Thursday, March 31, 2005

"Comes over one an absolute desire to move"

(Apologies if this is just a note to myself - hopefully it might be of wider interest, though.)

Geoff Dyer recently reviewed, with some enthusiasm, my supervisor's new biography of D H Lawrence for the Daily Telegraph, and so it's with a certain neat circularity that I offer some thoughts on his own book about Lawrence, 'Out Of Sheer Rage'.

To call it a biography would be wrong. As the subtitle - 'In The Shadow Of D H Lawrence' - would suggest, Dyer never emerges into the sunlight long enough to give us much of a glimpse of the book's ostensible subject. Dyer recounts his travels around the globe visiting the places Lawrence lived, all with the aim of eventually writing a biography of his own, but what the reader is presented with is a curious book which is actually about NOT writing a biography of Lawrence, or at least trying and failing to do so. It is telling that at one point he recalls very nearly being distracted from visiting the D H Lawrence Birthplace Museum in Eastwood by the sight of an IKEA when en route for Nottinghamshire. This is, as he freely concedes, "a book full of irrelevancies".

Indeed, 'Out Of Sheer Rage' could more properly be called an autobiography, offering as it does a portrait of its author's life. The rambling passages relating his procrastination, especially those at the beginning of the book, can begin to become a little wearisome and there's also an unnerving candour to his self-analysis, but nevertheless Dyer reveals himself to be, like Lawrence, an endearingly grumpy old man at his happiest (or at least his best) when venting his spleen on seemingly anything and everything. His admission "What I like most about Lawrence is his temper" could have gone without saying.

It goes without saying that this is an utterly unscholarly book, something which Dyer openly flaunts. Indeed, much of his ire is directed squarely at academia. He is particularly and memorably scathing about a volume of essays edited by Peter Widdowson: "How could these people with no feeling for literature have ended up teaching it, writing about it? ... I kept looking at this group of wankers huddled in a circle, backs turned to the world so that no one would see them pulling each other off ... 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". Harsh words indeed, and ones with which I'm inclined to argue, not least to point out that in this very book he writes about giving an academic paper himself.

But when Dyer takes a break from amusing anecdotes and rants of which Lawrence would be proud, stems the flow of words in the service of little more than filling the pages, and actually gets down to the matter at hand, he is unerringly accurate (almost in spite of himself) about what it is that makes Lawrence such an engaging writer.

On his critical writings: "Each of them is an electrical storm of ideas! Hit and miss, illuminating even when hopelessly wide of the mark ('the judgement may be all wrong: but this was the impression I got'). Bang! Crash! Lightning flash after lightning flash, searing, unpredictable, dangerous".

On the powerful allure of Lawrence's letters and manuscripts: "The finished works serve as a prologue to the jottings: the published book becomes a stage to be passed through - a draft - en route to the definitive pleasure of the notes, the fleeting impressions, the sketches, in which it had its origins".

On the letters: "The endless fascination of the letters lies in his bottomless capacity for change - from blazing anger to good humour in the space of a few hours or minutes - his capacity to recover from any setback, to always give life, to always give himself, one more chance".

Dyer is particularly good at communicating the reasons behind his estimation of the travel book 'Sea And Sardinia' as Lawrence's best work, dwelling upon the simple beauty of its opening line, "Comes over one an absolute desire to move", and continuing: "The experience is created in the writing rather than re-created from notes. Reading it, you are drenched in a spray of ideas that never lets up. Impressions are experienced as ideas, ideas are glimpsed like fields through a train window, one after another. Opinions erupt into ideas, argument is conveyed as sensation, sensations are felt as argument. This immediacy is inscribed in the writing of the book".

Dyer isn't blind to Lawrence's faults, nor is he defensive in every aspect of his life or work. He mocks his paintings, and claims that certain of his weightier novels hold no interest whatsoever, preferring the more prosaic detail of the letters: "The fact that Lawrence wrote 'Lady Chatterley's Lover' means next to nothing to me; what matters is that he paid his way, settled his debts, made nice jam and marmalade, and put up shelves".

Towards the end of the book Dyer paraphrases Lawrence in saying he is writing it as a means of shedding his interest in the man himself. The Telegraph review suggests the project wasn't a complete success from this perspective, but no matter. What 'Out Of Sheer Rage' does, in its own perverse and idiosyncratic way, is the precise opposite - it rouses interest, it illuminates, it vivifies. In other words, Dyer's book proves wrong the very claim it contains, that you "can't write any kind of book about Lawrence without betraying him totally".

Links (aka The Shameless Self-Promotion Corner):

My BBC Nottingham feature on Lawrence.

Guest Blogging Dream Team: D H Lawrence (via Troubled Diva).

Andrew Motion reviews 'D H Lawrence: The Life Of An Outsider' in the Guardian - predictably he thinks more attention could have been devoted to the poetry.

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