjoy. At my age, I’ve looked at it more like-how many days left do I have on earth and how do I want to spend my precious time?

    However, I made pick up “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” by Carson McCullers. While I don’t agree with her depressing worldview, I am thoroughly enjoying the book. So there’s something to be said about exploring uncharted territories.

    If I get around to Lawrence, I’ll have to try “The Odour of Chrysathemums” first.

    Reply

    • Hello Sharon,
      Now you mention it, I am not even sure whether or not I enjoyed “The Odour of Chrusanthemums”: it made a tremendous impact on me … but did I actually enjoy it? I mean, I enjoy PG Wodehouse, I enjoy Dashiel Hammett, I enjoy King Solomon’s Mines … but this? I really don’t know. But I’m glad I read it. Perhaps it’s a question of how one defines “enjoys”! But yes, while I do find uncharted areas – especially areas that are not quite “one one’s wavelength”, as it were – difficult and challenging, the experience of taking in something new is … Oh, I can’t think of the right word, and it’s too late at night now to worry about it!

      The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is a wonderful novel! I do find myself drawn to the literature of the American South – William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connr, and Carson McCullers, are all personal favourites. There are still a few Carson McCullers novels I haven’t read yet – Member of the Wedding and Clock Without Hands. Yes, i know, I really ought to get round to them.

      Reply

  2. Well, I say go ahead!

    I have minimal experience with Lawrence, but I think I should have paid more attention to him. When I read Women In Love, I was at times exasperated, but I know the novel also contained passages of extraordinary beauty and insight. I think I have to re-read it.

    Regarding his seriousness, his poetry can be very satirical and witty, especially his ‘Pansies,’ which were named after Pascal’s pensées.

    Reply

    • I have only read one or two of Lawrence’s poems: I’ll give them a try – Lawrence with a sense of humour must be worth trying out, if only for its novelty value!

      Women in Love, as I remember, was often exasperating, but like you, I think I do nee dto read it again. Oh well – I’ll stick with Hugo for the moment!

      Reply

  3. I have read about 1/5 of the Lawrence you have, but have had similar thoughts. Someday I will have to steel myself and see what I can make of him. My recent reading of his American literature book was productive, thankfully. It had some humor, too.

    I suspect you are on to something when you compare the restrictions of the novel and the short story, but I believe it is also true that Lawrence changed a lot, and quickly, over time, so there may also be an issue of periodization. But how would I know.

    Reply

    • I enjoyed your musings on Lawrence’s book on American literature. Indeed, it was partly your posts that urged me to try out some of his short stories again.

      Looking through the list of his works, there does seem to be something of a decline after, say, Women in Love. I’d guess Lawrence was too dynamic as a personality not to change!

      Reply

  4. Posted by Brian Joseph on September 17, 2013 at 9:01 am

    There are actually very few authors whose worldview comes close to mine. When I think about it I think that I could even classify many with the word “alien”.

    I have read three of Lawrence’s novels. The Rainbow and Women in Love I found to be extraordinary, but, if not alien, at least the product of a different mindset from mine. Perhaps however it was in their characters that I was most impressed.

    If you reread those two I would be very interested to read your thoughts on them.

    PS – I am sheepishly feeling guilty about the length of my Bah – Humbook pick for you!

    Reply

    • Hello Brian, I have started Les Miserables, and should be finished in a couple of months. The Harold Bloom book I’ve been reading on & off since the start of the year: I’m nearly finished, and will write a post about it over the next few weeks.

      Major authors generally do have a very individual and profound way of looking at life. When such a worldview is combined with a mastery of language to communicate it adequately, we have what we call “great literature”. Mere ordinary mortals such as myself may not have so profound a vew, but if we can absorb something of what we find in literature, then something of the way these writers viewed life becomes ours also. And after a while, it becomes difficult to figure out whether this was absorbed from some writer, or whether it was innate. Come to think of it, was any mental capacity innate? Who knows … It’s getting far too complex for my little brain when we get to this stage…

      Reply

  5. Posted by ombhurbhuva on September 17, 2013 at 10:06 am

    Odour is well written but I am not convinced by the metaphysical ruminations ascribed to Mrs. Bates in the ending. “In fear and shame she looked at his naked body, that she had known falsely.” This seems too existentialist for a miner’s wife. In fact if Simone de Beauvoir thought it I would have my doubts. I think compo might be more to the forefront of her mind and whether his contravening good practice would affect it. Anger at another one of his stupid stunts could be there too.

    It’s on Adelaide University’s free ebook list.

    Reply

    • I don’t really see why a miner’s wife should not have powerful insights into the nature of her life. Such insights are not restricted merely to the well-educated.

