Posts Tagged ‘D H Lawrence’

Collected Stories of D. H. Lawrence: the First Quarter

I have long held a theory – held so long that it is now impervious to mere factual evidence to the contrary – that authors who tend towards the self-indulgent in their longer works are best sampled in their shorter, as the form of the short story does not allow room for self-indulgence.

But on reflection, Lawrence was not really a self-indulgent author: he wrote as he did not to indulge himself, but because there was no other way to communicate what he wanted to communicate. I used to think that whatever it was that Lawrence was trying to communicate, his concerns weren’t really mine, and that, as a consequence, it wasn’t really possible for me to find way in. And it did not frankly bother me too much: no-one’s mind, after all, could be so all-encompassing as to be receptive to all writers, no matter how rewarding their work may be. But then, some two years ago, I read a short story by Lawrence, “The Odour of Chrysanthemums”, which struck me with the utmost force and left me struggling to find superlatives to describe its impact. It is a story that deals directly with some of the most vitally important themes of our lives and of our deaths – the extent to which, within our brief spans, we can know and understand each other, the acknowledgement of our failures, and the price we pay for them. How could such themes be beyond any reader’s range of concerns?

Maybe I had been too easily dismissive, I thought; maybe I needed to reacquaint myself with this admittedly troublesome writer, and teach myself how best to read him. And yet, I harboured memories of trudging through two of his later novels – The Plumed Serpent and Lady Chatterley’s Lover: although it had been a very long time since I had read either, I do remember thinking quite distinctly at the time that these were bad novels – didactic in the service of questionable ideologies, and, worse, the lives of the characters smothered by the author’s polemic intent. Well, maybe even there I was mistaken: who knows. But here was a writer who clearly needed re-evaluation. So I re-read last year The Rainbow and Women in Love, that diptych that is often held up as the highest peaks of Lawrence’s art.

Neither novel is without its problems. In The Rainbow, Lawrence is wrestling with language to try to capture that which language is not really designed to depict – the inner world of our selves, under the rind of our outward personalities, where intangible and unnamable forces contend with each other in some primal darkness. The language often fails; the cynical reader is given many opportunities to point out specific passages and question what they mean, and, indeed, decide that the whole thing is mere sound and fury signifying nothing. I think such cynical readers would be wrong. For while Lawrence’s attempts to force language to yield what it generally can not arenot uniformly successful, the attempts nonetheless had to be made, and, despite the failures, the picture that emerges of humans and of human life is triumphant and majestic. The closing pages of The Rainbow, where Ursula sees a rainbow as if it were a divine vision, made me catch my breath. But visionary though it is, the point is that the vision isn’t divine: “And the rainbow stood upon the earth.” The mysteries of Lawrence’s fiction are human mysteries, not divine. Lawrence reveres life, but his reverence is not for some possible spirit hidden within the flesh, but for the flesh itself.

Women in Love is, I suppose, a sequel, featuring as it does some of the characters already introduced to us in the earlier novel, but we are here in a different world: humanity now seemed stripped of that visionary gleam, and is left wondering where it has fled. The characters try desperately to seek it, or to seek something resembling it; they search, run into dead ends, conflict with each other, are all at the end of their tether. An outline of the plot, such as it is, would give the impression that this is a tragic novel – as, indeed, in many senses it is; but its keynote seems to be not tragedy, but uncertainty. Once again, sceptics will find much to be sceptical about, but Lawrence once again conveys a sense of those mysterious forces within us that refuse not merely to be pinned down, but to be seen even in passing.

Let me be frank: I still do not understand Lawrence. I get a sense of something very important lurking in there, and at times, indeed, quite often, I get the sense that I have grasped something of the utmost importance, but as soon as I try to express just what it was I thought I had grasped, it seems to elude me again. So it seemed a good idea to try his shorter fiction, to see if something of what I find so fascinating and yet so elusive in his longer work might perhaps be expressed here in terser form. Lawrence did, after all, write short stories and novellas throughout his life; and it was a short story that persuaded me to revisit his writings. So I bought myself the handsome Everyman Library edition of his Collected Stories, running to some 1400 pages, and containing all the short stories and novellas that had been included in the two Penguin editions I had (both now supplanted by shorter collections), and also many more that these old Penguin editions didn’t have.

Of course, 1400 pages of short stories by a single writer is too much to be gobbled up all at once, but it seemed to make sense to split it up into four roughly equal quarters; and these four quarters, read over maybe a year or two, will give me, hopefully, an overview of Lawrence’s art from the beginning to the end; for, I am reliably informed, even when he was writing “regrettable” novels (to use the adjective used by F. R. Leavis, a great admirer of Lawrence, to describe The Plumed Serpent),  his shorter fiction remained of the highest quality. The only problem with the splendid Everyman’s Library collection is that, unlike the Penguin collections, it contains no dates, so there is no way of telling when these stories were written or published; and that’s a bit of a problem if one wants, as I do, to get some impression of Lawrence’s development as an artist; the best one can do is to collect the dates of the ones that are included in the Penguin versions, and to try to interpolate from these the dates of the others.

But on to the stories themselves. The First Quarter covers some of Lawrence’s earliest efforts – dating, I’d guess, from around 1902 or 1903, till about 1911 or 1912. And it is surprising just how quickly Lawrence found his feet. The earliest stories may not be literary masterpieces, but there’s little to betray a novice writer: they are more than merely competent, and it is fascinating to see how artistically ambitious Lawrence was, even at so early a stage. Those who object to the awkwardness and the unrefined quality of much of Lawrence’s later prose will find little to complain about here: indeed, from what I remember of Sons and Lovers (which I read more years ago than I now care to remember) , Lawrence was capable of the most exquisitely refined and polished prose when he set his mind to it. The short story perhaps doesn’t offer much scope for extended passaged of description, but Lawrence’s ability to make the prose tell even within the narrow confines of the form is never in doubt: the mining villages of England, the streets and the classrooms (Lawrence makes use of his experience as a teacher in a mining town), the Bohemian surroundings in and around London (which, again, Lawrence knew), the countryside of the East Midlands of England, and even, in one delightful short story (and who would have thought one could use the word “delightful” when talking about Lawrence!) – “A Chapel and a Hay Hut Among the Mountains” – the landscapes of Bavaria.

