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.


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