Friday, August 4, 2017

The Selected Letters of D.H. Lawrence I

I am enjoying this book, edited by James T. Boulton, but am reading it at a very slow pace. A more convincing picture of Lawrence emerges than you are likely to find in a biography, as you witness him reacting in real time to events in his life. However, the narrative is highly fragmented, as many letters are not included, and the full context of each letter is not always apparent. So far, most of the letters have been to his female friends, and I've just reached the point when, at age 26, he falls head-over-heels in love with Frieda Weekley, the wife of one of his professors at University College Nottingham.

He writes touchingly and eloquently on many occasions, as in a letter to Blanche Jennings in 1908:

I am very sorry you have been dipped so deeply in the blues. Let me drowse you out a little sermon, will you? I will labour it out like the church clock slowly lets fall the long hour. It has just struck twelve. I wonder if I can keep awake. I think, you know, hedonism won't wear. I think life is only a joke when you are sure it's most serious and right; when you know the great procession is marching, on the whole, in the right direction, then, to be sure, the creatures in the menagerie are comical, and their capers are too funny. But before you can see the fun you must be earnestly certain of the wonder of this eternal progression – The little lozenge lights are sliding round my pencil quaintly; but the sun they come from is keeping on its grand course. (If I write a bit canting, it is because I am almost dreaming.) My poor little philosophy is like that. I think there is a great purpose which keeps the menagerie moving onward to better places, while the animals snap and rattle by the way. So I laugh when I see their grimaces, if these do not hinder the march. I am sure I can help the march if I like. It is a valuable assurance.

That same year he moved to Croydon, near London, for a teaching position, and he describes the difference from rural Eastwood, his hometown, in a letter to May Holbrook:

Townspeople are indeed glib and noisy, but there is not much at the bottom of them. They are less individual, less self-opinionated and conceited than country people, but less, far less serious. It is with them work, and after work, conscious striving after relaxation. In Eastwood, people work, and then drift into their small pleasures; here they pursue a shallow pleasure, and it leaves no room for a prolific idleness, a fruitful leisure. Do not lament a town so much.

During this period he is writing fiction in pursuit of a literary livelihood and befriends Edward Garnett, the influential critic, essayist and dramatist (and husband of translator Constance Garnett). Garnett recognized his talent and boosted his early career. Unfortunately, Lawrence's health is already wavering, and he is showing signs of the tuberculosis that kills him at age 44.

I find Lawrence's writing fresh, vivid and honest, and I hardly think his more-famous contemporaries, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, are worth reading (I gave up on To the Lighthouse a few months ago). Although I am not by nature as sensuous as he is and do not revel in physical descriptions the way he does, he manages to combine that with substantive thoughts and feelings, creating an uncommonly powerful effect. Unlike most modern writers, he emphasizes expression, which is the real purpose of language, more than style, and I think that he is probably one of the best English writers ever. As I proceed through this book, I'll update you as seems fitting.

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