Angry, difficult D. H. Lawrence

Modern writers are well known for being difficult but in D. H. Lawrence’s case the phenomenon is less a matter of obscure references or cryptic expressions, and more like what we mean when we say we have a difficult colleague. He could be good company and was capable of great generosity and kindness, but for much of the time he was clearly an impossible person – prickly, sometimes fantastically cantankerous, permanently subject to what he called “spiritual dyspepsia”. This was no doubt partly due to the state of his health, which was always precarious, though there was also an extraordinary tenacity to him: he often gives the impression of someone who used moral fury and bitter denunciation as a way of keeping the show on the road. No one likes to be rejected, but there is something wholly and characteristically individual in his outburst when Heinemann turned down Paul Morel, the first version of Sons and Lovers (1913): “Curse the blasted, jelly-boned swines, the slimy, the belly-wriggling invertebrates, the miserable sodding rotters, the flaming sods, the snivelling, dribbling, dithering palsied pulse-less lot that make up England today”. The affronts he received were typically cast, like that, as exemplifying a catastrophe affecting English, sometimes Western, culture at large; and his relationships were similarly obliged to symbolize the plight of the modern spirit – “to understand Middleton”, he once said of John Middleton Murry, with whom he had perhaps his most formative male friendship, “you must understand the whole suicidal tendency that has overspread Europe since 1880”. The knock-backs of his writing life were always felt on such a huge scale, as though vastly more was at stake than merely the fate of his books.

And knock-backs there certainly were: books rejected by prudent publishers and, once published by less prudent ones, prosecuted for obscenity; banned by philistine magistrates; seized by meddlesome customs officers. But for all that, his was not really a story of cruelly neglected or even misunderstood genius, like the history of John Clare or Isaac Rosenberg. Lawrence was for much of his life a succès d’estime: after Sons and Lovers the world took him up and never really put him down again, however rude he was. He was soon having tea with Lady Cynthia Asquith, befriended by Edward Marsh (who published him in Georgian Poetry), and taken to Cambridge to meet Bertrand Russell and John Maynard Keynes. In his dying days he was visited by the Aga Khan, which is more than most of us can look forward to. He won the admiration of some of the most intelligent people of his day – Murry, Katherine Mansfield, E. M. Forster, Aldous Huxley – and while he needed to think of himself as an estranged and scourging solitary, he never lost his place at the cultural centre, no matter how much he (quite genuinely) despised it. T. S. Eliot invited him to become a regular columnist in the Criterion; and, later in life, after he had begun to acquire something of a reputation as a popular journalist, the BBC floated the unlikely idea of a series of radio talks. He rejected both offers. The Criterion was too “literairy”, he told Eliot with a hallmark gracelessness, when it should have been “a lonely bird and a fighter”; but, undeterred, Eliot would go on to publish Pornography and Obscenity in the Criterion Miscellany series, and Faber were keen to publish more. As for the heedless commissioning editors at the BBC, they were not to know that the wireless was another example of mindless modern trash, like Bessie Smith or the cinema.

Richard Aldington, another talented admirer who withstood this difficult friendship, said that Lawrence possessed “a wounding capacity for not adapting himself to others”. Andrew Harrison quotes the phrase in the closing pages of his lucid and well-informed biography, and justly calls it “memorable”: it is a striking remark partly because it casts what might be thought a personal incapacity (a certain kind of emotional ineptitude) as a kind of empowering gift. Aldington captures something about the necessary belligerence of the Lawrentian imagination, its working assumption that one sign of authenticity is the potential to be wounding: “You have to have something vicious in you, to be a creative writer”, as Lawrence himself once put it. Frieda Lawrence professed herself stunned by the “amazing brutality” at work in an early version of Women in Love (1920). In his useful companion to the theatrical works, James Moran observes tellingly that Lawrence’s interest in the drama moved away from an inherited early naturalism to something much more like Antonin Artaud’s “Theatre of Cruelty”; and, like Artaud, Lawrence was stirred by the thought of breaking apart the usual modes of representation in pursuit of the darker and deeper things that lay beneath: their art often shares the avant-garde presumption that unpleasantness (of the right kind) is good for you. Some of the opinions that Lawrence entrusted to print in this frame of mind still sound fairly unpleasant, though only dubiously good for you: “Death, noble, unstainable death, smash the glassy rind of humanity, as one would smash the brittle hide of the insulated bug. Smash humanity and make an end of it. Let there emerge a few pure and single men”, and so on; and it is not very reassuring to say that he meant to be hair-raising or that several of his contemporaries were saying things just as off-putting.

Such thoughts were not at all incidental to his genius, but nor do they constitute the terms on which best to understand and appreciate it. The central question for any admirer of Lawrence is the relationship between the vehemently held doctrines that he brought to the writing of fiction and the virtues of the fiction that emerged – “how the visionary is constrained by the novelist” is how Frank Kermode put it in his excellent little book on Lawrence. The obvious analogy, as Kermode remarked, is with Yeats, who held all sorts of unpleasant and positively daft views, and still managed to work “Sailing to Byzantium” out of them; but then Yeats had retained enough of the fin de siècle to suspect anything that smacked of didacticism in poetry. Lawrence, by contrast, never concealed that his mission was to set England right, or to find an alternative settlement or culture from which the problem of England could be anatomized once and for all. “I do write because I want folk – English folk – to alter, and have more sense”, he told a correspondent.

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