The stories themselves are varied, but for the most part, he was still writing stolidly within a certain tradition – the tradition of George Eliot and of Thomas Hardy: most of these stories are driven by plot – a sequence of ordered events, each event a consequence of previous events, leading to a climactic point that resolves, at least in terms of plot, the issues raised. And this resolution is often a happy resolution: even in a story as complex and as ambitious as “Love Among the Haystacks”, true love finds its way, as surely as it does in any Jane Austen novel.

Perhaps the temptation to look for signs of what was yet to come is to be resisted: there are signs aplenty, but these stories deserve to be enjoyed in their own right. The variety is remarkable – from the picture of love fulfilled in “Love in the Haystacks” to the study of coruscating sexual jealousy in “The White Stocking”. Perhaps the most surprising story in this First Quarter is “The Prussian Officer” in which Lawrence steps out of his comfort zone, and tells us a story of a soldier in the Prussian army who, bullied beyond endurance by his sadistic officer, kills him, but finds himself subjected to a quite different and even more intense kind of torment. It is a tale of startling intensity, and not one I would have expected from Lawrence, either in terms of setting or of theme; but it does display his ability to peer beneath the outward rind of our individual personalities, and to find the subterranean currents that flow in the dark and mysterious regions beneath.

Not even the weakest of the stories in this first quarter is a dud, and there are about three or four that seem to me masterpieces. Perhaps the best is the rather long story “The Daughters of the Vicar”. The vicar’s family struggles desperately to maintain, despite severely limited means, its genteel standing and its social status in a predominantly working-class mining town; the older daughter, much like Charlotte Lucas in Pride and Prejudice, marries for the sake of her social and financial security a man she does not love, and whom she knows to be worthless; the younger daughter resents her sister’s sacrifice, and finds herself attracted to a miner, far beneath her in social standing. Once again, Lawrence is not quite here a modernist: the plot here is important, and the question “what happens next?” carries the story forward. But Lawrence addresses directly  – as he was to do in the slightly later “The Odour of Chrysanthemums” – the strongest and most overpowering of emotions without any trace of reticence or of embarrassment. What, for instance, does a dying mother say to her beloved son as he is about to leave for work in the morning, and she is certain she would be dead by the time he returns? Most writers would, I imagine, draw a tactful veil over such a scene, but Lawrence doesn’t – not because he wishes to wallow in the lachrymose, but because these most powerful of human emotions are precisely his theme. And if that leads to a certain messiness – since human emotions are rarely if ever neat and decorous – then messy it must be. For if life itself does lacks a formal shape, then to impose a shape upon it is to misrepresent life.

Anticipating somewhat, Lawrence soon became impatient with literary form. He later wrote in his preface to a collection of stories by Verga: “The emotional mind, however apparently muddled, has its own rhythms, its own commas and colons and full-stops … We need an apparent formlessness, definite form is mechanical.” It seems strange that he says this when talking about a writer who, it seems to me, cared very deeply for literary form, but I suppose every major artist must of necessity be an egotist, and every egotist must, similarly of necessity, see in everything a reflection but of himself.  And I do not think it is merely my fancy in seeing in the later stories of this First Quarter a deliberate stepping away from literary form – which, frankly, Lawrence had already mastered – in search not so much perhaps of formlessness, but of a different kind of form – one dictated by the emotional mind, dictated by “its own rhythms, its own commas and colons and full-stops”.

I am giving Lawrence a rest now, but I do look forward to the next three Quarters.

“Life in the Country” by Giovanni Verga

Life in the Country by Giovanni Verga, translated by J. G. Nichols, Hesperus Press 2003

If someone had asked me a month or so ago what I knew about Verga, I’d have said that he was the author of Cavalliera Rusticana – or, rather, the author of the story on which Mascagni’s famous opera is based. I might even have burbled a bit about D. H. Lawrence having been an admirer. In other words, I’d have been selling Verga short, both in terms of his stature as a writer, and also, I think, in terms of his aesthetics: he disapproved strongly of Mascagni’s overt emotionalism, and of what he regarded as his sentimentality. He aimed for an objectivity that was very far removed from the passionate outpourings of the verismo style of Italian opera, or, indeed, from the relish in excess that is all too easily found in Zola. Indeed, in one of the stories in this collection, “Bindweed’s Lover”, he states explicitly his artistic credo:

… it is my belief that the novel, the most complete and human of all works of art, will triumph when the attraction between all its parts and their cohesion are so perfect that the process of its creation will remain as mysterious as the development of the human passions. Then the harmony of its form will be so perfect, the sincerity of its content so obvious, its style and its raison d’être so inevitable, that the hand of the artist will be absolutely invisible, and the novel will bear the stamp of a real happening, and the work of art will seem to have been made by itself, to have matured and arisen spontaneously like a natural occurrence, without keeping any point of contact with its author. It will therefore not preserve in its living shape any stamp of the mind in which it germinated, any trace of the eye which glimpsed it, any hint of the lip which murmured its first words like the Creator’s fiat. May it exist for its own sake, simply because it must be and has to be, throbbing with life and yet as immutable as a statue in bronze whose author has had the godlike courage to be eclipsed by and disappear into his immortal work.

I wonder to what extent Verga was aware of the irony of speaking directly as the author of the importance of keeping the authorial persona in the background; or of writing such a purple passage of prose (assuming the translation here reflects the qualities of the original) on the desirability of rendering “absolutely invisible” the “hand of the artist”. Given the obvious intelligence of the author, I’d guess he was well aware of the irony; however, despite the irony, his aims were real enough. The author must not in any way lead the reader: the author should ideally be, as far as possible, in the background.

I cannot help wondering, however, to what extent this is possible. It has always seemed to me when reading, for instance, Flaubert – another author who tried to keep his authorial persona in the background – that the further the author retreats from the front of the stage, the more apparent his presence is: it is the very absence of the author from the spotlight that alerts the reader to his presence somewhere in the background. For no story can write itself. Even when the author is not commenting directly, even when the reader’s sympathies are not explicitly directed, the author’s presence is apparent from the story he has chosen to tell; from the details he has chosen to highlight, and those he has chosen to suppress; from the way he has chosen to structure each individual sentence, and to pace the overarching narrative; and, indeed, in countless other features. Flaubert’s personality is a strong presence in his fiction, as Verga’s is in his, even when he is not addressing the reader directly. And, whatever Verga’s aims, I , for one, think this a Good Thing: the last thing I want from any work of art is anonymity – for that is what making “the hand of the artist absolutely invisible” amounts to – and Verga is far from anonymous: he may not direct the reader’s sympathy explicitly, but such things need not be explicit.

