Books: The Professor Of Phallocentricity

A doorstopping triple biography of D H Lawrence is finally complete, but who reads him now? William Scammell canvasses writers and critics on their views of 'Lorenzo'
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THE MONUMENTAL Cambridge biography of Lawrence - three volumes by three different authors, weighing in at almost 2,500 pages with enough footnotes to support a new Canary Wharf - came to a close in January with David Ellis's coverage of the final years in D H Lawrence: Dying Game 1922-1930 (CUP pounds 35). The phoenix will have his work cut out to rise again from this weight of marble, a tombstone if ever there was one, scholarly, reverential, magnificently detailed, anatomising the multitudinous writings against the backdrop of his turbulent, loving, yet adversarial life. "The real tragedy of England," he said, "is the tragedy of ugliness."

Here's Eastwood again, the Nottinghamshire colliery village he so loved and hated. Here's the genteel, aspirational mother and recidivist father, contending for his soul. (Father went up in the scales as Lawrence grew older, and mother went down.) Here's industrial and pastoral England, a marriage of heaven and hell. Here's Jessie and Louie and the psychosexual Big Bang of Frieda, who liberated and tormented him. ("A mismatch made in heaven", says Brenda Maddox in The Married Man (Sinclair-Stevenson 1994).)

Here's literary London, the flush of success, the hell of his Cornish exile during the Great War, the extraordinary, encyclopaedic knowledge he carried around inside that flaming head, the martyrology, the intuition, the compulsive urge to make instant diagnoses of every person he met and every country he ever set foot in. Here finally is the flight across continents, the desperate ill-health, the love-affair with dark gods and "phallic consciousness", the search for a place in the sun, where "being" takes over from manners and mentalism. As a recent critic puts it: "How do you 'gather up again the savage mysteries' without abandoning your advanced, white, Western consciousness?"

His ability to live and write on the hoof never ceases to amaze. Novels, stories, poems, travel books, essays, introductions, prose cantatas of every description flowed from his peripatetic pen, even as he camped out in some villa or ranch house which needed running repairs, and which was constantly invaded by a stream of friends, relations, and disciples. Famously, "Lorenzo" cooked, swept, chopped wood and made bread, in between being a genius, while Frieda laid on the bed smoking, or cast an appraising eye over the male company. This often led to ructions. "There you sit," he burst out once, "with that thing [cigarette] in your mouth and your legs open to every man in the room! And you wonder why no decent woman in England would have anything to do with you!" This from the man who had flayed English "decency" to within an inch of its life. On another occasion, horse riding in New Mexico, when Frieda waxed lyrical about the, power of the animal between her legs, the exasperated oracle cried out "Rubbish, Frieda! Don't talk like that. You have been reading my books!"

His intense love of the natural world, and miraculous sense of place, made him an "ecological visionary" (Brenda Maddox) decades before Rachel Carson and others started greening our politics. He preferred wooden architecture to marble or stone, hymns and folk songs to symphonies, flowers to philosophers, frost on the edges of grass blades and oak leaves to the pomp of city culture. When Birkin gets out of the train at London, in Women in Love, he says to Gerald: "Don't you feel like one of the damned?" - this four or five years before Eliot's "unreal city" loomed out of The Waste Land.

Long before Bruce Chatwin unearthed good copy in faraway places, James Fenton faxed himself off to war-zones, and travel editors hunted down the great good place, Lawrence was doing all this and more in his brilliant impromptus, as well as in the big set-piece novels, offering up dithyrambs on everything from the "stupendousness" of New World vistas to "Flowery Tuscany" or Cezanne's amazing apples, while engaged in a never-ending round of intense friendships and daily chores, such as keeping house, Frieda and the Zeitgeist up to the mark.

