Monday, April 26, 2010

"Lawrence thinks critics influential and should realize their responsibility," or, D. H. goes to parties

Considering how important he was to the first years of my consciously literary reading--the first year or so of college, say--I've not written that much about D. H Lawrence in the nearly five years I've been writing this blog. That's largely because, as I've joked before, Lawrence, for all his actual virtues, is one of those authors one tend to grow out of: as one's experience widens, the overwrought quality of his depictions of relations between men and women becomes apparent, starts to look less like a clear-eyed acknowledgment of the inevitable struggle of primal forces and more like a self-aggrandizing depiction of willed difficulty. Life and love, for the sane, are just not quite that tough.* I'm reminded of a scene from Harold Nicolson's diaries, collected in John Gross's indispensable New Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, telling of a meeting with Frieda Lawrence at a party:
She says that Lawrence said, "Frieda, if people really knew what you were like, they would strangle you." I say, "Did he say that angrily?" She said, "No--very quietly, after several minutes deep thought."
Anthony Powell--whose relatively catholic literary tastes can be trusted to overcome what one would be right to assume would be his social and political dislike of Lawrence--described him well in a review of Lawrence's literary criticism written for Punch in 1956:
Lawrence was in a way too gifted; at least too lacking in self-discipline to control his gifts to their best advantage. Leaning heavily towards the state of being primarily a poet, he was chiefly, as it turned out, concerned with writing novels. As a novelist, with all his force, he is never wholly at ease with his medium. He himself is the only character who ever truly emerges.
Nonetheless, Lawrence and his work remain of interest, so when my coworker Joseph Peterson lent me Edmund Wilson's The Twenties, one of the volumes of his journals that FSG published in the 1970s, I was greatly entertained by Wilson's account of a party given for Lawrence in August of 1923 that Wilson, then twenty-eight, attended:
Terrific argument betwen John Macy and Lawrence about extent to which reviewers were prostitutes. Lawrence thinks critics influential and should realize their responsibility. . . . I found Lawrence's appearance disconcerting. He was lean, but his head was disproportionately small. One saw that he belonged to an inferior caste--some bred-down unripening race of the collieries. Against this inferiority--fundamental and physical--he must have had to fight all his life: his passionate spirit had made up for it by exaggerated self-assertion. (I have never seen this physical aspect of Lawrence mentioned.) On this occasion, he suddenly became hysterical and burst out in childish rudeness and in a high-pitched screaming voice with something like: "I'm not enjoying this! Why are we sitting here having tea? I don't want tea! I don't want to be doing this!" The Seltzers [the hosts], rather stodgy in their bourgeois apartment, sat through it and made no reply, and nobody else took any notice of it. . . . The furious fit soon passed, and he presently came over and began to talk to me in a conventional British way. I don't remember what he said except to ask me a question or two about myself. I had earlier been rather antagonized by his denunciation of Dante as a writer who had tried to intellectualize love.
After which I find myself wanting to turn back to Powell, who, elsewhere in the Punch piece quoted above, wrote of Lawrence,
[H]is whole approach seems largely inappropriate to the world of literature. Lawrence was a frustrated politician or preacher. He wanted power: to force people to do his will. He was temperamentally unable to understand that different people by their nature may require to live different lives; and, accordingly, to find their expression in different forms of art.
All of which, oddly enough, makes me think it may be time--after nearly twenty years--to revisit The Rainbow.


  1. Lovely post, thanks for sharing. I love The Rainbow, but yes, I think that DHL was probably a bit much in person...

    Happy Tuesday


  2. I was recently reading Katherine Mansfield's diaries, and it seemed amazing that anyone would choose to remain a friedn of his over time, given the amount of bile he would pour over them. There must have been some serious charm at work there.

  3. Richard Rodriguez in an interview from 2004:

    "You talk about reading as an influence on your thoughts, like reading James Baldwin. Stylistically, how did your writing develop?

    "I would guess that I marry lots of writers as I write. I do know that my reading life is crucial to my writing life, and I'm in the debt of a lot of writers. I remember reading Carlyle's French Revolution, and I was just liberated by that book, because I didn't know you could write history that way. I didn't know you could so fully imagine it, and I thought to myself, Well, that would sort of be interesting to do that with my life and with the history that I've been a part of. To turn Richard Nixon into my Richard Nixon and to place him in the chapter with professional wrestlers and Benjamin Franklin . . .

    "I don't know any writer who does exactly what I do, but I certainly know writers whose work has been very influential. I think of Baldwin clearly. What I loved about Baldwin as a reader was his stylistic calm. I liked the fact that the more intense the emotion was that he was describing, the calmer the prose, the harder, the more controlled the prose was. That was a very deep lesson for me.

    "The other writer, I think, I was reading at the same time I began writing seriously in my own voice, was D. H. Lawrence. . . . The drama in my life between the working class and the middle class is the great drama of my life, much more so than ethnicity or any other aspect of my life. And that connection to a voice like Lawrence -- what Lawrence brings into my life -- he gives me permission to essentially free myself of the inhibition, the middle class inhibition that I taught myself. I taught myself, in some sense, not to be working class. Not to [talk] with my mouth full, but also to take a bath every day, to brush my teeth. I'm speaking seriously; there is a kind of middle class propriety that one learns, and you learn it from watching your classmates, and you learn how to talk at dinner, something you're not taught in the house, and so forth. I think what Lawrence gave me was the opposite permission, in some sense -- to go back to the sensuality of my life. And in the short stories, particularly, and then Sons and Lovers (which is, I think, his greatest novel), there is a possibility of using writing as a way of engaging again those emotions that you repress as a child, becoming a reader and moving away from both the brutality and the sensuality of your childhood. Lawrence is so much in awe of and horrified by his father, that it just reminds me very much of my relationship to my own family."

  4. Great find, Dave--thanks for passing that on. It fits with something I didn't address, but that I talked over with a coworker yesterday: in part because my favorite Lawrence is The Rainbow, I tend to think of his goals as being sexual and personal liberation and the destruction of hypocrisy, whereas he is, you're right, just as much a writer of class liberation, which was probably needed far more in the England of his day than sexual liberation.