Take, for instance, the story “Rosso Malpero” –which literally means “Red Evil-Hair”, and is translated here as “Nasty Foxfur” – one of the most perfect short stories I think I have read. Its protagonist is a poor lad working in brutal conditions in the mines of Sicily, and orphaned at an early age. We are told about him:

He was called Nasty Foxfur because he had red hair. And he had red hair because he was a bad, malicious boy, who gave every promise of ending up a complete villain.

Is it possible to take these words at face value? Does the author really need to direct our sympathies explicitly in favour of this brutalised little boy?

Neither is there any need for Verga to spell out the love the boy has for his father. Early in the story, his father is involved in a mining accident, and is buried under thousands of tons of sand: there is no hope even of digging the body out. And Verga tells us of this little boy desperately trying to shovel away the sand with his bare hands:

The others started to laugh … Foxfur did not reply, he did not even weep, he dug with his fingernails in the sand there, inside the hole, so that no-one noticed him. And when they came near him with the light they saw such a distorted face, such glassy eyes, and such foam around his mouth as to inspire fear. His fingernails were torn out and hung from his hands all covered in blood. Since he could no longer scratch, he bit them like a mad dog, and they had to seize him by the hair to drag him away by main force.

We are not taken into the boy’ mind, but we don’t need to be taken there: the “objective” description of the physical details tells us all we need to know about what was going on there. We aren’t even fooled by that little touch about the state of his face inspiring “fear”: Verga, far from remaining in the background, far from refusing to direct the reader, has chosen every single detail carefully to ensure that the reader is feels not fear, but compassion.

The boy had clearly been loved by his dead father; and he, in turn, loves his father’s memory. And yet, in that brutal and utterly heartless environment in which he lives, he is not aware even of the concept of love, and he cannot account to himself the feelings he has for his dead father: he doesn’t know what name to give them.

Neither can he begin to understand the affection he feels for an even younger lad, who comes to work in the pit: this younger lad, while working as a bricklayers’ assistant, had fallen from a bridge and dislocated his thigh, and here, at the pit, when carrying sand, he “hobbled so much that he seemed to be dancing the tarantella”. And, we are told laconically, “that made all the men in the pit laugh”. They call this lad Frog, on account of his being crippled, and unable to walk properly. Foxfur – for so he is called throughout the story – takes him under his wing, but there’s no sentimentality about the attachment: although Foxfur really is attached to the crippled little boy, he beats him mercilessly. He beats him because violence is the only way he knows to express his feelings for any other human:

At times he beat him without cause and without mercy … if Frog did not defend himself, he beat him harder, and more furiously, and said to him: “Take that, jackass! … If you haven’t even got the guts to defend yourself against someone who doesn’t even hate you, it means you’ll let every Tom, Dick and Harry walk all over you!”

And yet, Foxfur loves this boy: he does not know what that means, and throughout this story the word “love” is conspicuous by its absence, but he loves that boy in the only way he knows how. When the younger boy falls ill, Foxfur does all he can to help; and when the boy dies, he is heartbroken – although, even here, he does not know what “heartbreak” means, and can’t understand the feeling. And he can’t understand why Frog’s mother should weep over her dead boy “as if her son were one of those who earn ten lire a week”.

The story is bleak and dark, right up to its desolate final sentences; but curiously, it is not nihilistic, as it could well have been in lesser hands. For underneath the endless exploitation and cruelty, there is an awareness – all the stronger for never being explicitly stated – of nobler human feelings and impulses that even conditions such as this cannot quite kill.

The other stories in this collection are hardly less remarkable. “Cavalliera Rusticana” – translated here as “Rustic Honour” – is nothing like Mascagni’s opera (marvellous though I think that is): the story is, once again, sparely told, with not the slightest hint of the sort of wallowing in emotion that we so often take for granted in Italian opera: it is, once again, a bleak tale, stripped to the bone and narrated without even an ounce of excess fat.

I must admit that as I read story after story – mainly on buses during our recent holiday in Sicily – I found myself thinking “What has Verga been all my life?” I am hard pressed to think of any other writer I have encountered for the first time in the last few years who has made such an impact on me. The first story in this collection, “A Reverie”, is not among the strongest; but fortunately, neither is it amongst the most characteristic. The other stories bespeak a writer of individuality and stature, and to whose works I shall undoubtedly be returning.

“Women in Love” by D. H. Lawrence

Note: I suppose I should preface this post with what is known as a “spoiler warning”, as it is impossible to discuss this novel even superficially without mentioning certain particulars of its plot, such as it is. However, this novel is not by any stretch of the imagination a plot-driven novel, and the question “what happens next” is not what keeps the reader reading. As such, any prior knowledge of what the plot offers does not, in my opinion, detract from the experience of the novel in any way, even for the first time reader. But if you haven’t yet read this novel, and are planning to, and would prefer not to know what happens next, it’s probably best to give this post a miss.

Towards the end of Women in Love, shortly before the narrative hurtles towards its catastrophic climax, Lawrence treats us to a scene of rare comedy. Gudrun and Gerald, on their way to an Alpine resort, are in a smart London café, the Pompadour, and at a nearby table sit some people they know from the arty, bohemian set. These people are laughing very loudly: they are much amused by the rather absurd figure of Rupert Birkin, who is absent from this scene, and who is a friend of Gerald’s, and, at this stage of the novel, the husband of Gudrun’s sister Ursula. Birkin, a thinly disguised portrait of Lawrence himself, feels things very passionately, and speaks his mind openly and frankly. And he speaks about things that matter to him, things that are, to him, of vital importance: love, mortality, sex, passion, our place in the universe, the future of humanity itself – in short, all those things one normally doesn’t talk about in polite society, except perhaps superficially. These people find Birkin’s po-faced earnestness dreadfully funny. One of them produces a letter Birkin has written, and, to everyone’s great amusement, starts to read it aloud. Gudrun, who has never herself been particularly close to Birkin, is nonetheless irritated, and offended on his behalf. Why does he write to these people? she asks herself. Why does he so expose his very soul to their superficial jeers? Eventually, she walks up to them, and asks if the letter is genuine. Oh yes, they tell her, perfectly genuine. “May I see?” Keen, perhaps, to share the joke with her, they hand her the letter, whereupon she politely thanks them, and calmly walks out of the café, letter in hand.