      The character of Elizabeth is intelligent and sensitive. True, she probably hasn’t had more than a fairly basic education, so she wouldn’t phrase her insights in the way an academic would: but her social class is surely no barrier to what she feels. And her feeling, at the point you cite, is that she had known her dead husband “falsely”. I can’t think of any reason why she shouldn’t feel this.

      Larence himself, of course, came from this social background, and did not have a university background. It did not prevent him thinking and feeling metaphysical thoughts and feelings.

      Reply

      • Posted by ombhurbhuva on September 18, 2013 at 1:46 pm

        Please note I wrote that I would not believe such a reaction from Simone de Beauvoir, a starry Normalien, so it’s not a matter of education merely. I read that he struggled over this ending and rewrote it several times. My personal feeling is that a more visceral feeling of anger at Bates was the alternative considered.

      • Hello,
        You had said:

        This seems too existentialist for a miner’s wife. In fact if Simone de Beauvoir thought it I would have my doubts.

        The implication here seems to me to be that certain feelings may be accessible to someone as educated and as intellectual as Simone de Beauvoir; but they cannot be accessible to a mere miner’s wife.

        I’d dispute that. Education may teach us to think in certain ways, and to express ourselves in certain ways. But what Elizabeth is feeling at the end of the story goes well beyond anything education may impart. These are feelings of a power and intensity that take this story into new dimensions.

        You say “it’s not a matter of education merely”: I think it’s not a matter of education at all. Education is certainly not a sufficient criterion here; neither, I think, is it a necessary one.

        Different people feel different things, in different ways. What Elizabeth feels at the end of the story may not be the way most people in her situation, miners’ wives or not, may have felt; but that’s how she feels. And Lawrence, like Wordsworth before him, gave primacy to and honoured what people feel – all people, regardless of education or social class.

        I’m not surprised that Lawrence struggled over the ending: it must have been tremendously difficult to write. But the struggle was worth it: the achievement in the final version is breathtaking.

  6. I read a few of DH Lawrence’s novels when I was a teenager and young adult, my favorite being The Rainbow, although I can hardly remember it now. What I was really fascinated by was his life and his associations with other writers. That was typical of my reading by then, reading more about the writers than their writing. I don’t know how well I would take to his writing now, although I believe I would also be hard-pressed to find novels by contemporary authors who had the same literary aspirations as Lawrence. But I remember that, in those long ago days, I often read books for their challenges to my worldview and to the way I expressed myself, not for the kind of pleasure I get now from reading a cozy mystery. Maybe my brain cells need a little shaking up 😉 Very interesting post.

    Reply

    • I don’t remember the details of the Lawrence novels I have read (itwas all a long time back now), but i remember that many of them I had found exasperating; and also that i frequently sensed a great power in the writing, although I didn’t really understand it.

      After reading that short story recently, and having been deeply impressed by it, I think I am more equipped now to tackle Lawrence. It’s strange how one changes with age: and it’s a bit frightening to remind myself that I am older now than Lawrence was when he died!

      Reply

  7. Reblogged this on 1WriteWay and commented:
    For DH Lawrence fans … or not.

    Reply

  8. This post speaks to me. I was drawn to the title because it included the name of my old high school nemesis, D.H. Lawrence. We did “Sons and Lovers” in GCE A’Levels English Lit and I surely did not like it. However, I still have my book (many decades later) and I’ve been meaning to re-read it, now that I’m older and I can probably appreciate it more. I’ve also been devouring pages of short stories these past few weeks and you’ve just given me an idea to try and acquire DHL’s book of short stories. As for Les Miserables, I managed to get through that last year over several weeks. It was well worth it.

    Reply

  9. Posted by ombhurbhuva on September 18, 2013 at 6:11 pm

    If I had my way, I would build a lethal chamber as big as the Crystal Palace, with a military band playing softly, and a Cinematograph working brightly; then I’d go out in the back streets and main streets and bring them in, all the sick, the halt, and the maimed; I would lead them gently, and they would smile me a weary thanks; and the band would softly bubble out the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’.

    Reply

    • Posted by ombhurbhuva on September 18, 2013 at 6:12 pm

      Sorry this should go before:
      We’re at cross purposes here. What I mean is that if it were represented to me that de Beauvoir had thought such a thing or even if she claimed to have thought such a thing I would doubt it. Simples. We disagree.

      I first came across the following in John Carey’s The Intellectuals and the Masses. As well as ‘loins’ you get :

      If I had my way, I would build a lethal chamber as big as the Crystal Palace, with a military band playing softly, and a Cinematograph working brightly; then I’d go out in the back streets and main streets and bring them in, all the sick, the halt, and the maimed; I would lead them gently, and they would smile me a weary thanks; and the band would softly bubble out the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’. (D.H.L in a letter)

      Reply

      • Hello,

        What I mean is that if it were represented to me that de Beauvoir had thought such a thing or even if she claimed to have thought such a thing I would doubt it. Simples. We disagree.