The Cambridge biography is just the latest in a long line of books sparked off by Lawrence's fiery passage through 20th-century life and letters. Almost everyone who knew him, from Jessie Chambers to Lady Cynthia Asquith, Middleton Murray to Mabel Dodge Luhan, and literally dozens of others, has committed their memories to print. Harry T Moore's The Intelligent Heart (1955) lists about 50 memoirs he consulted, and studies have continued to pour out since, from Martin Green's The von Richthofen Sisters (Weidenfeld 1974) - "The triumphant and the tragic modes of love" - and Brenda Maddox's The Married Man to Kate Millet's groundbreaking Sexual Politics (1974), which put the feminist case against Lawrence's sexual crusade. Last year there was Geoff Dyer's Out of Sheer Rage (Little, Brown 1997), a funny and acute book about why he was not going to write his long-meditated study of the master. In effect, his Lawrentian self had won out over his careerist or Bloomsbury one.) There's a chapter on DHL in Nicole Jouve Ward's Female Genesis, which takes up the demonised Lawrence of feminist ideology and finds him to be human after all. There has also been the seven volumes of Letters (an eighth is in preparation), and numberless academic studies, some in Leavis's sternly pietistic vein, some tackling the summit and its updrafts with the latest theoretical ice picks.

"Whoever reads me will be in the thick of the scrimmage," he once said. Certainly readers have reacted, furiously and devotedly. There's never been a School of Lawrence (unless you count Norman Mailer, Alan Sillitoe and some of the Fifties angry young men), any more than there's been a School of Joyce; but his influence is there in dozens of autobiographical novels and in scores of poets, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath among them. Sylvia had Pansies at her elbow while she was writing the Ariel poems, says Hughes. Short stories too like "The Woman Who Rode Away" - "the whole rebirth business: these were sacred texts".

Hughes himself says he came to Lawrence after Hardy and swallowed him whole, "good and bad", because he a was "so clairvoyant and alive". Nowadays it's the poems and stories he treasures most, and the compelling Studies in Classic American Literature; which, he adds, even Eliot admired. "Lawrence took our virginity when we were young," says Ruth Fainlight, echoing a common theme among the writers I spoke to. Thom Gunn, in a recent interview, says "Lawrence is tremendously exciting ... we were all influenced by Lawrence, including the poetry, which is wonderful, and is probably still not enough liked, partly because people call him sexist. He's much more complicated ... He's certainly anti-women, I mean, yes he is, but he's anti-men too! He's an exciting person taking up exciting subjects."

Doris Lessing agrees with the last part of this proposition: "He's an intoxicator, a very great writer, punished by the feminists and their ludicrous opinions. The short stories are among the best in the language. I re-read Sons and Lovers and The Rainbow recently and thought them wonderful. Even in turgid stuff like The Plumed Serpent there are wonderful evocations of landscape. Has there ever been anyone like him for bringing places and people so vividly to life?" Michele Roberts concurs with most of this, but explains why her generation had to hate him too. "He's not an enemy at all, I like his passion and voluptuousness, his metaphors, his struggle to lead an authentic life. Lady Chatterley was an idealist's vision of paradise lost and regained. Now I can say all this. Back in the Seventies women got fed up with being told what their sexual responses should and shouldn't be. We didn't want to have to think about cocks all the time, we wanted to make our space and work out our own salvation. That's over now. I think he's being read differently, more sympathetically - though I don't personally feel very close to him."

Blake Morrison, who wrote a thesis on Lawrence at Nottingham University, thinks he's read more widely than Joyce and still has a lot to say to us. For him as for others, the poems come out somewhere near the top of the poll. "Even Lady C has a place in my heart. I used to pinch it from my mother's bedside cupboard trying to find out about literature and sex at the same time." He points also to the new-man aspects of Lawrence, a proto-Robert Bly without the guff about retreating to the wilderness and beating one's chest; and how his wrestlings with his role as Frieda's husband, and with married love and sex, strike a chord with some contemporary writers.

Critic James Wood faxed me a 14-page essay in which he says "Taking the clapper out of the bell makes no sense, but this is what we do too often with D H Lawrence ... His descriptions are sermons, but his sermons are also descriptions." In conversation he suggests that A level and degree students too often get The Rainbow and Women in Love shoved down their throats. "No one told us about the poems and stories, the letters, the travel sketches. There you find a more delicate and likeable writer. There's a problem of genres; he never stands still or stays within boundaries - the poems are not quite poems, the fiction turns into an essay or vice versa. I always think there's a slightly Germanic cast to his big novels, all those abstract adjectives, like Thomas Mann. I care about him a lot. He's our last link with modernism, which mid-century English fiction turned its back on."