It is a surprising scene in many ways. For one, it displays a comic streak in Lawrence’s make-up that I, for one, had not suspected. But more intriguingly, I think, it indicates that Lawrence knew perfectly well how his work was likely to be received in many quarters, of the mockery and laughter his earnestness would invite. And, at that specific moment, I understood Gudrun. At other times in the novel, I found it difficult to enter her mind – to relate to her, to use current book-group parlance. But at that moment, I could very much relate to her: for Lawrence’s earnestness, his seriousness of purpose, his very intense perceptions of this world, whether one sympathises with them or not, are not things to be jeered at. Quite the opposite: in times such as ours when superficiality is so prized, these are things to be thankful for.

For this novel, like its predecessor The Rainbow, is unashamedly about serious matters. It is not surprising that Lawrence’s stock, which was so high back in the 60s and 70s, has now fallen: modern taste prefers its serious dough to be leavened with a bit of wit and humour and a lightness of touch, but Lawrence will have none of it. Even if it meant appearing ridiculous.

The four protagonists of this novel are all driven by ideas. They speak about these ideas openly to each other, baring their very souls in a manner many readers find disconcerting. Of course, it may be objected, people in real life don’t speak like this, but that seems to me a pointless criticism: people don’t speak to each other in Jamesian prose either, nor in Shakespearean blank verse, but that does not prevent us appreciating The Wings of the Dove or Othello.  Lawrence was not aiming for photographic realism, any more than Henry James or Shakespeare were. The realism he was aiming for was clearly of a different order, and, in order to get closer to it than I have previously managed, I had, I felt, to trust the author, to put behind me my modern impatience with high seriousness. Better at least to be Gudrun in the Pompadour than that arty bohemian set ridiculing that which they do not even make the attempt to understand.

But, it will be objected, much of what these characters say is meaningless – gibberish, even. Especially much of what Birkin says – and, he, after all, is a self-portrait, and hence, Lawrence’s mouthpiece. What’s he on about anyway? What exactly is Birkin trying to say? Even to ask such questions is, it seems to me, to misunderstand the nature of the book. For this is a novel, not a tract: it is a book not really about ideas, as such, but about people who are driven by ideas, and this, I think, is an important distinction. The ideas these people have are often inchoate and incoherent, and sometimes even preposterous: none of the characters here has a grand comprehensive message to impart to the world, and neither, I think, does Lawrence himself. But they are all searching, grasping, exploring different possibilities; trying desperately to articulate what they feel so intensely, to pin down that which cannot be pinned down in a world in which nothing seems solid; failing, trying again, failing better. They are not consistent: their thoughts ebb and flow depending on their state of being, whom they are with, and any number of other factors. And they come into conflict with each other – often bitter conflict. There is no lovers’ tiff in literature to compare with the ones Ursula has with Birkin:

‘This is a degrading exhibition,’ he said coolly.

‘Yes, degrading indeed,’ she said. ‘But more to me than to you.’

‘Since you choose to degrade yourself,’ he said. Again the flash came over her face, the yellow lights concentrated in her eyes.

You!‘ she cried. ‘You! You truth-lover! You purity-monger! It stinks, your truth and your purity. It stinks of the offal you feed on, you scavenger dog, you eater of corpses. You are foul, foul, and you must know it. Your purity, your candour, your goodness—yes, thank you, we’ve had some. What you are is a foul, deathly thing, obscene, that’s what you are, obscene and perverse. You, and love! You may well say, you don’t want love. No, you want yourself, and dirt, and death—that’s what you want. You are so perverse, so death-eating. And then—’

And even by the end, as those startling final lines make clear, the conflicts aren’t resolved. Resolving conflicts, presenting clear, reasoned arguments, conveying a coherent message – not only are these all beside the point, they are quite antithetical to the heart of the matter. For it is not really the ideas that matter: the novel is far, far more than the sum of its characters’ ideas, such as they are. What this novel depicts is people locked in these ideas, in conflict with them and with each other, struggling desperately to find something they know not what. It is a depiction of four very different people struggling to make some sort of sense of their lives.

Much of this had emerged also in The Rainbow, but Women in Love, we know almost from the first sentence, places us in a world which, though physically the same as the world presented earlier and featuring some of the same characters, inhabits a very different fictional landscape. The Rainbow had taken the form of a sort of family saga: not a traditional family saga, perhaps, but the links with tradition were still visible in the depiction of the majestic progress of generations succeeding and supplanting each other. But here, the break with tradition is more apparent. The novel opens with two sisters discussing marriage, and we could be in Middlemarch say; but these sisters seem already weary with the world; from the very start, they seem to have no illusions to lose:

“Don’t you find yourself getting bored?” she asked of her sister. “Don’t you find that things fail to materialize? Nothing materializes! Everything withers in the bud.”

“What withers in the bud?” asked Ursula.

“Oh, everything – oneself – things in general.” There was a pause, while each sister vaguely considered her fate.

What it takes Dorothea Brooke bitter experience to realise, these sisters seem already to know. But vaguely, only vaguely. Everything in this novel is in a state of flux: nothing can be pinned down for sure.

Soon, the men are introduced to complete the quartet: there’s Rupert Birkin, a school inspector; and Gerald Crich, eldest son of the family that owns the local coal mines. All these characters are on edge in their different ways, their nerves frayed.

Gerald is energetic and powerful, and manages the coal mine with a ruthless efficiency. And he is masterful: he is determined to master the world around him into usefulness, as he has mastered the coal-mines. When his horse is frightened by passing of a train, Gerald pits his will against the horse’s, forcing the creature to stand by the tracks despite its intense terror. (This episode of Gerald attempting to impose his will on the horse may remind the reader of Vronsky in Anna Karenina: for all their obvious differences, Tolstoy and Lawrence do cross paths at times in quite surprising ways.) As Ursula says, Gerald has “plenty of go”. But then, Gudrun asks ominously, “where does his go go to, what becomes of it?” As the novel progresses, this question resounds more insistently: Gerald has go, yes, but seems aware of a profound emptiness within himself. It is here his mastery stops: he is frightened even to look inside.

