“Just as no one ever says: ‘We are breathing!’ in spite of the fact that breath is coming and going all the time.”

I said in a comment on Monday that sometimes I’ve felt almost under a spell reading these D.H. Lawrence stories and novellas. My mood ends up somehow more open to his psychological flights, and I think at least part of it has to do with how well I feel he sets up the scene of the stories. Not just how well, also how, but he does it well.

In “England, My England,” we start out with, “He was working on the edge of the common, beyond the small brook that ran in the dip at the bottom of the garden, carrying the garden path in continuation from the plank bridge on to the common.” He’s building a path, worrying it might not be straight. “There was a sound of children’s voices caling and talking: high, childish, girlish voices, slightly didactic and tinged with domineering.” The sound is just, ambient? “His heart was hard with disillusion: a continual gnawing and resistance. But he worked on. What was there to do but submit!” Well, that was fast.

But that’s only phase 1. Phase 2 begins to describe the cottage—“Ah, how he had loved it!” And we get wrapped up in the cottage for pages, wrapped up in the beginnings of the marriage between Egbert and Winifred, in what it means to be English, in this primeval forest where Egbert is still cutting his path, though we’ve forgotten about all that. We have moved on to pages and pages on the history of their marriage, their closeness, the darkness and the intimacy of their cottage. It takes almost half the story before we get back to those childish voices Egbert was hearing and find out what is actually to happen, rather than what has happened, has been continuously happening, for years and years, between two people.

“The Blind Man” works exactly the same way. “Isabel Pervin was listening for two sounds—for the sound of wheels on the drive outside and for the noise of her husband’s footsteps in the hall.” And then, after just a single paragraph of Isabel waiting, “[Her husband] had been home for a year now. He was totally blind. Yet they had been very happy.” And then we get lost in how “[t]hey were newly and remotely happy. He did not even regret the loss of his sight in these times of dark, palpable joy.” Joy is dark in Lawrence, as true intimacy is dark and almost stifling. And this pattern of openings brings the reader straight into that warm, stuffy intimacy, straight into the tiny but pregnant space between husband and wife. Time doesn’t quite matter—can you pin a “when” and “where” on the complex, twisting, roiling emotions?—and it’s so easy to get lost.

These two stories are a bit unusual in that they both begin with couples already married, an easy way to get to the psychological intensity Lawrence relies on. But I’ve found most of them had the same effect on me—and maybe I’m a bit opened up to it by now. In the same comment thread I mentioned above, Amateur Reader tipped me off to a really great Lawrence story, “The Rocking-Horse Winner,” not at all about a husband and wife but where the intensity comes in right away all the same. The opening paragraph is pretty amazing for it.

There was a woman who was beautiful, who started with all the advantages, yet she had no luck. She married for love, and the love turned to dust. She had bonny children, yet she felt they had been thrust upon her, and she could not love them. They looked at her coldly, as if they were finding fault with her. And hurriedly she felt she must cover up some fault in herself. Yet what it was that she must cover up she never knew. Nevertheless, when her children were present, she always felt the centre of her heart go hard. This troubled her, and in her manner she was all the more gentle and anxious for her children, as if she loved them very much. Only she herself knew that at the centre of her heart was a hard little place that could not feel love, no, not for anybody. Everybody else said of her: “She is such a good mother. She adores her children.” Only she herself, and her children themselves, knew it was not so. They read it in each other’s eyes.

The family is living above its means, and “they felt always an anxiety in the house.” That anxiety is pervasive in the house, and in the story. “And so the house came to be haunted by the unspoken phrase: There must be more money! There must be more money!” We are haunted by that phrase, the mother is haunted by it, and the boy at the center of the story is haunted by it most of all. “The whisper was everywhere, and therefore no one spoke it.” How like Lawrence that is, and that is exactly the spell he weaves with everything.

I’m thinking of writing a bit about what I don’t like about Lawrence, or rather, when I think he doesn’t quite work. Where the spell is too thin.

Daughters of the Vicar by D.H. Lawrence

I continued my recent D.H. Lawrence binge over the weekend with Daughters of the Vicar, a tiny novella about a poor but proud vicar’s family. All the early Lawrence stories I’ve been reading lately focus on contrasts, and this is no exception. Usually the contrasts are just between a man and a woman—“just,” ha!—but here they are packed in more thickly. And the usual contrasts between men and women, the real, pure Lawrence masculine/feminine mismatches, aren’t quite there in the same way.

The titular vicar, Mr. Lindley, has many children, many daughters, but the oldest two are the focus here. Mary, the first-born, reacts to her family’s genteel poverty by deciding to marry for money. Not a rich man, but a tiny, sickly, pathetic clergyman with enough money to support them comfortably and help her family. She

tried to become a pure reason such as he was, without feeling or impluse. She shut herself up, she shut herself rigid against the agonies of shame and the terror of violation which came at first. She would not feel, and she would not feel. …She had sold herself, but she had a new freedom. She had got rid of her body. She had sold a lower thing, her body, for a higher thing, her freedom from material things. She considered that she paid for all she got from her husband.