For that classic debunker of modernism, Kingsley Amis, Lawrence is "one of the ... great missionaries the English send to themselves to tell them they are crass, gross, lost, dead, mad and addicted to unnatural vice. I suppose it is a good thing that these chaps continue to roll up ...". There speaks middle England, "chaps" and all, which shrinks away from Lawrence's apocalyptic heat and light. Seamus Heaney once noted that Hughes likewise "gets back from that middle-class school the enmity he implicitly offers".

Lawrence praised Forster's A Passage to India for its anti-imperialism: "King Charles must have his head off. Homage to the headsman". He was also penetrating about those who are eaten up with "the bugbear of 'caring'" while keeping a close eye on their own bank balance. Still it's not easy to see how the Hopi snake dance, or his preternatural feeling for the well-head of life bubbling up in flowers and animals and landscapes, translates into a usable politics, nor indeed how the lifelong call for a new and tender relationship between men and women squares with the phallocentric dance on the grave of Sir Clifford.

Rilke once said Tolstoy turned life into a dragon so that he could dress up as a hero and do battle with it. There's a touch of St George, perhaps, a streak of fiery patriotism, in Lawrence's non-conformist diatribes and quixotic tilting at the windmills of the sex war. If you wanted to be Dr Ruth (as Lorenzo himself often did) you could say that the late work, including the three versions of Lady Chatterley, was Lawrence's proxy or fantasy love life, dreamed up when he had ceased to have an actual sex life of his own; and that phallic consciousness is merely the zeal of the convert rebounding from Eastwood's chapels and Bloomsbury's self- worship.

Young Lawrence wrote that "The essence of things is stored in books" but the older one, confronting his peers, sounds like Christ clearing the money-changers out of the temple: "Flaubert ... stood away from life as from a leprosy." Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Turgenev are "so very obvious and coarse". Wordsworth is full of "nasty anthropomorphic lust", Keats so maudlin that "one sympathises with Fanny and understands why she wasn't having any". "I can't forgive Conrad for being so sad and giving in." Life is used as a cudgel to whack art over the head, just as darkness is offered up as a corrective to the false consciousness of reason.

His literary and other essays often sound like a cross between a high- class music-hall act and a new psalmody, loaded with knowing dithyrambs about the unknowable. "I'm like Carlyle, who, they say, wrote 50 volumes on the value of silence."

Irony will only take one so far, however, into Lawrence country. One of his great virtues is the insistence that we stop dividing ourselves up into rational and instinctual bits and throwing away whatever doesn't fit into these neat paradigms. (Shades of Eliot's "unified sensibility", in fact, though come at by a different route.) "Strange and beside itself is humanity" runs one of his do-it-yourself proverbs. "The root of all disaster is disheartenment" says another. "I'll do my life work, sticking up for the love between man and woman".

This last is from the letters, which John Worthen, author of the first (and best) volume of the new biography, thinks are no longer an adjunct to the fiction but possibly his greatest work. "There's an astonishing range, an attack you don't get elsewhere, a directness of approach to each correspondent that's irresistible. As with Keats, I think the letters are a masterpiece in their own right."

As for the multiple authorship of the biography, he says "One person couldn't have done it. It allowed Lawrence to get away from us, as it were. Most biographers are tyrants. This way we got a huge amount of spadework done, and three views instead of one." He concedes that Lawrence was "disappeared" for a while, even in academe, where one colleague sardonically referred to Worthen as the Professor of Phallocentric Studies. But the pig-headed ordinary reader kept finding things to enjoy, whatever quarter the critical winds blew from.

He agrees that the short stories and so-called minor works shone brighter than ever before; and goes on to liken the Complete Poems to "a huge cliff face, where you find wonderful plants and flowers as you climb about among the rocks". It's not a bad image for the biography itself: intimidating, exhilarating, riddled with barren stretches and curious lichens, but reassuringly there whenever you feel like setting foot on the barnstormer himself.