When he had been a boy, we are told, he had accidentally killed his brother with a gun he hadn’t realised was loaded. The sisters disagree about the import of this incident:

‘Perhaps there was an unconscious will behind it,’ said Ursula. ‘This playing at killing has some primitive desire for killing in it, don’t you think?’

‘Desire!’ said Gudrun, coldly, stiffening a little. ‘I can’t see that they were even playing at killing. I suppose one boy said to the other, “You look down the barrel while I pull the trigger, and see what happens.” It seems to me the purest form of accident.’

‘No,’ said Ursula. ‘I couldn’t pull the trigger of the emptiest gun in the world, not if some-one were looking down the barrel. One instinctively doesn’t do it—one can’t.’

Gudrun was silent for some moments, in sharp disagreement.

The incident is reported rather than depicted, and the reader has to decide which of the two sisters is nearer the truth – to what extent, indeed, Gerald may have had, or has still, the desire to kill.

He certainly desires Gudrun. Immediately following the death of his father, unable to make sense of the great mystery he has witnessed, his mind in turmoil and only half aware of what he is doing, he finds his way into the Brangwens’ family home at night, and presents himself in Gudrun’s bedroom. He does not know why he has come, why he has so risked being caught. “What do you want of me?” Gudrun asks, in a voice described as “estranged”.

“I came – because I must,” he said. “Why do you ask?”

She looked at him in doubt and wonder.

“I must ask,” she said.

“There is no answer,” he replied, with strange vacancy.

Gudrun takes pity on him, and they become lovers, but pity is hardly an adequate basis to satisfy the needs and desires of these people, needs and desires the nature of which they cannot even begin to articulate, even to themselves. And that “strange vacancy” within Gerald becomes ever more apparent: where, indeed, does all that go go to? The question resounds all the more strongly in the final section of the novel, set in an Alpine resort, where, surrounded on all sides by blank walls of icy whiteness, Gerald, now openly despised by Gudrun, finds that there really is nowhere for that go to go to: it can only turn in upon itself, and embrace death, the icy chill of the outside world reflecting the icy chill of his own inner emptiness.

As in Anna Karenina, the strand of this tragic couple is intertwined with a strand featuring a happier couple – Ursula Brangwen and Rupert Birkin; but, also as in Anna Karenina, happiness, if such it is, is a complex thing: it is not final, it is not absolute, for nothing here can be final or absolute: they are forever locked in conflict, Ursula disagreeing with and fighting bitterly virtually everything Birkin says, everything that is important to him. But this conflict does not imply unhappiness, or even incompatibility, for in this of all novels, people’s motives, the dark roots of their words and their actions, remain inscrutable and mysterious, and elude comprehension: these people don’t themselves understand why they say or act as they do. When questioned, they can only answer, as Gerald does to Gudrun, “there is no answer”. Birkin knows that the life he leads is hateful, and that there must be an alternative: he wants something, but does not know what. He is fumbling, feeling his way, shattering the placid reflection of the moon in the water only to see the broken fragments of that shattered reflection forever re-establishing themselves. He needs the opposition that Ursula presents. But he is aware, as indeed, are the other three of the quartet in their own way, that there is something irredeemably rotten about the life he lives, and the life everyone else lives, and, indeed, the very world he lives in: something else must at least be searched for, even if it is not found. Several times he muses on a world in which humans have ceased to be, and wonders if this will necessarily be a bad thing: won’t something better than humans replace us? Life won’t stop just because we have, after all. And even if nothing should replace us, why not leave the world to the birds? He finds this curiously comforting.

And yet he is not depressed, or in any way depressive. For all his dissatisfaction, he loves life too much. It is, one suspects, precisely because he loves life so much that he cannot endure its imperfections, its shortcomings – that he must always be searching for new ways of being. And in Ursula, too, as we know from those ecstatic closing chapters of The Rainbow, runs some mysterious vital force, that same force that in the earlier novel had so frightened Anton Skrebansky. And so the two remain at the end of the novel, together, happy (if we allow ourselves to use that word), but locked nonetheless with each other in an unending conflict.

At the end of the novel, Rupert weeps for the dead Gerald. They had brought his body back from the cold waste of snow and ice, curled up and frozen: they had to wait for the body to thaw before they could straighten him. And Rupert weeps.

“He should have loved me,” he said. “I offered him.”

It is not merely, or even perhaps primarily, Gerald’s death that Rupert laments, but that emptiness, that “strange vacancy” inside Gerald, that prevented him from accepting, let alone returning, Rupert’s offered love. Rupert contemplates the inert mass that had once been Gerald:

Birkin looked at the pale fingers, the inert mass. He remembered a dead stallion he had seen: a dead mass of maleness, repugnant. He remembered also the beautiful face of one whom he had loved, and who had died still having the faith to yield to the mystery. That dead face was beautiful, no one could call it cold, mute, material. No one could remember it without gaining faith in the mystery, without the soul’s warming with new, deep life-trust.

And Gerald! The denier! He left the heart cold, frozen, hardly able to beat. Gerald’s father had looked wistful, to break the heart: but not this last terrible look of cold, mute Matter. Birkin watched and watched.

Again, like Tolstoy, Lawrence had a fascination not only with death, but with also the physical nature of that great mystery, that ultimate loss of human consciousness, and that inexplicable transformation of a vital force into matter (here strikingly capitalised).

Birkin had on several occasions protested that it was not love that he wanted; or at least, that love was not enough. But he had loved Gerald, and Gerald had succumbed to the blankness that was death without having accepted it, without being capable even of accepting it. And it is this Birkin laments – this “strange vacancy” in Gerald, all that go that ultimately had nowhere else to go to.

No degree of familiarity could ever reduce this great mystery of death, and here, Lawrence presents it with a terror and a grandeur that belongs only to the greatest of tragic works. But this is not the end. In the very last page, Birkin tries to express to Ursula why he had wanted Gerald’s love: she is all that he craves for in a woman, he says, but he wanted a love with a man that would be equally powerful, equally important. We may or may not interpret this as homosexual love: it hardly matters. Ursula replies that what Birkin wants is unreasonable; that he cannot have such a love because it is impossible. “I do not believe that,” says Birkin, and on that fractious note this mighty novel ends.