Daughters of the VicarLouisa, Mary’s younger sister, is nothing less than disgusted at this behavior. She decided, around the same time Mary consented to marry Mr. Massy, that she herself would only marry for love. And she set her heart on Alfred, a local collier who was a bit apart from the locals, just enough for Louisa to fall for him.

So, the most central contrast of the story is between the two sisters, and it’s done up in the way Lawrence usually does these things. Mary is dark-haired, Louisa fair. Mary is “queenly,” Louisa frumpy. Mary gets married and has children, Louisa becomes an old maid while Alfred is in the navy. Mary’s husband is “a little abortion,” Louisa’s man is large, strong, a pit worker.

Lesser contrasts abound. The two vicars. Alfred and the other men of the village. Alfred’s independent spirit and his self-subjugation in the military. Alfred the upstanding citizen and his drunken brothers.

The writing here is just as good as in the other Lawrence I’ve been reading, but it’s been mostly, as I mentioned, early stuff. But I feel like he tries to do a little too much in 72 pages here. Alfred’s mother, Mrs. Durant, figures prominently, but I can’t quite make out why. She seems like only a device to set up everything with Alfred, but she gets lots more screen time than he does. And frankly I found her a bit confusing—as, I suppose, Louisa did as well.

My blogging energy has been flagging lately, but I’d like to write a bit more about Lawrence this week, and then get into some other good stuff I’ve been at lately.

Strong and ruddy and beautiful…and strong, and ruddy, and beautiful

When I wrote about D.H. Lawrence’s The Fox, I mentioned that Henry is “cunning, sly, shrewd, stealthy,” but I didn’t really explain about the repetition of descriptions like this throughout the story. But based on my recent reading of The Fox and the stories in Wintry Peacock (and failure to remember much of anything of Lady Chatterley’s Lover), this seems to be a feature of Lawrence’s writing. He gets very preoccupied with some characteristic, and repeats, repeats, repeats—but doesn’t sound bad doing so. At least to me. I find it poetic, or something.

wintry-peacockFor example, in “England, My England,” Lawrence is concerned with, among other things, Englishness. Egbert and Winifred are husband and wife, Egbert the product of fine breeding and Winifred from “strong-limbed, thick-blooded people, true English, as holly trees and hawthorn are English.” Now, that’s a whole thing on its own, one I’m not going to write about (let’s hope someone already has, especially what with Winifred’s being Catholic and all on top of it). I’m more interested in how many times Lawrence finds a way to tell us the same thing.

On Winifred, and family: “more vigorous, more robust and Christmassy” “ruddy fire” “hot blood-desire” “strong, heavy limbs” “old dark, Catholic blood-authority”

On Egbert, and their child who resembles him: “a born rose” “supple, handsome body” “fine texture of his flesh and hair” “tall, supple, fine-fleshed youth” “lovely little blonde daugher” “exquisite blonde thing” “white, slim, beautiful limbs” “light little cowslip” “blonde, winsome, touching little thing”

Again, the actual contrasts here are very good. But shouldn’t it feel like Lawrence is pounding it into us? For example:

Poor Winifred: she was still young, still strong and ruddy and beautiful like a ruddy hard flower of the field. Strange—her ruddy, healthy face, so sombre, and her strong, heavy, full-blooded body, so still.

He really gets stuck on “ruddy” there. Why doesn’t it sound like too much? Does it sound like too much to someone other than me?

In “The Blind Man” (really great, by the way), a similar type of passage on the childishness of the blind man:

They moved away. Pervin heard no more. But a childish sense of desolation had come over him, as he heard their brisk voices. He seemed shut out—like a child that is left out. He was aimless and excluded, he did not know what to do with himself. The helpless desolation came over him. He fumbled nervously as he dressed himself, in a state almost of childishness. He disliked the Scotch accent in Bertie’s speech, and the slight response it found on Isabel’s tongue. He disliked the slight purr of complacency in the Scottish speech. He disliked intensely the glib way in which Isabel spoke of their happiness and nearness. It made him recoil. He was fretful and beside himself like a child; he had almost a childish nostalgia to be included in the life circle. And at the same time he was a man, dark and powerful and infuriated by his own weakness. By some fatal flaw, he could not be by himself, he had to depend on the support of another. And this very dependence enraged him. He hated Bertie Reid, and at the same time he knew the hatred was nonsense, he knew it was the outcome of his own weakness.

“a childish sense” “like a child” “helpless” “childishness” “like a child” “a childish nostalgia” “a man” “his own weakness” “his own weakness”

It should be like getting hit over the head, like the way Henry in The Fox is almost continuously being identified with the fox, and Banford is almost being continuously described as red-eyed, &tc. But that’s not at all the feeling I actually get from it. Instead it feels rhythmic, it feels like Lawrence is choosing his words carefully, like he knows these are the right words and isn’t afraid of them.

The Fox by D.H. Lawrence

Possibly (though probably not*) because lately I’ve been reading so many authors I had disliked ages ago, and apparently like now, I picked up D.H. Lawrence’s novella The Fox the other day. Lady Chatterley’s Lover had not been a hit with me, though I do like his poetry.

