by Subroto Roy
In London’s Guardian (September 1 2007) and Kolkata’s Telegraph (September 2 2007), Amit Chaudhuri has recently published something about his views on DH Lawrence. Chaudhuri did a DPhil at Oxford on Lawrence and has published a book on Lawrence’s poetry, which prima facie is enough reason for his views to be studied. His recent writing is part of an attempted comparison of Lawrence with VS Naipaul, though there is enough in what he says to distil out only his views on Lawrence from the mixture.
Lawrence, Chaudhuri says, is to be credited with having “almost single-handed” invented the notion of the “novelist-traveller’. In the Guardian article he adds: “Travel, I heard Geoff Dyer say not long ago, had profound formal implications for Lawrence’s handling of the novel.”
Now to say Lawrence was a “novelist-traveller” is a very odd remark indeed, and may reflect unfamiliarity with Lawrence’s life. Quite to the contrary: Lawrence’s novels had profound formal implications for his travel!
Lawrence did travel a lot with his wife – to the Continent, through the Suez Canal, to Ceylon, to Australia, to New Mexico and Mexico, to New York, San Francisco etc. But he set about travelling not because he wanted to write novels in these places which is what comes to mind from the double-barrelled term “novelist-traveller”. Initially, he was offered a teaching job in Germany which he turned down; then he had pursued a German woman who was already married to an Englishman, and that necessitated travels to the Continent; then there arose his tremendous opposition towards and great melancholy during the First World War. The Rainbow had been suppressed by a vicious police-action in 1915 — throughout his time in Cornwall he was desperate to leave England for Florida, and fantasised in letters to Lady Ottoline Morrell of creating an ideal community there. It did not happen though the Lawrences had apparently bought tickets and even set a sailing date for New York.
None of his major novels has a theme that is of anything but England. Women in Love comes to a climax in the snows of the Tyrole but its main characters are all English. Aaron’s Rod was begun to be written in London, then happened to be continued in Florence, finished in Sicily and published in New York when the Lawrences were in Ceylon on their way to Australia. Lady Chatterley’s Lover was written in Italy but is entirely English. His only novel with a foreign/non-European theme was The Plumed Serpent, not his best. Lawrence was quintessentially an English novelist, and FR Leavis placed him in the “Great Tradition” of English Literature with Austen, George Eliot, Dickens, James, Conrad.
So yes, of course Lawrence was a traveller, and he was a novelist and writer of genius – but he was not a “novelist-traveller”. He was hardly even the first novelist who happened to travel either — Tolstoy, Twain, James, Conrad. (Of Hemingway it could be said he was a “novelist-traveller” but then Hemingway, or Naipaul, are not near the league of these others.)
Then Chaudhuri says: “The apogee of Lawrence’s visual sensibility is contained in Sons and Lovers, after which he promised himself and his friends to abandon the visual and the imagistic.” However one tries to understand this observation, it seems to be simply false. What did Lawrence actually say about Sons and Lovers after it was published? He said in a letter to Edward Garnett on 30 December 1913: “I shan’t write in the same manner as Sons and Lovers again, I think – in that hard, violent style full of sensations and presentation…” On 10 January 1914 he wrote the same to AD McLeod: “I shall not write quite so violently as Sons and Lovers any more”. There is nothing here promising “himself and his friends to abandon the visual and the imagistic”, whatever that might mean! Indeed no such view can be held by anyone who has read e.g. Women in Love. EM Forster noted, in his 1927 Clark Lectures published as Aspects of the Novel, the first official academic recognition of Lawrence’s literary genius and one during his lifetime:
“The prophet is irradiating nature from within, so that every colour has a glow and every form a distinctness which could not otherwise be obtained. Take a scene that always stays in the memory: that scene in Women in Love where one of the characters throws stones into the water at night to shatter the image of the moon. Why he throws, what the scene symbolizes is unimportant. But the writer could not get such a moon and water otherwise; he reaches them by his special path which stamps them as more wonderful than any we can imagine. It is the prophet back where he started from, back where the rest of us are waiting by the edge of the pool, but with a power of re-creation and evocation we shall never possess.”
Finally about Lawrence’s reaction to the Etruscans we are offered this: “history and antiquity occur most powerfully in a ‘now’, in a moment in the present that opens out suddenly on to the past, in a way that brings together all the knowledge the writer possesses as reader and student of history, as well as the dislocation he’s experiencing at that moment as traveller” (Chaudhuri). Poppycock! it has to be said. Lawrence was plainly and simply fascinated by the Etruscans — as many people of his time were, in view of the first definite archaeological studies about those first millennium BC people becoming published then.
On 5 October 1921, he wrote to Catherine Carswell: “Also, will you tell me what then was the secret of the Etruscans, which you saw written so plainly in the place you went to? Please don’t forget to tell me, as they really do rather puzzle me, the Etruscans….” By the end of his life in 1930, in “Making Love to Music” published posthumously in Phoenix, he has resolved his own puzzlement and found their secret at least to his own satisfaction: “The thought occurred to me suddenly when I was looking at the remains of paintings on the walls of Etruscan tombs at Tarquinia. There the painted women dance, in their transparent linen with heavier coloured borders, opposite the naked-limbed men, in a splendour and an abandon which is not all abandoned. There is a great beauty in them, as of life which has not finished. The dance is Greek, if you like, but not finished off like the Greek dancing. The beauty is not so pure, if you will, as the Greek beauty; but also it is more ample, not so narrowed. And there is not the slightest element of abstraction, of inhumanity, which underlies all Greek expression, the tragic will. The Etruscans, at least before the Romans smashed them, do not seem to have been tangled up with tragedy, as the Greeks were from the first. There seems to have been a peculiar large carelessness about them, very human and non-moral. As far as one can judge, they never said: certain acts are immoral because we say so! They seem to have had a strong feeling for taking life sincerely as a pleasant thing. Even death was a gay and lively affair…. They are just dancing a dance with the elixir of life….”
Dancing with the elixir of life, taking life sincerely as a pleasant thing, was what Lawrence himself was all about.