Apr 112015
 

So, I read some of the books on the IFFP 2015 longlist:*

Fire

F, Daniel Kehlmann, tr. Carol Brown Janeway, Quercus, 2014.

A clever and funny novel that plays with various things beginning with ‘F': fate; family; fortune; fortitude; failure; fraternity; fatherhood; falsehood; and a whole lot more. I liked the story’s twists and turns, and after my initial surprise at being asked to believe that fate could make people’s lives intersect in such startling ways, I hopped aboard and went along for the ride.

After an encounter with a stage hypnotist, a feckless father deserts his three sons and strikes out on his own, intending to be a writer. Jump-cut many years hence, and we find the sons leading troubled lives and struggling to make their way in the world. They have become, variously, a godless priest obsessed with his Rubik’s cube, a wealthy self-medicating money-man, and a renowned art dealer with a big secret. We are treated to quite a spectacle as their lives unravel and toxic things kept below the surface begin to seek the light.

I found F enjoyable and unpredictable. The comedy is not laid on too thick and there is an underlying sense of pathos as the four characters stumble their way through life. I think this aspect of the narrative serves to reinforce the adage that you reap what you sow: in F, cause and effect are closely and often disastrously linked, for good and ill.

Years later, long since fully grown and enmeshed in his own particular form of unhappiness, none of Arthur Freidland’s sons could recall whose idea it had actually been to go to the hypnotist that afternoon.

Fire

The Giraffe’s Neck, Judith Schalansky, tr. Shaun Whiteside, Bloomsbury, 2014.

Inge Lomark teaches biology at the Charles Darwin High School, which is situated in a small town in the former East Germany. An adherent of the Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest’ theory, Frau Lomark applies the theory to her pupils and treats them as specimens to be observed. However, change is afoot at the school, and in society, and Frau Lomark is herself having difficulty adapting to the new pedagogical and social structures. Will she be able to give up her old habits and adapt to the new conditions?

The narrative is in turn hilarious, vicious, and poignant. Inge’s story is told with sparkling wit in language that is both coldly clinical and searingly honest, and Inge is revealed to be a nightmare conglomerate of all the worst teachers you ever had, but at the same time she is achingly human and oblivious to the effect she has on those around her.

I admire the scientific research that went into the writing of the book, and the way Inge is portrayed in all of her prickly contrariness. I think the novel works well as a commentary on the social experiment element of the GDR and how, after the wall fell, those who had best adapted to the conditions forced upon them were least equipped to adapt to life after reunification.

‘Sit down’, said Inge Lohmark, and the class sat down. She said, ‘Open the book at page one,’ and they opened the book at page one, and then they started on ecological balances, ecosystems, the interdependencies and interrelations between species, between living creatures and their environment, the effective organisation of community and space.

Fire

In the Beginning Was the Sea, Tomás González, tr. Frank Wynne, Pushkin Press, 2015.

This novel made a long-lasting impression on me. I had a strong sense of déjà vu as I was reading, because there is a definite Conrad vibe, with deep shadows of the Heart of Darkness variety permeating the text. Parts of the narrative also reminded me of The Wide Sargasso Sea: perhaps it was the setting of the novel, which is an island off the Caribbean coast of Colombia where there is tropical heat, jungle, and local inhabitants who may not exactly be friendly and welcoming, but there is also a sense of palpable danger in the air, a sense of foreboding, inevitability, the sense of a naive adventure about to go horribly wrong.

Anyway, J and Elena, a 30ish couple, decide to leave behind their hard-partying lifestyle and get back to nature and simplicity by buying a small estate on an island. Unfortunately, things do not go according to plan. Their new house is ramshackle, the hired help is surly, and once they are thrown together with only their own intellectual and emotional resources to sustain them, J and Elena begin to experience difficulties in their relationship. Their arrival on the island is akin to a stone being thrown into a pond, and as the ripples widen, the equilibrium of society is mightily upset. J and Elena are oblivious to the delicate balance that sustains local social harmony, and their blundering has far-reaching consequences.