Reading Lawrence is not easy, but I suppose one should expect it to be easy in the first place. As with any work of literature that is worth one’s attention, it attempts to express that which language is not really designed to express, and in the process, language is stretched to its limits, and it sometimes fractures. Lawrence is not afraid to take risks; he isn’t even afraid to be thought absurd. One may, as that arty set at the Pompadour café, find it all merely ridiculous – and, to judge from various comments I have seen on the net that pass as “reviews”, the Pompadour set are still very much with us. Well, one can’t dictate how readers should feel about any novel. I still find Lawrence extremely difficult, but on loosening my scepticism and my resistance, trusting him as an author, and going, as it were, with the flow, I found here a fearsome tragic magnificence, and a sense of some great and irreducible mystery. Lawrence may be troublesome, but he is worth the trouble.

“The Rainbow” by D. H. Lawrence

Some time ago, I wrote a post describing my reactions to The Rainbow when I was some half way through it. I finished the novel a few weeks ago, and frankly confess that I find it difficult to write about. But, for anyone interested, this is the best I could do to record my impressions of this very difficult and elusive, but ultimately rewarding, novel.

In the latter part of The Rainbow, the image of a widening circle assumes particular significance. That Lawrence should give such importance to that term – using it not once but twice as chapter heading – should perhaps cause us to ponder the significance he attached to it.

In one sense, this image of a widening circle seems obvious enough: the latter half of The Rainbow is, in effect, a bildungsroman, and, as the protagonist grows up, “the widening circle” is an apt term to describe the inevitable broadening of the protagonist’s horizons. The horizons are many: social, psychological, moral. However, this particular bildungsroman is but part of a larger structure, and if we consider what the “widening circle” may betoken in terms of this larger structure, we move, I think, beyond the conventions of the traditional bildungsroman.  For Ursula, the protagonist of the latter half of the novel, is of the third generation of characters depicted: in each of the two earlier generations, Lawrence had shown couples engaged in struggles of the spirit – first, Tom Brangwen with the Polish lady Lydia; and then, Anna Lensky, Lydia’s daughter from her first marriage, with Will. Now it is the turn of Ursula to open her consciousness to, and engage with, this dreadful but vital business of living. And her world is one broader than those the previous generations had inhabited: the circle widens not merely for the growing Ursula: it widens also from generation to generation.

With Tom and Lydia, after initial impasse, there had come an understanding. This understanding comes in a remarkable moment: Lydia takes her husband by surprise first of all by intuiting that he does not wish to be in her company; and then, by asking seriously and without rancour, as if she weren’t married to him at all, whether he wants another woman.

Suddenly, in a flash, he saw she might be lonely, isolated, unsure. She had seemed to him utterly certain, satisfied, absolute, excluding him. Could she need anything?

This new understanding that it was she, and not he, who was the more insecure, the more uncertain, the more frightened, opens a new stage in their relationship. And Anna, Lydia’s daughter and favourite of her adopted father, perceives this:

Anna’s soul was put at peace between them. She looked from one to the other, and she saw them established to her safety, and she was free. She played between the pillar of fire and the pillar of cloud in confidence, having the assurance on her right hand and the assurance on her left. She was no longer called upon to uphold with her childish might the broken end of the arch. Her father and her mother now met to the span of the heavens, and she, the child, was free to play in the space beneath, between.

It is often debated whether fiction has ever depicted a happy marriage: perhaps commentators ought to consider the relationship that develops between Tom and Lydia, the consummation of their spirits celebrated under the arch of the rainbow, that ancient symbol of God’s covenant with mankind.

But for future generations, things are different: with each succeeding generation, the circle widens. Anna and Tom, almost from the start, find themselves locked in the most dreadful conflict. There have been novels before depicting marital conflict: indeed, given that each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, novelists have found no end of rich material in this theme. But Lawrence, in his depiction of this difficult marriage takes us into new and, I think, hitherto uncharted regions. And Lawrence knew it. During the writing of The Rainbow, he wrote to Edward Garnett:

It’s all crude as yet … but I think it’s great – so new, so really a stratum deeper than I think anybody has ever gone in a novel.

It was a bold claim to make. Compared to drama or to poetry, the novel was still a relatively new form, but already its achievements were considerable: nineteenth century novels, especially those of England and France, had anatomised society and human consciousness to quite extraordinary depth, while Russian novels, appearing then in Constance Garnett’s translations, must have seemed to open up entire new vistas. And yet, Lawrence was confident that he was delving “a stratum deeper”: it’s an interesting image to employ. He was delving beyond the consciousness itself. And he knew it. He was depicting those forces that operate beneath our consciousness, those forces that are so very elusive and nebulous in their nature, the ebb and flow of which are so fleeting and so intangible as to seem scarcely intelligible. Indeed, the reader may choose to question the very existence of these subterraneous forces. But in Lawrence’s world, they exist: here, heaven and earth are teeming about us.

If Middlemarch is permeated with moral concerns, The Rainbow, in contrast, is more religious than moral in feel. Not, perhaps, religious in a conventional sense – although Lawrence has no compunction in using such words as “God” or “soul”; but religious in that it is aware of presences both in the heaven and the earth that is teeming about these characters, and also in their own selves. In the chapter entitled “The Cathedral”, Anna and Will, locked seemingly in a mortal combat the terms of which are never clear, even or perhaps especially to themselves, visit Lincoln Cathedral. Will, deeply attached emotionally to certain values of an ordered spirituality that is represented by the cathedral, is excited, and, indeed, moved. But Anna, realising that the cathedral and what it represents have a special significance for her husband, but without being able to specify precisely what that significance is, rebels precisely against those very values: all she takes delight in is a carved face, a “plump, sly, malicious little face carved in stone”, which she insists must have been the sculptor’s wife:

“You hate to think he put his wife in your cathedral, don’t you?” she mocked, with a tinkle of profane laughter. And she laughed with malicious triumph.

She had got free from the cathedral, she had even destroyed the passion he had. She was glad. He was bitterly angry. Strive as he would, he could not keep the cathedral wonderful to him. He was disillusioned. That which had been his absolute, containing all heaven and earth, was become to him as to her, a shapely heap of dead matter – but dead, dead.

