Thursday, March 24, 2011

Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence

And wrestle he does, and with such self-effacing candor! When I first ran across this book while shelving in the Lit. Crit. section, I took it to be yet another ‘literary study’ of Lawrence, albeit of an emotional sort as implied by the title and Lawrence’s defiant face staring from its cover. But from the first sentence, you realize that this book is a far cry from the more than a thousand serious literary studies/biographies of one of England’s greatest, and certainly most controversial, modernist writers.
Instead, Dyer takes us inside his own inner struggle just to start working on his ‘Lawrence book’ — an ambition long-cherished and long-procrastinated. It was, after all, Lawrence who originally inspired Dyer, a fellow Englander, to be a writer. And so Out of Sheer Rage is Dyer’s hilariously personal memoir about the prolonged writer’s block that hounds him all the while he globetrots to several Lawrentian ‘hotspots’ in search of the perfect place to settle down and write his book. Italy, Sicily, Sardinia, Capri, Greece, the south of France, Oaxaca, and Taos. Dyer’s search provides a grand, though often frustrating, distraction from just settling down somewhere and writing his book.
It seems that Oxford-educated Dyer is ready for an excuse to get out of stuffy England and the ‘Dullford’ (as he calls it) literary scene, though nowhere as fed-up as Lawrence was in 1919 when he went into self-imposed exile and embarked on his “savage pilgrimage.” Because of Lawrence’s outspoken contempt for militarism during WWI and his marriage to a German aristocrat, the British had suspected Lawrence and his wife Frieda of spying, supposedly even signaling to German submarines off the Cornwall coast where they were living, destitute. In late 1917, the couple was driven out of Cornwall at three days’ notice under the terms of the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA, which actually is the name of one of Lawrence's characters!).
And during all this, Lawrence was being vilified by puritanical British govt. officials who suppressed his 1915 novel The Rainbow on charges of obscenity, though the book was hailed by the likes of Edmund Wilson, E.M. Forster, and Aldous Huxley. The Rainbow is now considered by many to be his finest work.
Indeed, at the time of Lawrence’s death in 1930, his public reputation was largely as a pornographer. You can certainly understand the ‘rage’ that drove him to abandon England. Thus began Lawrence’s ten-year wanderlust, along the way struggling with bouts of pneumonia (the result of his childhood in a sooty Nottinghamshire coal-mining town), a journey that was sometimes exhilarating despite his inner torment. He did manage, however, to do some substantive writing along the way, including Lady Chatterly’s Lover published in Italy in 1928 and his marvelously sensual travel writings. But it all left him exhausted and sick with TB at the age of 45, when he died in France.
And now comes Dyer who takes us and his companion Laura on his own sprawling and frustrating travel adventure in Lawrence’s footsteps, a journey marked with endless comical distractions and mishaps, including a serious moped accident on a Greek island, grievances about every place he visits, and a mounting disillusionment with the whole quest. Not to mention his utter failure to begin his Lawrence book. All the while, we hear his inner ramblings of self-doubt, his stubborn ambivalences about nearly everything, and the sense of wasted energy. He carries none of Lawrence’s fiction along with him for reference, instead (and wisely, as it turns out) only two volumes of the Cambridge Edition of his personal letters (noting especially his ‘grumpier’ ones), and some other casual writings. What we get is a deep and revealing character study of Dyer in despair over his failing search for a deep connection to Lawrence the man, and yet simultaneously perhaps the deepest, most revealing profile of Lawrence at his rarest!
And what’s more, Dyer brings Lawrence back to old admirers like me, who read his Sons and Lovers and short stories and poems in college in the 70s. It wasn’t so long before that, in 1960, when Penguin Books first published the unexpurgated version of Lady Chatterley’s lover in Britain—and was subsequently tried and found ‘not guilty’ under the Obscene Publications Act of 1959—that the literary merit of Lawrence’s work came to be recognized. Much to my pleasure, he was read widely in Modern Brit. Lit. courses, right alongside Woolf and Joyce and Huxley. The British movie of Sons and Lovers was released in 1960, followed by Women in Love in 1969, both critically acclaimed. And in 1964 Ana├»s Nin’s highly regarded D. H. Lawrence: An Unprofessional Study (orig. published in 1932) was republished by Swallow Press in Chicago, and is still available today. The Women’s Movement of the 60s and 70s resonated with his overwhelming commitment to presenting strong, complex, and self-directed women characters.

I say it’s time for Lawrence’s work to be revived and newly experienced, by older and younger readers alike. I'm into The Rainbow now, and will follow on to its sequel Women in Love.The force of his expressive power, the sensual and physical fullness of his language, and his daring intuitions about intimate relationships—still leave me breathless.
— Nancy

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