Monday, June 18, 2007

"Penetrating into the heart of life"

Anthony Burgess' 'Flame Into Being: The Life And Works Of D H Lawrence' is by his own admission “neither a comprehensive biography nor an academic study of Lawrence’s work”. The highly personal nature of the book is evident from the title of its opening chapter, 'Lawrence And Myself When Young', and in some respects, like Geoff Dyer's 'Out Of Sheer Rage', it says as much about its author as it does about its subject, though with greater subtlety.

In that first chapter, Burgess describes how his first encounters with Lawrence were an essential part of a teenage boy's rite of passage, the literary and aesthetic qualities of his books quite unimportant: “What my father’s generation, which was also Lawrence’s, called dirt I and my schoolfellows thought of as liberation. We wanted the truth about sex more than we wanted literature”. Recalling that 'Lady Chatterley's Lover' was one of an unholy trinity of illicit texts (together with James Joyce's 'Ulysses' and Radclyffe Hall's 'The Well Of Loneliness'), he laments: “Those were great days for the young who looked for sex in books, and they can never be recovered in an age of permissiveness”.

Following the famous trial and the subsequent lifting of the 'ban' on the novel in 1960, Lawrence “ceased to be a subversive author. His fangs were drawn and he became a mild classic, meaning a writer trapped in his period”. Worse still, during the heady days of the 1960s he became lodged in the popular imagination as the prophet of sexual permissiveness - quite wrongly.

It is unfortunate", writes Burgess, "that the name of D H Lawrence should, in the common mind, be associated with only one book, and that far from his best. We all suffer from the popular desire to make the known notorious. The book I am best known for, or only known for, is a novel I am prepared to repudiate: written a quarter of a century ago, a jeu d’esprit knocked off for money in three weeks, it became known as the raw material for a film which seemed to glorify sex and violence. The film made it easy for readers of the book to misunderstand what it was about, and the misunderstanding will pursue me till I die”. This may be robustly old-fashioned in the insistence that the author is the only genuine arbiter of a book's meaning, but it nevertheless underlines how keenly Burgess feels this sense of injustice and mistreatment at the hands of the public, and how much he empathises with the undignified posthumous fate of his subject.

The outcome of the trial was however a relief in one sense: it meant that Burgess and others could drop any pretence that 'Lady Chatterley's Lover' was actually a good book. 'Flame Into Being' is no lovestruck hagiography, and Burgess is critical of Lawrence's foolhardiness in attempting to rehabilitate the word "fuck" and cleanse it of dirty connotations, on the grounds that it was never in common use and did not "originally" refer to a loving act: “Lawrence made an aesthetic rather than a moral gaffe, and his error has been perpetuated in a great deal of the fiction which acknowledges him as the pioneer of sexual frankness” (Henry Miller and Norman Mailer, perhaps?).

By contrast, Burgess lauds 'Women In Love' (I think rightly) as “one of the ten great novels of the century” for its curious interweaving of realistic surface detail and profoundly unsettling, turbulent undercurrents, and agrees with Dyer that 'Sea And Sardinia' is “the most charming work he ever wrote and by far the best introduction to his oeuvre”. I don't agree with the dismissive claim that preferring Lawrence's short stories to his fiction “is like preferring Beethoven’s bagatelles to his sonatas”, but otherwise the book's judgements on the merits of individual works are largely sound.

As a literary critic, Burgess is distinctly old-school. He rehearses well-worn arguments about Lawrence's prophetic qualities - “He wanted to bring his own people, the British, to a kind of promised land. Like all Britain’s prophets, he preached to a wilderness” - and perpetuates Richard Aldington's all-too-neat distinction between Joyce and Lawrence (the former "concerned with being", the latter "with becoming"). This has the unfortunate effect of ignoring Lawrence's ability as a consummate prose stylist, adept at wielding language in a way which can seem clumsy and repetitious but on closer inspection is in fact subtly and calculatedly effective.

However, Burgess does succeed in pinpointing much of what makes Lawrence such an extraordinary writer, recognising for instance (as disappointingly few do) that his work is “never without humour or irony” and that he “knew that within himself there was a multitude of people hardly ever at peace with each other”; acknowledging that "this philosopher writer can rarely be swallowed whole". Gently poking fun at Lawrence's absurdities when they deserve it (such as the essay 'Reflections On The Death Of A Porcupine'), Burgess nevertheless professes an admiration for a writer who, as he puts it, had “the courage of his own contradictions”, something that makes him challenging and unsettling for a British public who "expect comfort from their writers".

In particular, Burgess draws attention to Lawrence's incredible memory for people and places, and the "sharp and retentive eye" with which he regarded them: “All art is concerned with penetrating into the heart of life ...[Lawrence] performed some marvellous acts of penetration ... Lawrence had a great capacity to see into things, to guess and be proved right”.

As a writer himself, able to offer insights into the creative process and the life of an author, Burgess is in many ways an ideal lay person's guide to Lawrence's life and work. He peppers his prose with generalised observations, such as his conviction that “a writer can sometimes do his best service to his country’s literature by seeing his country, and hearing his language, against the foil of an alien culture”, and displays a nice line in wry humour: “Anyone can write a first novel. If an author can jump the hurdle of his second he can settle, without too much trouble – except for shortage of money, creative agony, and the hostility or indifference of the critics and the public – to a kind of career”. Burgess isn't above self-deprecation, either; writing of Lawrence's debut 'The White Peacock', he notes: "Whatever my inferiority to Lawrence in the field of fiction, I am proud to record that I received precisely the same sum as an advance on my own first novel, and from the same publisher. That, however, was fifty years later”.

Ultimately, though, for all his insight and finely-worded reasoning and argument, Burgess still concedes that Lawrence's writing often appeals to and affects him most profoundly in a deeper emotional sense which is essentially impossible to explain. After quoting at length from a poem from the 1917 collection 'Look! We Have Come Through', he confesses: “I have had difficulty in copying out those lines because of the tears”.

1 comment:

Ian said...

By coincidence I happened to re-read his poem "Snake" yesterday for the first time since high school, and your comment about "Lawrence's ability as a consummate prose stylist, adept at wielding language in a way which can seem clumsy and repetitious but on closer inspection is in fact subtly and calculatedly effective" is very apt.