Reading Lawrence

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.

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13 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Mon on February 6, 2014 at 5:52 pm

    I love reading your comments. I wish I was so eloquent. Reading Women in Love I felt that Lawrence caught some of the mercurial feelings of love; possession, bitterness and the desire to be understood.

    Reply

    • Hello Mon, and thank you for your kind words. I’m afraid I last read “Women in Love” some 35 or so years ago, and I really didn’t take it in then. It’s on my list to be read some time later this year. I do not find Lawrence particularly congenial to my temperament, to be quite honest; and that means I need to work hard to get something out of it. But one shouldn’t expect serious literature to be easy: if I want to expand my literary and imaginative sympathies, then I should be prepared, I guess, to work hard at it. And “the rainbow” is certainly giving me access to previously unexplored areas of the human mind. I’m not sure how to express this, thoug!

      Reply

  2. Posted by Alan on February 6, 2014 at 6:56 pm

    I’ve been wondering whether to try rereading some of those Lawrence novels that had such a profound effect on me as a teenager – Sons and Lovers, The Rainbow and Women in Love; your post gives me hope that this wouldn’t be the mistake I feared it might be. Some of his other novels I would class as “unpickupable” – The Plumed Serpent and Kangaroo amongst them, where the vision edges into self-parody and the attitudes don’t lie easy with contemporary ones.

    Reply

    • Hello Alan B (if I may call you Alan B to differentiate you from another Alan who posts here regularly: see below), if these novels made an impact on you when you read them at an earlier age, then I don’t think you’d regret reading them again. They made very little impact on me when I first read them: I could discern there was something there, but whatthat something was, I hadn’t the faintest idea; and I wasn’t sufficiently interested to delve into matters more deeply. But of course, one changed with time.

      Lawrence was, I think it may be said, a “visionary” writer, and, like many other visionary writers (e.g. Blake) often comes close to madness. in many of hi slater works, he possibly crossed the border. “The Plumed Serpent” I thought was gobbledegook, and even so devoted an admirer as FR Leavis characterised it as “regrettable”. But perhaps such lunacy is a price to be paid for the visionary quality of his best works.

      I personally don’t like the idea of judging novels based on the ideas they project. To be considered literature, a novel should be far more than the sum of its ideas. If it isn’t, then it’s a pamphlet, it’s a treatise, it’s propaganda … but it isn’t, by my reckoning, a proper novel. That’ snot to say that novels should address ideas, but rather that propagating ideas should not be the central point. (This is possiblya reason why i don’t take to science fiction: what little of it I have read seems to me too rooted in ideas – but that’s a thesis to be debated for another day.) Lawrence could certainly be didactic in some of his works, especially teh later ones – but not, I think, here.

      Reply

  3. The analogy is a carefully prepared gourmet meal with all those layered flavors: you take your time and savor everything in small bites, pausing to reflect on the experience and to notice the complexity of the dish and it’s effect on your palate.

    When I read Sons and Lovers (actually, reread) I realized Lawrence was placing a feast before me and took my time enjoying it. Although I often couldn’t wait to read what came up next, I didn’t hurriedly turn the pages. Ironically, this is one novel Lawrence wrote to fend off starvation and debtor’s prison: still, despite the author’s urgency in writing, reading the novel was a slow and deliberate pleasure.

    It’s been a while: perhaps I need some D. H. Lawrence in my reading life.

    Reply

    • Ah – Sons and Lovers is another novel I need to re-read. Philip Larkin, not known for lavishing praise on the writings of others, described it as a “perfect novel”. One to be savoured, I’m sure!

      Reply

  4. Women in Love is wacky and fractured and in some places simply insane, but I really enjoyed it, even the impenetrable bits. At this moment I’m reading Sons and Lovers, and it really is unputdownable, a fantastic novel. The language is of course alive and startling and fresh–his prose is so much his own that it never seems to get dated–and his attention to the details of the inner and outer worlds, and what use he puts to those details, is beyond the reach of most writers. A great novel, have I said that yet? I haven’t read The Rainbow, but it’s on my list.

    Reply

    • I read your post on “Sons and Lovers”: it reminded me that it’s another novel I have to add to my list. “Women in Love” I really didn’t understand the first time round, and I look forward to encountering it again.

      there was a very famous film version of “Women in Love” directed by Ken Russell, but, despite superb performances from Glenda jackson and Alan bates, and some memorable visual images, I don’t know how close it comes to translating lawrence’s vision into cinematic terms. Perhaps it’s best to put it out of mind when reading the book, but the visual aspects of that film are so memorable, it isn’t an easy thing to put out of one’s mind. It’s hard reading the novel and not imagine Glenda Jackson as Gudrun!

      Reply

  5. Posted by Brian Joseph on February 7, 2014 at 1:22 pm

    I read this about a year ago and I was indeed very, very impressed by it. Without a doubt some of what Lawrence is expressing seems like it will always be enigmatic. Lawrence’s view of the Universe, and particularly how people relate to the Universe is Grand and indeed, very difficult to describe with language.

    I am really looking forward to reading your future posts on this one.

    Reply

    • I think that’s the point, isn’t it … “difficult to describe with language”. Artists and composers can – with sounds or with colours and shapes – communicate certain things that cannot be communicated with words. But for a writer, words are all there is. And words must be forced to express that which, ued in conventional ways, they cannot. I am coming round to think that this is what distoinguishes serious literature from lighter literature – the use of language in certain ways to express what language could not otherwise express.

      Mind you – that does put us poor bloggers at a disadvantage: if authors such as Lawrence had to manipulate language into all sorts of new forms to express something of the inexpressible, what chance do we have when we try tosummarise something of this? 🙂

      Reply

  6. Posted by alan on February 9, 2014 at 8:34 pm

    The masks are often more interesting than what lies underneath. At least that is what I believe of most people that I knew as children and saw grow up.
    Occasionally the reverse may be true, and if you think that Lawrence managed to capture that then I ought to make the effort (oddly I read some pages of The Rainbow in my local pub the other day – it was on the kind of bookshelf that decorators provide by the yard – I liked the character study of the boy of the farming family, good at drawing, who in spite of his physical ungainliness becomes a lace designer, and then something of a snob). However, the way that you describe Lawrence makes him sound like a romantic, ripe to be disillusioned. Maybe that was the rind he was talking about. I’ll have to find out

    Reply

    • The masks are often more interesting than what lies underneath. At least that is what I believe of most people that I knew as children and saw grow up.

      I suppose the question that comes to mind is that, given you have had no access to the inner lives of these people, how can you tell?

      Lawrence was actually very good at depicting the external world – the “pasteboard masks” to use melvile’s metaphor. The passage you cite from early in “The Rainbow” testifies to that. But increasingly, I get the impression that Lawrence became impatient with that. There were other things that concerned him more. these concerns had not really been my own concerns when I first read lawrence – but I think they increasingly are.

      I am not sure, though, what you mean by Lawrence being a “romantic”. Romanticism is not merely a single movement, but an entire complex of movements – aesthetic, intellectual, ideological – and encompass diverse and often contradictory strands. In what sense do you think Lawrence was romantic? I am not asking this as a rhetorical question – I am seriously interested. And why do you think romanticism leads inevitably to disillusion?

      Reply

  7. My exploration of Lawrence has been too shallow, and I’ve been wanting to delve some more. Sort of like exploring beneath the rind of the world (or the pith, as Hamlet would have it). Thanks for helping provide some impetus.

    Reply

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