Monday, August 28, 2006

Lawrence's Prose

Here is an extended passage from about a quarter of the way into The Rainbow. Tom and Anna, who own the farm known as the Marsh, have a daughter, Anna. Will, a nephew whose family they rarely see, now lives nearby and comes to visit.

"He was very much excited and filled with himself that afternoon. A flame kindled round him, making his experience passionate and glowing, burningly real.

"His uncle listened with twinkling eyes, half-moved. His aunt bent forward her dark face, half-moved, but held by other knowledge. Anna went with him.

"He returned to his lodging at night treading quick, his eyes glittering, and his face shining darkly as if he came from some passionate, vital tryst.

"The glow remained in him, the fire burned, his heart was fierce like a sun. He enjoyed his unknown life and his own self. And he was ready to go back to the Marsh.

"Without knowing it, Anna was wanting him to come. In him she had escaped. In him the bounds of her experience were transgressed: he was the hole in the wall, beyond which the sunshine blazed on an outside world.

"He came. Sometimes, not often, but sometimes, talking again, there recurred the strange, remote reality which carried everything before it. Sometimes, he talked of his father, whom he hated with a hatred that was burningly close to love, of his mother, whom he loved, with a love that was keenly close to hatred, or to revolt. His sentences were clumsy, he was only half articulate. But he had the wonderful voice, that could ring its vibration through the girl’s soul, transport her into his feeling. Sometimes his voice was hot and declamatory, sometimes it had a strange, twanging, almost cat-like sound, sometimes it hesitated, puzzled, sometimes there was the break of a little laugh. Anna was taken by him. She loved the running flame that coursed through her as she listened to him. And his mother and his father became to her two separate people in her life.

"For some weeks the youth came frequently, and was received gladly by them all. He sat amongst them, his dark face glowing, an eagerness and a touch of derisiveness on his wide mouth, something grinning and twisted, his eyes always shining like a bird’s, utterly without depth. There was no getting hold of the fellow, Brangwen irritably thought. He was like a grinning young tom-cat, that came when he thought he would, and without cognisance of the other person.

"At first the youth had looked towards Tom Brangwen when he talked; and then he looked towards his aunt, for her appreciation, valuing it more than his uncle’s; and then he turned to Anna, because from her he got what he wanted, which was not in the elder people.

"So that the two young people, from being always attendant on the elder, began to draw apart and establish a separate kingdom. Sometimes Tom Brangwen was irritated. His nephew irritated him. The lad seemed to him too special, self-contained. His nature was fierce enough, but too much abstracted, like a separate thing, like a cat’s nature. A cat could lie perfectly peacefully on the hearthrug whilst its master or mistress writhed in agony a yard away. It had nothing to do with other people’s affairs. What did the lad really care about anything, save his own instinctive affairs?

"Brangwen was irritated. Nevertheless he liked and respected his nephew. Mrs. Brangwen was irritated by Anna, who was suddenly changed, under the influence of the youth. The mother liked the boy: he was not quite an outsider. But she did not like her daughter to be so much under the spell.


It is easy to find serious fault with this prose. Lawrence repeats words abominably, in a manner that must be deliberate (trying for some incantatory effect?), but which can look to our eyes like simple carelessness. Many of his sentences are so ill-formed ("The mother bowed her head and moved in her own dark world, that was pregnant again with fulfilment") as to be risible -- no wonder he is easy to parody -- and a few of them on the same page can make him seem unreadable. The jumbled metaphors of light in the first paragraphs are badly phrased ("his face shining darkly") and look badly confused (so is he a source of light, as several images insist, or -- a few lines later, "the hole in the wall, beyond which the sunshine blazed"?).

One can say that Lawrence is disregarding established conventions of prose narrative, or pushing them to its limit: shifting metaphors in a way so fluid that stodgy readers will condemn it as "mixed"; fitting clauses together in defiance of syntactical norms to suggest restless change. I will listen to such arguments, but they don't -- here -- work for me. This prose, if not objectively "bad," gives me no pleasure; I have not found an angle of access, a way of reading it, that brings it alive.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Trying to Read D.H. Lawrence

One of my summer ambitions was to manage finally either to read a mature Lawrence novel or conclude definitively that I could not. Summer is nearly over, and, a hundred pages into The Rainbow, I find myself reading other books. This has happened before.

Lawrence's reputation was in deep eclipse when I attended college in the mid-seventies, and I wasn't assigned anything by him in college. Reading serious criticism in the years immediately afterward, I was struck by the high regard many writers I respect held for his poetry; the enormous praise his travel novels had won from a variety of sources, and the disparity of viewpoints on his fiction, especially his novels. Though there was something like a general consensus that Women in Love was his greatest, a lot of writers who loved Lawrence had other candidates; and those who liked his novels often described them very differently.

The virtues of Sons and Lovers are easy to perceive, and its shortcomings easy to forgive: the author is plainly young, and brilliant. I have been able to enjoy many of his short stories over the years, although I noticed that they tended to be a good deal less radical and original than his novels: I was able to like them because they were more like what other, more traditional writers of his era were doing, and less like the crazy Lawrence who got everyone upset.

After Sons and Lovers came The Rainbow and then Women in Love, ostensibly its sequel although the two evidently have little crucial in common. Several times over the past twenty years I have tried to read The Rainbow, and if I didn't find in it the Lawrence who was being denounced when I was in college -- the women-hating proto-fascist -- neither did I like his prose, which seemed weirdly hectoring: Lawrence would describe a characters in strangely personal terms, as though his personal feelings about them were getting in the way of the description; and his prose seemed shot through with repetitions of words and images and enormously careless phrasing. It often looked like a first draft.

But many times I have heard the The Rainbow was a transitional work and Women in Love its triumphant realization; and decided that I could not write Lawrence off without reading the latter work. A new edition of the earlier novel persuaded me to give it one more chance, and to go on to try Women in Love if I truly failed.

So that was one of my summer projects. More on how it turned out tomorrow.