        If you mean that de Beauvoir, or any other person for that matter (I’m frankly not sure what de Beauvoir has to do with this!), is not capable of thinking or feeling what Elizabeth thinks and feels at the end of the story, then I’m afraid we’ll have to disagree! Do you have any evidence that people are incapable of feeling or of thinking in this manner?

        As for the quote from the letter:

        John Carey made a programme for BBC to coincide with the publication of The Intellectuals and the Masses, and the programme was, frankly, a disgrace, with evidence presented selectively, quotes cited out of context, and with highly spurious reasoning throughout. (The title itself is questionable, as it implies that those belonging to the “masses” cannot be intellectual.) Not Carey’s greatest moment, I regret. He ended that programme with that quote from Lawrence, without providing any sort of context for it. Of course, it can be argued that there can be no context that could justify something like that, and I’d agree. (It’s particularly objectionable given certain events that occurred after Lawrence’s death.) However, there are two points I’d like to make here:

        Firstly, we often say things in private to friends that are hyperbolic and at least partly tongue in cheek, and which most certainly do not reflect our true feelings: I certainly would not wish all my private off-the-cuff remarks made public, and considered representative of my thinking.

        And secondly, even if it were established beyond doubt that Lawrence did indeed subscribe to these views, I do not see why it should prevent us judging his works purely on their own merits.

        In any case, I do not see what relevance this particular quote has on the issue we have been discussing, and am not at all sure why you quote it here.

        All the best,
        Himadri

  10. Posted by ombhurbhuva on September 19, 2013 at 6:42 am

    Himdari:
    Some time ago I read Ford Madox Ford’s account of his first meeting with D.H.L and his acceptance of a story as editor of the English Review. I had forgotten what that story was till I re-read it this morning. It was The Odour of Chrysanthemums and the boy was just 21. Ford was on his way to a dinner and only had time to read the start but he put it straight into the acceptance tray. ‘Fordie’s found a new genius’ said Wells- it was a literary dinner and publishers there on the strength of Ford’s enthusiasm asked for first refusal.
    http://www.unz.org/Pub/AmMercury-1936jun-00167

    Michael.

    Reply

    • Hello Michael, and thanks for that.
      I’ve been reaching for the volumes of Lawrence on my shelves quite frequently of late, and can’t really understand why I have neglected him for so long. Perhaps I am nw ready for Lawrence. It is true that his ideologies were often bizarre and sometimes unpalatable; but he seems to have developed these ideologies only in the later part of his life: at least, it’s only his later work that are informed by them. The short stories I’ve been reading in the last few as are magnificent. Philip Larkin described “Sons and Lovers” as a “perfect” novel, and recently, Blake Morrison wrote a superb appreciative essay on it (a google search should lead you to it). “The Rainbow” and “Women in Love” are frequently described by people whose taste and discernment I trst as among the greatest f moves. Perhaps “Women in Love” is already on the edge of madness, but there are certain forms of madness that are worth grappling with. Lawrence is certainly challenging, and he frequently makes me feel very uncomfortable. But I don’t want to go to literature merely to seek comfort, and I think Lawrence is an author worth grappling with. He may not always be at his best, and his poorer works, as even his most ardent admirers concede, are very poor indeed. But…
      Well – let’s see how it goes!

      Cheers, Himadri

      Reply

  11. Posted by alan on September 28, 2013 at 8:35 pm

    I’ve just read the story and for some reason it made me reflect on the status that marriage used to have but no longer does have.
    The woman’s mother-in-law was referred to as her mother. My parents would have addressed their in-laws with ‘mother’ and ‘father’, but that does not seem a feature of contemporary relationships.
    I have no axe to grind here, just a belief that a lot of us no longer have easy access to what marriage signified at that time and how that partly informs the woman’s feelings.

    Reply

    • It’s inevitable, I guess, that as societies change, the nature of relationships between people in the past will not be the same as it is now – either within the family, or without. Even within the workplace, it wasn’t that long ago that we would have addressed our bosses as “Mr …” (or, more rarely in the past, as Mrs … or Miss …), whereas now we all tend to be on first name terms.

      It’s the same for contemporary literatures from different cultures: relationships within, say, a traditional Indian family would probably be very different from relationships within a Western family.
      But what I find remarkable is how quickly we, as readers, can adapt to social conventions that are not our own – whether they be from the past, or from other countries – and make that leap of the imagination into the mind of people accustomed to social mores not our own.

      I think you’re right that the world Lawrence presents of the midlands mining town is now quite distant from our own society. But doesn’t that make it all the more extraordinary that we can come to an understanding of these people, and even find ourselves feeling something of what they feel?

      Reply

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