The conflict between the two is terrible, and the language used to describe it is intense, extreme. Some readers may even find embarrassing language of such passionate intensity, and find it over-written; or they may recoil from such scenes as that in which the pregnant Anna dances naked in her room to her unseen gods; but for Lawrence, those dark regions beneath our everyday consciousness could not be depicted any other way. The conflict between Anna and Will, unlike that between Lydia and Tom of the previous generation, cannot be resolved: but eventually, they learn to live with that conflict remaining unresolved. As the previous generation passes away, Anna and Will produce children, become old. And though their conflict remains unresolved, its rawness diminishes, and they discover, possibly to their own surprise, a strange sort of respect for each other:

Anna was not publicly proud of him. But very soon she learned to be indifferent to public life. He was not what is called a manly man: he did not drink or smoke or arrogate importance. But he was her man, and his very indifference to all claims of manliness set her supreme in her own world with him. Physically, she loved him and he satisfied her. He went alone and subsidiary always. At first it had irritated her, the outer world existed so little to him. Looking at him with outside eyes, she was inclined to sneer at him. But her sneer changed to a sort of respect. She respected him, that he could serve her so simply and completely.

Not for them God’s covenant of the rainbow, but “a sort of respect” nonetheless. And that’s something. Soon, the narrative focus moves on to the third generation – to the growing consciousness of Ursula.

Lawrence is often accused of misogyny. I am generally not very interested in the writer’s biography, although, from what little I know of Lawrence the man, I doubt he ever held consistently the various views frequently ascribed to him. But the writing is all that matters, as it is, after all, all that is left of him; and I doubt I have read quite so sensitive rendering, even by female writers, of the awakening and the early development of a woman’s mind. There is one chapter in which Lawrence appears, for a while at least, to return to the concerns of a more traditional realist novel: in this chapter, Ursula, still herself a teenager, takes a step that women in previous generations had not even considered for themselves – she takes a job, teaching at the local state school. And in this job, she has to face the hostility not only of the children, but also of the rest of the staff, and, particularly, of the head teacher who has taken a dislike to her. Eventually, she establishes herself by thrashing a particularly recalcitrant boy – a boy who, she later learns, has a heart condition. She achieves a material victory by doing so, but is aware that somewhere underneath, something valuable has been lost. It is a wonderful chapter, and could have made a superb free-standing short story; but somehow, one can’t help feeling that this shift in focus, even for a single chapter, on to the surface of things rather than on the dark depths below, is, in the wider context, a little out of place.

But Lawrence soon returns to the “deeper stratum”: he is now depicting the third generation, and the circle is ever widening:

That which she was, positively, was dark and unrevealed, it could not come forth. It was like a seed buried in dry ash. This world in which she lived was like a circle lighted by a lamp. This lighted area, lit up by man’s completest consciousness, she thought was all the world: that here all was disclosed for ever. Yet all the time, within the darkness she had been aware of points of light, like the eyes of wild beasts, gleaming, penetrating, vanishing. And her soul had acknowledged in a great heave of terror only the outer darkness. This inner circle of light in which she lived and moved, wherein the trains rushed and the factories ground out their machine-produce and the plants and the animals worked by the light of science and knowledge, suddenly it seemed like the area under an arc-lamp, wherein the moths and children played in the security of blinding light, not even knowing there was any darkness, because they stayed in the light.

Ursula’s consciousness too is a widening circle, widening from the security of regions well-lit into the areas of darkness. And Lawrence, who, we know from Sons and Lovers, was a writer of prose of the highest order, here stretches the language, twists it into new shapes, bends it till it strains and stresses and approaches breaking point, in order to force it to express what it is not normally capable of expressing. Sometimes, it doesn’t work, but the attempt to express is as important as the expression itself. And the point, in any case, is not to pin something down, but, rather, to give a sense of something that cannot be pinned down, a sense of its ceaseless flow. Whatever it is, of course.

The final part of the novel deals with Ursula’s relationship with the young officer, Anton Skrebensky.  Ursula herself is unsure of a future with Anton: his powerful sense of will, his strictly empirical rationality, do not allow even for an acknowledgement of anything beyond the immediate circle of light. When she first rejects him, he, despite his manliness, weeps. But they come together again, and the climactic point of the novel is reached in a sexual encounter on the dunes in which the seemingly inexpressible is expressed in terms so vivid and startling as to defy paraphrase. It is in this encounter that Anton senses that Ursula’s consciousness has widened into circles of darkness that are beyond his ken: his conception of his very self is threatened, and he, who had wept when she had first rejected him, now retreats from her in fear. The first couple depicted in the novel, Tom and Lydia, had reached a harmony under an overarching rainbow; the second couple, Anna and Will, had been locked in conflict, but had reached, nonetheless, an accommodation; but with Ursula and Anton, the circle has widened to its utmost extent and has broken: there can be no future together for them.

The closing lines are magnificent in their visionary splendour. Ursula, now alone, sees the ugly little dwelling of miners scarring the earth, and the miners themselves, “their stiffened bodies … which seemed already enclosed in a coffin”, their eyes “the eyes of those who are buried alive”. But then:

… in the blowing clouds, she saw a band of faint iridescence colouring in faint colours a portion of the hill. And forgetting, startled, she looked for the hovering colour and saw a rainbow forming itself. In one place it gleamed fiercely, and, her heart anguished with hope, she sought the shadow of iris where the bow should be. Steadily the colour gathered, mysteriously, from nowhere, it took presence upon itself, there was a faint, vast rainbow. The arc bended and strengthened itself till it arched indomitable, making great architecture of light and colour and the space of heaven, its pedestals luminous in the corruption of new houses on the low hill, its arch the top of heaven.

Lawrence isn’t finished:

And the rainbow stood upon the earth.

There are certain things I find in books that, for reasons I cannot begin even to analyse, thrill. This is one of them. Were I a better critic than I often pretend to be, I’d be able to analyse why this seemingly simple line makes on me so powerful an impact: but I cannot. So let us leave it there.

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.

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!

The tone of voice

Literature in many of its branches is no other than the shadow of good talk; but the imitation falls far short of the original in life, freedom and effect.

–          From “Talk and Talkers” by Robert Louis Stevenson

Orwell, in his famous essay on Dickens, spoke of seeing in literature the face of the author, even when he did not know what he author looked like. Possibly my imagination is less visually oriented than Orwell’s, but when I read, it is not so much a face that I see, but a voice that I hear; or, rather, a tone of voice. I suppose it comes to the same thing: whether we imagine a face or a voice, an author’s personality is evident in what the author writes. It may be that the personality that emerges from the writing is quite different from the personality that is apparent to those who knew the author in real life; but since, as a reader, I have no access to the latter (even biographies can offer no more than the biographer’s interpretation), it is the former that I find of greater interest.