The FoxAnd I did enjoy the novella, though it is a bit simple. That might not be right; a lot has gone between Lawrence and now. Two girls—women really, of course—March and Banford, decide to buy a farm and work it themselves. Of course they are not really capable, but it doesn’t really matter and as they lose money they also lose chickens, to a sly little fox they can’t seem to shoot. At the end of the war, a young man lets himself into their farmhouse, not realizing his grandfather died years before and the farm has new owners. They invite him to spend the night.

This young man, Henry, is the fox. Or is like a fox. March has seen the fox up close and personal not long before, and sees the same look in Henry’s eyes. He is cunning, sly, shrewd, stealthy. He hunts. He wants to steal, both March from Banford and the farm from both girls. And March’s independence.

Some of this is, as I said, a little simple. It’s impossible not to connect Henry with the fox. But some of it is more subtle. When Henry arrives at the farmhouse, the girls have very little food to offer him, only bread and margarine—no butter. But the first day Henry stays with them, he goes hunting and brings back meat. Quasi-vegans without a man feast on duck and rabbit with one. But then an extended passage on Henry hunting deer makes the whole thing a bit inescapable again.

A couple things I can’t get past. The removal of Banford is too easy. Henry shouldn’t have come out of that looking very good, and the fact that we skip the aftermath is a little fishy. But Lawrence’s prose is lovely even with all the fox references, and the gloomy ending, which is only a beginning for Henry and March, is the right one, of course.

The woman striving, striving to make the man happy, striving within her own limits for the well-being of her world. And always achieving failure. Little, foolish successes in money or in ambition. But at the very point where she most wanted success in the anguished effort to make some one beloved human being happy and perfect, there the failure was almost catastrophic. You wanted to make your beloved happy, and his happiness seemed always achievable. If only you did just this, that and the other. And you did this, that, and the other, in all good faith, and every time the failure became a little more ghastly. You could love yourself to ribbons, and strive and strain yourself to the bone, and things would go from bad to worse, bad to worse, as far as happiness went. The awful mistake of happiness.

Catastrophic. Don’t worry, the man is miserable about the relationship too.

*While the possibility of a Lawrence reassessment did play a role, obviously I grabbed this because of (a) its amazing cover and (b) my preexisting fondness for foxes.

Breathing New Life & Monday Poem

My reading funk appears to be over, thanks to Nick Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World—managed a breakthrough yesterday. Of course, I still have 70-odd pages to go, so some damn fool ending could ruin things, which would be a shame. Expect a review this week. Assuming my internet access doesn’t become a problem. I can tell you now that James Wood probably wouldn’t like it though.

I suppose I should have posted this on Saturday, but didn’t think of it—the CP stopped by on Friday for a pre-trip visit and read me a lovely poem. Do enjoy “The Elephant Is Slow to Mate” by D.H. Lawrence (n.b., I have mentioned before that I never cared for Lawrence, but in fact it appears I do.):

The elephant, the huge old beast,
is slow to mate;
he finds a female, they show no haste
they wait

for the sympathy in their vast shy hearts
slowly, slowly to rouse
as they loiter along the river-beds
and drink and browse

and dash in panic through the brake
of forest with the herd,
and sleep in massive silence, and wake
together, without a word.

So slowly the great hot elephant hearts
grow full of desire,
and the great beasts mate in secret at last,
hiding their fire.

Oldest they are and the wisest of beasts
so they know at last
how to wait for the loneliest of feasts
for the full repast.

They do not snatch, they do not tear;
their massive blood
moves as the moon-tides, near, more near
till they touch in flood.

Lawrence on Moby-Dick

Of D.H. Lawrence’s fiction, I’ve only read Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and though it was ages ago now I don’t remember being overly impressed. I think I didn’t care particularly for his style, just as a matter of personal taste. But I’ve been dipping into a compilation of Moby-Dick criticism, and an essay from Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature is my favorite so far. I’ll have to pick up the book sometime to read the whole essay—and the others—but here is a great paragraph.

It is the old same thing as in all Americans. They keep their old-fashioned ideal frock-coat on, and an old-fashioned silk hat, while they do the most impossible things. There you are: you see Melville hugged in bed by a huge tattooed South Sea Islander, and solemnly offering burnt offering to this savage’s little idol, and his ideal frock-coat just hides his shirt-tails and prevents us from seeing his bare posterior as he salaams, while his ethical silk-hat sits correctly over his brow the while. That is so typically American: doing the most impossible things without taking off their spiritual get-up. Their ideals are like armour which has rusted in, and will never more come off. And meanwhile in Melville his bodily knowledge moves naked, a living quick among the stark elements. For with sheer physical, vibrational sensitiveness, like a marvellous wireless-station, he registers the effects of the outer world. And he records also, almost beyond pain or pleasure, the extreme transitions of the isolated, far-driven human soul, the soul which is now alone, without any real human contact.

Why can’t all lit crit be this exuberant? I may just have to excerpt more later.