This book was first published in 1983 and took thirty years to find a publisher in English. The translation is superb, I think, and the descriptions of the environment are exquisite. I did not know until after I had finished the book that it is actually based on events in the life of the author’s brother, Juan, who moved to remote island with his girlfriend in search of a less complicated lifestyle. I am glad that I was unaware of this connection, otherwise I probably would have read the book more sympathetically and my reaction to it would have been less spontaneous.

The luggage was transported on the roof of the bus. Two leather suitcases containing their clothes, a trunk containing his books, and her sewing machine. Their belongings were surrounded by bunches of plantains, sacks of rice, blocks of unrefined sugar cane wrapped in dried banana leaves, and other suitcases.

Fire

Bloodlines, Marcello Fois, tr. Silvester Mazzarella, MacLehose Press, 2014.

Bloodlines contains some extremely beautiful and lyrical prose. The sentences really are gorgeous to read, even when the words convey ugly images. It took me a while to finish the book because I lingered over and savoured the words, rolling them around in my mouth and re-watching the word-pictures that flickered through my mind.

Set in Sardinia in 1889-1943, the narrative revolves around the Chironi family and tells the story of Michele Angelo and Mercede, two orphans who marry. Although their union is joyous at first, disaster strikes and their lives disintegrate as they experience a series of events that cause them intense pain and heartbreak. I found the novel hard going some of the time, not only because of the personal tragedies, but because the Chironis are caught up in the political foment of the early twentieth century, with its wars and destruction and horrific loss of life. There are actually two strands to the narrative: the second traces the Chironi family name far back in history, but I found this all a bit tedious and it reminded me a lot of Márquez and One Hundred Years of Solitude, a book which, I am sorry to say, I have never been able to finish.

I think Bloodlines is a novel that needs to be read aloud – there is something in the structure of the paragraphs and in the beauty of the words that demands it – because it feels to me like an oral tale, a fable handed down through the generations. I liked it a lot, but mostly because of the quality of the writing and the lyricism of the language.

Luigi Ippolito is lying on his carefully made bed. He is in formal dress, the buttons on his soutane shining, his shoes like polished mirrors. As he always has, and as he always will, he refers to himself by surname first: ‘Chironi Luigi Ippolito’ and, without moving, he stands up to look back at himself, perfectly serene, dead, so ready he could weep.

Fire

While the Gods Were Sleeping, Erwin Mortier, tr. Paul Vincent, Pushkin Press, 2014.

What is it like to have lived for almost a century? To have experienced the loss of everyone you ever loved and cared about? To have lived through a profound experience such as the Great War? To be almost helpless and forced to rely on the kindness of strangers? To have a need to record your memories so that they will not be lost for all time when you die? Erwin Mortier poses these questions and does much to answer them in this wonderful novel. It felt to me that Helena, his protagonist, had taken up residence in his mind and that the novel he produced is a form of automatic writing. The narrative is just so detailed and so beautifully rendered, and so heartbreakingly truthful. I wallowed in it, dear reader, because writing as Art does not get much better than this.

Memory and identity are bound together, and as Helena feels herself slipping from this life, she immerses herself in her past, determined to capture her memories and record them. She writes her past into being – setting it down, making it concrete – and in so doing, shows us who she is and how she became herself. I just loved this book for its honesty, its complexity, and its profound humanity.

I have always shrunk from the act of beginning. From the first word, the first touch. The restlessness when the first sentence has to be formed, and after the first the second. The restlessness and the excitement, as if you are pulling away the cloth beneath which a body rests; asleep or dead.

Fire

The Ravens, Tomas Bannerhed, tr. Sarah Death, The Clerkenwell Press, 2014.

A coming-of-age story set in 1970s Sweden, The Ravens contains glorious nature writing and profoundly disturbing descriptions of mental illness. Is mental illness genetically inherited, or has the hardship involved in attempting to farm marginal land caused successive generations of the men in one family to go mad? This is the dilemma facing 12-year-old Klas as he watches his increasingly unstable father lose his sanity. Will the same thing happen to him if he is forced to take on the responsibility of trying to wrest a living from the land?