There are, of course, authors who attempted to efface their own personalities, but I can’t help wondering how seriously intended these attempts are. Flaubert’s personality, for instance, is very evident in his novels. At times, he even speaks to the reader directly – such as in that famous passage in Madame Bovary where he speaks of language being a cracked kettle on which he beats out tunes for bears to dance to, when, instead, he wants to move the stars with pity. I say Flaubert “speaks” of this, for, when I read it, I feel as if this line were spoken. And it is spoken to me in a tone of resigned heartbreak.

That is the tone of voice I get in much of Flaubert – resigned heartbreak: and the cause of the heartbreak is that there is no option but to be resigned. Austen, who is as deeply ironic as Flaubert and as aware of human stupidity, has, however, a very different tone of voice: although she could be deeply serious, and even at times, as in Mansfield Park, sombre, her tone of voice is amused, happy to batter the cracked kettle with a virtuosic verve and gaiety without any thought of moving the stars with pity; or, indeed, without any thought of pity at all. On a personal level, I like the sound of Flaubert’s voice, even through the services of an interpreter (since I do not know French well enough to read the originals); Austen I am a bit frightened to sit too close to, in case she chooses me as the next object of her pitiless wit: and if she does, she would veil it in such subtle shades of irony, that I might not even notice. In any case, there are far too many people as it is sitting around Austen, enjoying her wicked wit, so there’s no point my adding to the throng.

Milton is on a platform, orating. It is a grand and sonorous voice, with a wide tessitura; it has a depth to it, reverberating across the room even when he is speaking softly. He has many devotees, admirers in thrall to that voice which is by turns turbulent and serene; and for some time, I, too, am mesmerised. But after a while, my ears start hurting, and I wander off to listen instead to the blank verse of Wordsworth. He does not speak at me, but, rather, to me: far from orating from a platform, he sits next to me, conversing eloquently. And I realise why it is that I reach for The Prelude far more frequently than I reach for Paradise Lost, even though Mr Wordsworth, himself an admirer of Milton, professes himself shocked by my preference.

To hear Dickens, one must go to the theatre: there he is, holding the stage by himself, performing his one-man show. He loves playing to the gallery. One moment he will make ’em laugh, the next he’ll have ’em in tears, and then, for good measure, he’ll freeze their blood with terror. Many dismiss him as a ham, and, since modern taste does not care so much for tears, accuse him of sentimentality; but no-one doubts his charisma, or the flamboyance of his personality: and that in itself is enjoyable. And those listening closely soon find that putting on a performance need not exclude seriousness of intent, or depth of utterance. Indeed, as the curtain comes down and the lights come up in the auditorium, one finds even such revered practitioners as Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy applauding enthusiastically. It’s a damn fine trick to pull off.

Most affable of all is the voice of Mark Twain. He is sitting in a saloon bar with a bottle of whiskey, and he offers me some as he regales me with jokes, reminiscences, anecdotes, tall stories. Of course, one can’t get a word in edgeways with him, but one doesn’t want to stem that marvellous flow. And yet, despite all his boisterous high spirits, one senses at times a man struggling to come to terms with what he knows humans are capable of; and who, by the end – by the time, in other words, he came round to writing Pudd’nhead Wilson – throws up his arms in despair and admits it is too hard a knot for him to untie.

Henry James, however, specialised not so much in attempting to untie knots, but in tying them: and what intricate knots they are! He sits by the window, polishing with meticulous care the circular lenses of his pince-nez ; he speaks very softly, and very slowly, and very precisely, pausing frequently in mid-sentence to ensure his listeners have taken in what he has said so far, and taking care to give every word its correct weighting and its correct intonation. For all that, he engages; indeed, once one accustoms oneself to that insidiously softly-spoken voice, he is compelling. But after a while, I do find myself  wandering off once again to Mark Twain’s table.

Nietzsche, I admit, I find myself avoiding: I do not doubt his extraordinary intellect, nor his visionary flashes of genius, but he seems continually to be screaming into my ear. Musil I avoid as well: it’s like being lectured to at great length by an extremely clever man who unfortunately has bad breath. Of the German writers, I prefer the refined, civilised charm of Thomas Mann, or even the bleak comedy of Kafka, who is forever expressing surprise that his nightmarish flights of fancy don’t make us laugh more often.

The presence of D. H. Lawrence can be wearing. He is angry, very angry, about something or other, and I keep getting the curious feeling that, for whatever reason, he is angry with me for, apparently, not living my life as he feels I should. But when I try to find out precisely what it is that angers him, either he rants incoherently, thumping the table with his fist; or he expresses some profound vision of what it is to be human that I don’t really understand: it has something, I believe, to do with our sexuality, but that’s about as much as I can take in. He does, though, have some ecstatic moments of poetic intensity, and if there were to be some award for seriousness of intent, old DH would win it hands down. But, I must admit, I do find it difficult staying with his outsize personality for long stretches.

Even dramatists, who speak for ever through other peoples’ voices, can make their presence felt: it would be difficult, for instance, to mistake The Master Builder for a Chekhov play, or Three Sisters for an Ibsen. Only Shakespeare remains inscrutable: he is whoever one may imagine him to be – even the Earl of Oxford, if one so wishes.


One of the main reasons why we read is, I think, the companionship of the author. And, just as there is no accounting for our instinctive likes and dislikes of people we know, so there seems no accounting for similar preferences amongst authorial personalities. I, for instance, take far more readily to Dickens’ personality than I do to Austen’s, whereas many friends of mine, whose tastes and judgement I respect, feel otherwise. In a recent post, I had suggested that one could, to a great extent, choose what one likes and what one doesn’t: does this apply also to our likes and dislikes of authorial personae? Or is this aspect of our taste more instinctive, and, thus, something over which we have less control? Or could it be that I am mistaken (it has been known to happen!) in placing so much weight on the reader’s reaction to the authorial personality? I know it is stylistically wrong to finish an essay with questions rather than with a conclusion – even a tentative conclusion – but since I do not have the first idea what the answers are to these questions, I don’t really see how I could end otherwise.