Books are often recommended on the basis that it is “unputdownable”. That it is a constant page-turner”. Once I started, I couldn’t put it down till I had finished. And so on.
Let’s not be sniffy. I have enjoyed such books also. The Three Musketeers, Farewell My Lovely, the Flashman novels – all compulsive unputdown-ers, and splendid they all are. To this day I can remember that shiver of excitement I had felt as an eleven-year-old when Dr Mortimer had leant forward and confided: “Mr Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound.” How could any first-time-reader – or, for that matter, any hundredth time reader – not turn the page at that point?
But even acknowledging the immense pleasure of a quality page-turner, there exists another kind of book that deserves our attention. Not page-turners, but rather, books where you often find yourself reading over the page you’ve just finished; not books that you can’t put down, but on the contrary, books that you need to put down frequently to savour and think about what you have just read. Such books may be hard for publishers’ PR departments to promote – which, I imagine, is the reason why publishers’ PR departments don’t bother – but they’re often worth the effort.
The book I am reading on my commuter train these days – The Rainbow by D. H Lawrence – is very much like that. Well, re-reading I suppose, but I got so little out of my first reading (over thirty years ago now) that it doesn’t feel like a re-read. When I wrote about Lawrence here some three years ago, I couldn’t help expressing an admiration for his seriousness of purpose, and for his intensity of utterance; but I confessed myself defeated: I really could not understand it; and worse, I didn’t even know how to begin to understand. Lawrence’s concerns, I concluded, weren’t mine.
However, a few months ago, a number of Lawrence’s short stories – most especially, “The Odour of Chrysanthemums” – struck me with a force I had not expected. The time was ripe, I felt, for a revisit. So I went to my shelves, and dug out those copies of The Rainbow and Women in Love that I had bought way back in what seems like some long lost period of history, when Lawrence’s reputation as one of the major novelists of the century was more or less undisputed.
What I am reading is still puzzling me, but I am now finding myself more engaged with the puzzles than I had been before. Progress is slow: that is inevitable when I find myself re-reading passages to try to get a better grasp of them, or simply to enjoy the sounds and the rhythms of that very idiosyncratic prose. It is by no means “unputdownable”; there are no footprints of gigantic hounds to keep me turning the pages.
Lawrence’s ambition is tremendous. He depicts three generations of the Brangwen family – landowning farmers in Central England – tracing the rise and eventual decline of each generation, and picking up the thematic threads with the newer generations as the older decline. But it is no mere family saga: Lawrence is not much interested in the events that form the plot, nor even in why those events occur . His interest is elsewhere. Lawrence here grapples with what Will Brangwen sees as lying beyond “the rind of the world”:
He surveyed the rind of the world: houses, factories, trams, the discarded rind; people scurrying about, work going on, all on the discarded surface. An earthquake had burst it all from inside. It was as if the surface of the world had been broken away entire: Ilkeston, streets, church, people, work, rule-of-the-day, all intact; and yet peeled away into unreality, leaving here exposed the inside, the reality: one’s own being, strange feelings and passions and yearnings and beliefs and aspirations, suddenly become present, revealed, the permanent bedrock, knitted one rock with the woman one loved.
The rind, the external everyday reality that earlier generations of writers had captured so unerringly, has now burst open; and the mysterious inside, that hidden reality behind the pasteboard masks that Melville’s Ishmael had talked about, is now out in the open.
But where is the language to describe this inner reality? Our language has been fashioned to describe the rind only; can it be up to describing workings of the soul that are so nebulous and so intangible? Can it capture – or, if not capture, at least glimpse as they pass – the most profound and mysterious movements of our innermost selves?
For this was Lawrence’s ambition. The opening sentences of the novel may seem like the introduction to a traditional family saga, but we are still on the first page when we are startled with this:
But heaven and earth were teeming around them, and how should this cease?
In sympathy with the worlds inside us, the worlds outside, heaven and earth, are also teeming, seething, constantly in turbulent motion. Language stresses and strains in the process, coming close at times to fracturing, as it tries to express that which it had never been designed to express. The sounds and rhythms of the prose are often striking, often magnificent, its repetitions casting at times an incantatory spell; and sometimes, it is, it must be admitted, awkward. But, one senses, it had to be.
I am fascinated by what I am reading, but, although I am closer, much closer, to understanding this novel than I had been before, I really do not know how to describe this work, or the effect it has on me. I know that, as a book-blogger, I really should be putting down at least a few personal impressions if nothing else; but never have I felt, I think, quite so unequal to the task.
At my current pace of reading, I should be finished this novel around the end of next week, I think. So I will have a bit of time to think about how best to approach it here. But let that wait. For the moment, I am carried away – dizzy, lost, yet unbewailing – by the sheer torrential force of Lawrence’s vision.