This is a bleak tale that made me shiver. Living in the country is often held up as being idyllic, but the reality can be another thing altogether. The land can be a cruel taskmaster, and as Bannerhed shows us, nature can be both a blessing and a curse. Nevertheless, I found the book wonderfully atmospheric as far as a sense of place goes, even if I did struggle with the all-too-accurate descriptions of anxiety and depression.

I particularly like this novel’s cover art, and I wish all publishers would pay as much attention to a book’s design, because it really can make a difference as to how the public perceive it. The beginning of The Ravens serves as a metaphor for what is to follow:

There’s Father, I thought. In his eternal cloud.

Bouncing along in Grandfather’s old Ferguson with his body belt drawn tighter and his hair growing greyer, and later he’ll come home smelling of earth – because he has no choice. Because this spot is ours, this plot of soil, these acres of farmland. The lake, drained and turned into fields and banks. The marsh, Raven Fen, smoking like ashes and tinder as soon as the dry season sets in, the peat bog that can suddenly catch fire, smouldering and gasping in its depths, burning without a flame, consuming everything from below until you dig trenches to cut it off.

Fire

Tiger Milk, Stefanie De Velasco, tr. Tim Mohr, Head of Zeus, 2014.

I read this in November 2014 and was not terribly impressed. Here is the opening paragraph of my post about it:

The sex, drugs, and teenagers gone wild coming-of-age story has pretty much been done to death, so I think that such a novel needs to be brilliantly written, or have a shattering twist, in order to make it stand out from the myriad others on the same theme. Sadly, Tiger Milk did not hit that spot for me. I think it is a solid debut novel, but the version I read in English translation seemed rather one-note and, deliberate attempts to startle the more mature reader notwithstanding, a tad bland. Link to Post

::

I tried Look Who’s Back and Boyhood Island, but I did not get along with them and gave up. I think that in order fully to appreciate the tale of Hitler’s reincarnation, a reader needs to be familiar with German cultural references, and I am not. Boyhood Island did not appeal to me because of the flat, dull writing. I have no clue why it is considered Proustian by some, because whereas Proust’s prose radiates light and sings, Knausgaard’s writing felt like a grey monotonous mumble.

I was impressed with all but one of the translations (*cough* Tiger Milk). Translators do not get enough recognition in the publishing world, if you ask me. Translators undertake a difficult task, because they effectively re-write a text in another language and in terms that a reader from another culture can understand, while still maintaining that sense of ‘foreign’ we expect in translated fiction. I think that translators definitely deserve more credit for their role in bringing books from all over the world to an English-speaking audience and it surprises me when people talk about translated novels without mentioning the translator.

I am not sure how many more IFFP 2015 books I will try. The Murakami is glaring at me from a shelf, but after being badly burned by the mess that was IQ84, I am very wary. The only other book on the longlist I feel compelled to read is By Night the Mountain Burns, which sounds intriguing.

*The included quotes are the opening lines of the books.

Feb 192015
 
2666

Gwendolen, Diana Souhami, Quercus, 2014.

Have you ever wondered what happened to Gwendolen Harleth after Daniel and Mirah sailed away to Palestine to help found the Jewish homeland? No? Well, that is the sort of thing I am wont to ponder and when I heard that Diana Souhami had written a book which addressed that very pressing question, I was rather agog to read it. Despite my dislike of spin-offs, I thought that maybe, considering that I had enjoyed Souhami’s non-fiction writing, Gwendolen might make for interesting reading.

Gwendolene Harleth is, of course, one of the main characters in George Eliot’s last novel, Daniel Deronda. It is, as one would expect from Eliot’s pen, a large and sprawling novel containing Big Philosophical and Moral Ideas. In a nutshell, it tells the story of Daniel Deronda, a young man brought up in privilege to be the quintessential Victorian English gentleman. He then finds out that his mother is Jewish, wholeheartedly embraces his new identity, and becomes involved in the movement to create a Jewish homeland in Palestine. There is another strand to the plot, however: a young woman named Gwendolen Harleth, who is thoroughly spoiled and conceited, finds herself in the position of having to marry in order to save her family from penury. Unfortunately she is also extremely naive and decides to accept a marriage proposal from a wealthy man whom she thinks she will be able to control. Ha! Think again, Gwendolen. Her husband is one of the nastiest men in English literature and Gwendolen learns the truth of the adage, ‘marry in haste; repent as leisure.’ Gwendolen and Daniel seem to be a perfect match in many ways and their paths cross throughout the novel. However, as we know, the course of true love never did run smooth, and Eliot is unrelenting when it comes to Gwendolen and Daniel’s relationship. Her main objective in writing the book was to make her readers aware of their ignorance about the Jewish faith and to question their prejudice against Jewish people. She also wanted to give her ideas about ‘the woman question’ another canter in the public arena, and she covers much of the same ground in this regard as she did in earlier novels.

Daniel is a most upstanding, proper and worthy young man, and Gwendolen, infuriating Gwendolen, is a product of her lackadaisical upbringing and a victim of the rampant misogyny that prevailed in Victorian England. Eliot’s trademark irony and sly humour give the narrative plenty of zing, but she also manipulates the reader and constantly makes you rear back in horror at Gwendolen’s wilful selfishness at one moment, and then feel dreadfully sorry for poor Gwen only a couple of pages later. Eliot gives us an in-depth psychological portrait of a self-obsessed young woman who is considered by other people as a chattel to be traded and controlled, but who tries to outrun the tsunami of her fate.

And so it began: Life-changing decisions made by sudden inclinations, vanity and rash daring. Had Grandcourt vanished at that point I would have forgotten him within a week. I did not stop to consider what it truly meant to know another person, or myself. I knew nothing of the world beyond the drawing rooms of Pennicote and the bewildering nowhere places of my childhood travels: nothing of the war in America, the struggles of the suffragists, the suffering of the workhouse, the customs and mores of other societies. And nothing whatsoever of the motivations of men, or of qualities that might matter, beyond chandeliers, paddocks and diamonds, when choosing a husband.

I was interested to see what Souhami would do with Daniel Deronda, and in some ways I did find the novel satisfying: she has stuck pretty much to Eliot’s narrative in the first part of the book and does not throw in anything that would frighten the horses – she even includes appropriate quotes from the original, which is a nice touch. However, in the second part of the book, I am afraid things start to fall apart somewhat. Souhami introduces a slew of new characters, most of them real people who lived at the time the book was written, and lo and behold, we even get to meet Mrs Lewes who is, oddly enough, writing a book about a young man and a young woman whose stories are uncannily similar to those of Daniel and Gwendolen. I found that idea kind of clever, especially as Souhami’s Gwendolen shares Mrs Lewes’ views on women’s rights and suffrage.

As if reading my thoughts she beckoned me over. In anticipation of meeting her I had rehearsed a small speech. I told her I had read several parts of Middlemarch, and found Mr Casaubon perfectly awful, though not as horrible as my husband had been, and that I feared Will Ladislaw was not much better. She seemed immoderately hurt by my remarks and looked across to Mr Lewes, who again held my arm, took me to one side and whispered that criticism plunged Polly into despair and we must try to shield her from it.

The narrative is presented in the form of one of those therapeutic letters-you-never-mean-to-send, in which Gwendolen addresses Daniel and pours out her heart. My main problem with this is that Souhami’s Gwendolen does not have much of a heart and is too busy telling him how beautiful she is and how everyone admires her beauty and how she kissed her image in the mirror and did she mention that everyone (including her) thinks she is SO beautiful? All the repetitions about her supposed beauty became a bit tedious, I can tell you. Souhami’s Gwendolen comes across as vacuous and completely self-involved, a two-dimensional spoilt princess, really. Whereas Eliot’s Gwendolen is written with wit and irony, the Gwendolen we get in this book is wooden and decidedly dull. Souhami’s Daniel is also a cardboard cut-out of Eliot’s Daniel, only popping up now and then to pontificate about something lofty or to give Gwen another moralistic lecture. If I had not read Daniel Deronda I would have been left wondering what on earth Gwendolen saw in him, because Souhami presents him as such an insipid prig.

Anyway, Gwendolen was an ok read, but not exactly stellar. After finishing the novel, I had a hankering to reacquaint myself with the original, so now I am re-reading Daniel Deronda, which is 700+ pages of smallish crammed-together print in my newish OWC edition, and my eyes are not happy. I may have to investigate other editions and see if there is one with a better typeface.

Jan 312015
 

The Universe seems intent on continuing my BIG LIFE LESSONS/NO TIME TO MYSELF theme in 2015, so although I have been reading, I have had neither the time nor the inclination to write blog posts. Therefore, here is my January reading in mind-blip form.

Fire

Paris France, Gertrude Stein, Peter Owen, 2003.

Paris France is Gertrude Stein’s celebration of everything French. Weirdly, I happened to be re-reading it when things kicked off in Paris recently. Hmmm. Anyway, part memoir, part cultural exploration, Paris France was published in 1940, on the same day that Paris fell to the Germans.

But still now it is 1939 and war-time, well it was just beginning and everything was agitating and one day we were with our friends the Daniel-Rops they are our neighbours in the country and he was expecting a call to go to Paris and the telephone rang. He went quickly to answer it he was away some time and were all anxious. He came back. We said what is it. He said the quenelles the Mère Mollard was making for us have gone soft.

Yep. Ms Stein could do that. It seems to me that she wrote very much as she spoke, with the same rhythm and word-patterns, and I can imagine her enthroned on her chair, wearing her robe-like costume and sandals, pontificating on this and that, her mellifluous voice mesmerising, her wit and irony spinning a veritable web of words. My favourite Stein work is Tender Buttons, which I decided to re-read after Paris France.

Fire

Clearly, I rather adore Gertrude Stein and think that if she had not existed as a real person, we might have had to invent her, because the world just needs more eccentrics. Stein is not everyone’s cup of tea. Some of her writing is notoriously difficult and I shall not pretend that I ‘get’ the whole shebang, but I love that she was so playful and curious and clever when it came to words. She did not just string them together into coherent sentences and say the same thing in the same way as a million other people before and after her. No, she made words dance to her own tune, and her writing was Art with a capital ‘A’. She ‘made’ her poems, just as painters ‘make’ pictures. Instead of brush strokes, she used the symbols we call the alphabet. And despite the way that much of her writing appears to us as incomprehensible, it would be foolish indeed to dismiss Stein’s work as incomprehensible. The thing is, we will never understand it if we try to ‘figure it out’. Like Buddhist koans, which must be intuited and not figured out, Stein’s sly, clever, and wittily cryptic poems reveal themselves when you least expect it.

BOOK.

Book was there, it was there. Book was there. Stop it, stop it, it was a cleaner, a wet cleaner and it was not where it was wet, it was not high, it was directly placed back, not back again, back it was returned, it was needless, it put a bank, a bank when, a bank care.

Suppose a man a realistic expression of resolute reliability suggests pleasing itself white all white and no head does that mean soap. It does not so. It means kind wavers and little chance to beside beside rest. A plain.

Suppose ear rings, that is one way to breed, breed that. Oh chance to say, oh nice old pole. Next best and nearest a pillar. Chest not valuable, be papered.

Cover up cover up the two with a little piece of string and hope rose and green, green.

Please a plate, put a match to the seam and really then really then, really then it is a remark that joins many many lead games. It is a sister and sister and a flower and a flower and a dog and a colored sky a sky colored grey and nearly that nearly that let. From: Tender Buttons

Fire

The Driver’s Seat, Muriel Spark, Penguin, 2006.

This novella is wonderfully suspenseful and apparently turns the crime story inside out, but seeing as how I am not an aficionado of that genre I have no idea if that is indeed the case. However, I very much enjoyed the experience of reading the book because I never knew what would happen next. I have seen The Driver’s Seat described as a ‘whydunit': Spark lets us know very early what happens but never gives an explanation as to why it happens, and I found the story a bit chilling unsettling, really.

The protagonist is a woman named Lise who appears to be heading off for a much-needed holiday in Italy. But, it seems that she has a hidden agenda. What could that be? And why does she wear such garish clothes and behave so strangely, and why is the man in the seat next to hers on the plane so frightened of her? Mystery!Crime! I was impressed by Spark’s ability to pack so much into so few pages.

