Thursday, November 28, 2013

Over the hills and far away

The recent Culture Show Special, D H Lawrence: A Journey Without Shame, was a real blast from the past, transporting me back to what felt like a former life - not least because my PhD supervisor was one of the most prominent talking heads, his encyclopaedic knowledge of the author's life used to add detail and colour to the account of his childhood and early manhood.

Produced to commemorate the centenary of the publication of Sons And Lovers, the programme took as its central premise the idea that Lawrence's elopement with Frieda Weekley, the German wife of one of his former university lecturers, in 1912 and the journey they took through the Alps was integral to his development as both a person and an artist. It's hard to argue otherwise - the trip literally broadened the horizons of the collier's son from Nottinghamshire, opening him to the possibilities and felicities of travel which he was to spend much of the rest of his life exploring. It also allowed him to open up (as it were) as a writer, proving the source of inspiration for several novels, poems, short stories, plays and essays.

This narrative, though, meant the programme glossed over the fact that Lawrence did return to England for an extended period after the Alpine excursion and a time living in Italy. In truth, the fact that he felt trapped here, unable to leave due to the First World War (and indeed suspected of being a spy), would have furthered the argument that restlessness and a drive to be on the move and to discover new places and cultures were aspects of his character unlocked by the elopement.

The programme makers' decision to have author Geoff Dyer and academic Catherine Brown roughly recreate that trek across the Alps was a mistake - as Time Out reviewer Phil Harrison noted, the pair had no chemistry whatsoever. Dyer's idiosyncratic travelogue-cum-book on Lawrence, Out Of Sheer Rage, is excellent, and so it would have been better to have sent him unaccompanied to roam wildly both literally and discursively. And if the two did have to be buddied up together, surely Brown could have been invited to respond to the accusations Dyer levels at academia in Out Of Sheer Rage: "Walk around a university campus and there is an almost palpable smell of death about the place because academics are busy killing everything they touch."

Though the programme's focus may have been upon Lawrence's near ceaseless movement around the world, the broader aim appears to have been to trace the shifting critical reception he and his work have been afforded - and, more than that, to actively revive his flagging reputation by addressing and rebutting the various criticisms that have damaged it. As someone who wrote about his reputation and legacy back in 2005, since when little seems to have changed, I can endorse this sentiment - but nevertheless I came away feeling as though Lawrence had been allowed to get off some of the charges too lightly. Even a couple of dissenting voices would have made it seem less like a protracted eulogy.

There are two points to make in this regard. First, there was no acknowledgement that, while Lawrence was extraordinarily prolix during a relatively short life, the quality of his writings is varied and uneven. Much is brilliant, yes, but it should be conceded there is also plenty that's poor. Simon Armitage was filmed describing the experience of reading some of his poems as being like watching "someone performing open heart surgery on themselves". That actually sums up the nature of Lawrence's writing in general - risk-taking, regularly perilously experimental and (it should be acknowledged) often with messy and unhappy results.

Second, Lawrence's prolixity and his shifting perspectives (even over short periods of time) means that you can probably find within his work evidence both for and against a belief in pretty much any view you like. So, while certain passages do reek of misogyny or racism, this is certainly not the whole story - on the contrary, it's only a part of it. Hence why Lawrence is such a complex and fascinating writer, fiendishly difficult to pin down (and indeed mocking of those who attempt to do so). Brown had it right in the programme's opening, talking about there being "many Lawrences" - which made it infuriating that the makers promptly had narrator Christopher Ecclestone refer to the programme's pursuit of "the real Lawrence". There is no such thing.

(Catherine Brown's 2012 lecture series on Lawrence is available to download in podcast form for free here.)

No comments: