Sunday, December 24, 2017

Catching up on my reading -- D.H. Lawrence's "Sons and Lovers"

The most recent book I've read by D.H. Lawrence is "Sons and Lovers."

It's the only Lawrence novel I've read. Ever.

Not sure how I missed them. Although he published this and two other books prior to The Great War, his reputation was mostly made in the 1920s. He was in the midst of the "Lost Generation" of writers shaped by the war. He and his German-born wife, Frieda, were booted out of Cornwall in England for allegedly signalling German submarines. Lawrence is is mainly known in the U.S. for his time with Georgia O'Keefe and Mabel Dodge Luhan and writers such as Aldous Huxley in a ranch near Taos, N.M. He is the author of "Lady Chatterley's Lover," banned in the U.S. and U.K. in 1928. The first unexpurgated edition came out in 1960, 30 years after Lawrence's death from TB.

As spawn of the 1960s, I am surprised that I never read -- or tried to read -- "Lady Chatterley's Lover." Wasn't on the shelves in any of my K-12 schools, public or Catholic. It may have been in the public library but librarians of the day were on the lookout for impressionable teens attempting to check out smutty books. Guardians of the Book Galaxy.

Published in 1913, "Sons and L:overs" tells the story of Paul Morel as he comes of age in the Nottinghamshire coal-mining district. That's what initially attracted me to the book -- the coal-mining setting. But, unlike the film "How Green Was My Valley" (saw it on TCM last week) very little time is spent on the coal miners and their daily grind. Instead, we are absorbed in Paul's tale, almost absorbed as Paul is in his young life. Nothing new for a coming-of-age tale. But Paul's mother has a smothering presence. She's not evil but has transferred her attentions from her nogoodnik husband to her sons. When eldest son William dies, Paul is left holding the bag. He is talented, too, a young man who loves to paint and who knows his poetry. He is not destined for the mines, but something greater, and his mother intends to help him along the way.

That's the "sons" part of the tale. The "lovers" are Paul's, the innocent Miriam and the worldly Clara. You'd think an artistic chap such as Paul would have fled his one-horse town for life in London or Paris. But his mother keeps him close to home into his twenties.

I admire Lawrence's skill as a novelist. It's as plain a plot as any in literature. Will the guy flee his mother? Will he get the girl? I admit that the first 100 pages were hard-going. The pace of a 104-year-old novel is slower, as were the times. Lawrence takes his time noticing his home town of Eastwood, renamed Bestwood in the book. The flowers of summer, dazzling sunsets, people's feelings. We get inside Paul's head as he tries to determine the course of his life. Sensual -- but not sexual -- scenes power the novel. And leads me to rethink my own writing, more influenced by Raymond Carver than Henry James. Minimalist. Funny thing is, Lawrence was shocking in his time. His books were banned and so were the paintings, which were labeled as part of the daring Expressionist movement.

One of these best sensual sequences is when Paul accompanies Clara to the theatre. She wears a daring frock (daring for the time, anyway). "The firmness and softness of her upright body could almost be felt as he looked at her." (page 360).

'And he was to sit all evening beside her beautiful naked arm, watching the strong throat rise from the strong chest, watching the breasts under the green stuff, the curve of her limbs in the tight dress."

Something is going on on the stage but Paul hardly noticed. Clara and her parts "were all that existed."

The priggish Paul is enraptured. The foreplay goes on for quite a few pages until Paul and Clara finally get together in her bed. Sort of.

It's instructive to notice the shift in perception from 1907 rural England to 2017. Today, foreplay takes many fewer than 200 pages. Two-hundred characters, sometimes.

I did not find any graphic sex scenes in the edition I read, issued by Barnes & Noble Classics. It was published in 2003, so the scenes initially cut from the novel and returned in 1993, should be in there. Just for kicks,

This brings us the issue of censorship. That novel you are reading -- what edition is it? Was it cut up into a more acceptable shape before being published? To return to Carver, I've read varying versions of his stories. Apparently, his editor Gordon Lish had his own vision of Carver's stories. In our modern era, how much editing should authors allow? How much should they do?

I have found a few of Lawrence's public domain stories on the Internet. I will read some, especially those written during and after the war. One of my motives for reading Lawrence is to get a feel of the era, which is the setting of my novel. I've read quite a bit of nonfiction about The Great War and its aftermath. In some ways, fiction can do a better job of recreating the era. Good examples abound. "All Quiet on the Western Front." "The Good Soldier Schweik." "Farewell to Arms." And there are the British war poets who had a great influence on how the war was perceived by other generations. Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. "Dulce et Decorum Est.."

"Wintry Peacock" is a malevolent short story by Lawrence. While some of the wording is dated, its theme of betrayal is as current as today's headlines. Here was a writer not Flannery O'Connor who featured peacocks in a story. Lawrence portrays the peacocks as dumb as stumps, more dim than the Morel family, which is experiencing a drama of its own making.  His style reminds me of that of his friend, E.M. Forster. See "The Other Side of the Hedge."

That is what aging provides, some perspective of what came before. I had good schooling. I have been filling in its blanks for 50 years. Maybe that's one of the positive aspects of the love of books and reading and writing. University liberal arts majors are belittled and, at some schools, discontinued. But my knowledge of books powered a career and sustains me in my retirement. I continue to discover treasures of other ages.

I just started "Three Soldiers" by John Dos Passos, yet another complicated writer of the Lost Generation. The writer was an ambulance driver in the war. I bought a slightly-used 1921 edition of the book for four bucks at an estate sale of a veteran of another war. The book still has the sleeve that housed the borrowers' card at the Merced (Calif.) Free Library. A date stamp on the title page reads March 21, 1922.

I hold history in my hands. I read.

1 comment:

RobertP said...

Damn, must be nice to be retired! Another 15 months for me. Read on!