Fire

A Meal in Winter, Hubert Mingarelli, tr. Sam Taylor, Portobello Books, 2014.

There are so many books about the Holocaust, but this one is gem. It might be a slim novella of only 138 pages, but it contains a powerful story. Three German soldiers take the opportunity to go over their immediate superior’s head when he is absent one day and tell a higher officer that they would rather do the hunting than rather than the executing at the Polish camp where they are stationed. They are all suffering from nightmares and profound distress after witnessing the horrors of the Jewish genocide. The frozen countryside is peaceful and beautiful and they are in no hurry to begin their task of hunting for ‘them’, but they stumble across a young Jewish man hiding in a hole in the ground and capture him. What happens next raises profound moral questions that speak to the very heart of what it means to be human, and humane. I found this narrative bleak and disturbing, but it is an important book and deserves to be widely read.

Fire

The Dawn of the Color Photograph: Albert Kahn’s Archives of the Planet, David Okefuna, Princeton University Press, 2014.

Albert Kahn was a French financier and banker who, in 1909, instituted a project to produce a colour photographic record of human life on Earth. Throughout the subsequent twenty years he financed the travels of a group of photographers who journeyed to fifty countries and made more than 72,000 images using the autochrome photography technique, the first portable true-colour photographic process. Sadly, the Great Depression saw Kahn’s financial ruin and he had to curtail the project before it was completed, but this book draws on images from the archive of collected images that languished, unrecognised, until quite recently.

The photographs are amazing! They made me think about what we have lost in the world since the advent of ‘globalisation’. There were so many wonderful national costumes, different types of dwellings, diverse urban and rural landscapes, but now everyone everywhere pretty much dresses and looks the same. I kept wondering who the people in the photographs were, what their stories were, and what happened to them. Did the woman locked in the wooden crate in the barren wastes of Mongolia manage to escape? What happened in the lives of those dandified Canadian cowboys, and who were all those magnificently mustachioed men wearing glittering jewels and turbans at that gathering in India? There are frontline nurses, wounded soldiers, a wrecked train, laughing children, tired old men, a beautiful reclining concubine, all in wonderfully soft and washed-out colours. Some of the archival images can be seen here. Not all of these images are in this book, but they are a good representation of the archive’s content.

Fire

Art and Music in Venice: From the Renaissance to the Baroque, Hilliard T. Goldfarb, Yale University Press, 2014.

In 2013 the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts held an exhibition called Splendore a Venezia, which sought to explore the interaction between the visual arts and music in Venice from the early sixteenth to the late eighteenth century, from Titian to Guardi, from Willaert to Vivaldi. This is such a gorgeous book and I loved leafing through its pages and discovering all sorts of new things:

Lavishly illustrated, Art and Music in Venice brings Venice’s golden age to life through stunning images of paintings, drawings, prints, manuscripts, textbooks, illuminated choir books, musical scores and instruments, and period costumes. New scholarship into these objects by a team of distinguished experts gives a fresh perspective on the cultural life and creative output of the era.

Fire

Limonov, Emmanuel Carrère, tr. John Lambert, Allen Lane, 2014.

Eduard Limonov is another of those people who, if they did not really exist, would need to be invented, because his life has been so unbelievably weird and fascinating. Carrère’s book is a biography, but it is published as fiction because, obviously, he has taken liberties. But, I loved it to pieces.

Limonov has had many incarnations: from a poverty-stricken factory worker he raised himself up by dint of his own steely determination and became a celebrated writer, but he is no hero and I found that my reaction to him changed constantly depending on his behaviour, which could at times be appallingly bad. This NYT review manages to distil the complexities of Limonov’s life to manageable proportions and is worth reading. I think that Carrère has produced a narrative that is wonderfully evocative of time and place, and he gives us a multi-faceted portrait of a complicated and controversial man. I really enjoyed reading the book and I think that Carrère is now one of my new favourite writers.

I have no reading plans for February. Hopefully, I will find some time to write posts and read other people’s blogs. Maybe I will finally begin one of the reading projects I made notes for last year.

Jan 092015
 
2666

Sons and Lovers, D. H. Lawrence, Oxford University Press, 2009.

I had a fabulous time re-reading Sons and Lovers. I used to have a bit of a difficult relationship with ‘Bert’ in my rabid-feminist days. I remember nodding along with Kate Millett’s excoriation of his work as I read her Sexual Politics when I was doing gender studies at uni. Anyway, I put Lawrence on the back burner but kept a wary eye on him because, for a time, he was very close to Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry. He kept cropping up in books and articles I was reading about them and their wide acquaintanceship, and I thought of him as big-brained but irascible and arrogant, and a not very nice man. He could be ferocious and violent, and sometimes he hit his wife (often, she hit him first but that is no excuse), and he hit his dog, too. I thought there was something of the satyr about him, with those eyes and the beard and the rampant interest in sex. I thought of him as being slightly creepy, somehow, a bit like Henry Miller. I would not have invited him to my fantasy dinner party, although his contemporaries would be there: Woolf, Mansfield, Joyce…

Anyway, this time around I paid more attention as I read. I consulted the biographies on my shelves and read a few critical analyses of his work. I read some of his letters and poems, and studied his paintings. And somehow in the middle of all that a light went on over my head (DING!) and suddenly I had a Lawrentian groove thing happening. His books are not just random semi-autobiographical novels, but together they form an exploration of his self and his way of seeing the world. He was engaged in digging deep into his being and trying to put what he found there into words. In Sons and Lovers, he describes the intense confusion and pain he experienced in the two years before his mother’s death from cancer. He describes how he nearly went off the rails, how he almost chose to follow her into the darkness and oblivion rather than head towards the light, and life.

As I see it, Lawrence attempts to dig very deep into his psyche. He tunnels down and down, exploring the underground terrain of his elemental emotions: his hate, fear, jealousy, lust, sexual desire, etcetera. Apparently, Lawrence was very interested in Greek philosophy and held the view that the four elements (earth, water, fire, air) were the source of all life and creativity (Jones: 105). I think this poem, written the year before he died, goes a little way towards explaining his thinking on the matter:

Elemental

Why don’t people leave off being lovable
Or thinking they are lovable, or wanting to be lovable,
And be a bit elemental instead?

Since man is made up of the elements
Fire, and rain, and air, and live loam
And none of these is lovable
But elemental,
Man is lop-sided on the side of the angels.

I wish men would get back their balance among the elements
And be a bit more firey, as incapable of telling lies
As fire is.
I wish they’d be true to their own variation, as water is,
Which goes through all the stages of steam and stream and ice
Without losing its head.

I am sick of lovable people,
Somehow they are a lie.

In Sons and Lovers, Lawrence shows us what happens when people live their lives ‘lop-sided’. The tale of woe begins with Walter and Gertrude Morel, the mis-matched parents of the protagonist Paul. They met at a dance when she was an almost-on-the-shelf spinster and he a laughing, good-looking charmer, and were once passionate about one another. However, they quickly realised the truth of the aphorism: ‘marry in haste; repent at leisure’. Gertrude learns to hate her husband for his earthiness (literally, because he is a poverty-stricken coal miner, and also because he lacks social graces and education). She is intelligent and curious about the world and decides that although many doors are closed to her because of her gender, class, and marital status, her sons will venture forth into the world on her behalf and she will live her dreams vicariously. The problem with this idea is that she cannot control the universe and things happen and her plans are shattered. The time comes when Paul wants to live his own life separate from his mother’s clutches, but she will not surrender him gracefully. The fight that ensues is long and brutal. Paul has relationships with two women, one of whom is intelligent and companionable, but she is devoutly religious and does not believe in pre-marital sex and he is not willing to trade a wedding ring for access to her body. The other woman is separated from her husband and sexually available, but cramped housing conditions and inquisitive neighbours means that sex outside marriage is a risky proposition when reputations are at stake. Paul’s world soon becomes a tangled web of high emotion and sexual frustration. He is pulled in all directions by his competing needs, and does not know which way to turn next. Much of the novel is given over to the exploration of this situation, with the added complication that Paul feels great love and loyalty towards his mother, even though she is desperately hanging on to him as a lifeline to the wider world. The loyalties and emotions of his love interests are also fraught with difficulties, and the whole situation is in danger of spinning completely out of control.

As a writer, Lawrence has an artist’s eye and revels in form, line, colour and texture. His prose, when he describes nature, is lovely, albeit highly allusive:

A flush came into the sky, the wan moon, half-way down the west, sank into insignificance. On the shadowy land things began to take life, plants with great leaves became distinct. They came through a pass on to the beach. The long waste of foreshore lay moaning under the dawn and the sea; the ocean was a flat dark strip with a white edge. Over the gloomy sea the sky grew red. Quickly the fire spread among the clouds and scattered them. Crimson burned to orange, orange to dull gold, and in a golden glitter the sun came up, dribbling fierily over the waves in little splashes, as if someone had gone along and the light had spilled from her pail as she walked (Lawrence 2009:402).

And he wrote excellent letters. In 1913, when he was 28, Lawrence attempted to explain his personal philosophy:

My great religion is a belief in the blood, the flesh, as being wiser than the intellect. We can go wrong in our minds. But what our blood feels and believes and says is always true. The intellect is only a bit and a bridle. What do I care about knowledge. All I want is to answer to my blood, direct, without fribbling intervention of mind, or moral, or what not (Boulton 2008:53).

Clearly, socially imposed moral strictures are anathema to Lawrence and he chafes against the bit, longing to be able to express the ‘wisdom in his blood’. He longs to be untrammelled by propriety and convention; he wants to be free to live as he chooses.

This painting he made taps into that theme of the elemental. I am intrigued by the inclusion of a goat, with all its inherent Christian and Pagan symbolism:

Fire

I enjoyed re-reading the book, although I do not concur with Philip Larkin when he wrote, ‘I have been reading Sons and Lovers and feel ready to die.’ I can see how Lawrence could have that effect on the susceptible, though. I knew I was reading something big and important and wonderful, and I did not want it to end. There are so many layers in the book to tease out and so many things to think about. Lawrence made life in a Nottinghamshire mining village come alive for me: I could smell the poverty, and taste the bluebells in the woods. I could see the gorgeous sunsets and feel the cold waves washing over my feet. I could hear Gertrude’s carping and feel Walter’s shame and misery. That scene where Paul and Clara go to the theatre and he has to sit beside her and not touch her? Oh, my goodness; pass the smelling salts! I felt Jessie’s despair at not being enough for Paul, and I heard the tramp of the men’s boots as they walked towards another day of exhausting graft underground, hewing coal from rock. But mostly, I felt Paul’s desperation to get out and to live a different sort of life.

I would like to read the unedited and unexpurgated ‘manuscript’ edition of Sons and Lovers, which is published by Cambridge University Press. As with most of Lawrence’s novels, there were many re-writes, which led to different extant versions. The widely-read version of the book is a reprint of the 1913 edition, which was edited by his publisher with Lawrence’s permission. Consequently, about a tenth of the original was excised. In 1992, what is now known as the ‘manuscript’ edition was published but it is quite hard to find at an affordable price. I am not keen on paying $52.95 for a paperback book, sight unseen. What if the font is ugly and the pages horribly cramped? It looks as though Cambridge University Press has a nice little sideline going, publishing ALL the Lawrence works at non-student prices. No doubt I shall find a used copy somewhere. Meanwhile, I am continuing to read Lawrence’s selected letters and trying to decide whether to press on with my ‘Bert’ binge and re-read The Rainbow. Clearly, I have changed a great deal since my early encounters with him, although I am still not enthusiastic about inviting him to my fantasy dinner party.

References

Boulton, James, T. (ed.) (2008) D. H. Lawrence: Selected Letters, Oneworld Classics.

Jones, Bethan (2013) The Last Poems of D. H. Lawrence: Shaping a Late Style, Ashgate Publishing.

Lawrence, D. H. (2009) Sons and Lovers, Oxford University Press.

Millett, Kate (2000) Sexual Politics, University of Illinois Press.