Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Selected Letters of D.H. Lawrence II

This book is probably more appropriate for academic research than for a casual reading, but I am finding it informative in several respects. Because it consists of Lawrence's actual letters, one gets a more visceral sense of the progress of his life than one would elsewhere. It also provides a fine-grained picture of how his literary career developed and the individual interactions that accompanied it. One sees how the tone and style of his letters changed according to the recipient. The letters to his old friends read more spontaneously than those to literary insiders and aristocratic acquaintances, and he is probably adjusting his presentation according to the requirements of each relationship.

Lawrence's output of high quality writing is impressive compared to that of more recent writers. He began to produce fiction under his own name in 1908, and his first novel was published in 1911, followed by a second novel in 1912. Sons and Lovers, the third, was published in 1913, a short story collection in 1914 and The Rainbow appeared in 1915. What is striking to me is how intimate the artistic circles were in England at the time. When an author received some attention, virtually everyone in the literary community became familiar with them and they were soon socializing. A brief chronology: he was an unknown writer who left his teaching position in 1912 due to poor health; by 1913 he was corresponding with Lady Cynthia Asquith; by 1914 he was corresponding with Amy Lowell (an American poet); in 1915 he was friends with E.M. Forster and corresponding with Lady Ottoline Morrell and Bertrand Russell.

Besides the relative frankness about sexuality in his novels, Lawrence probably appealed to the literary elite in England because of his relationship with Frieda, who came from an aristocratic German family. She divorced her husband in Nottingham and gave up her three children in order to marry Lawrence, and, especially by English standards, they lived a bohemian lifestyle. They never had much money to spare and moved often to cheaper parts of Europe in order to extend his small income.

In his better letters, as in his better novels, Lawrence comes across less as a thinker than as an artist who is committed to his somewhat utopian vision of the world. He expresses some of this in a letter to E.M. Forster in 1915:

In my Island, I wanted people to come without class or money, sacrificing nothing, but each coming with all his desires, yet knowing that his life is but a tiny section of a Whole: so that he shall fulfil his life in relation to the Whole. I wanted a real community, not built out of abstinence or equality, but of many fulfilled individualities seeking greater fulfilment. 

But, I can't find anybody. Each man is so bent on his own private fulfilment – either he wants love of a woman, and can't get it complete, or he wants to influence his fellow men (for their good, of course), or he wants to satisfy his own soul with regard to his position in eternity. And they make me tired, these friends of mine. They seem so childish and greedy, always the immediate desire, always the particular outlook, no conception of the whole horizon wheeling round....

I do feel every man must have the devil of a struggle before he can have stuffed himself full enough to satisfy all his immediate needs, and can give up, cease, and withdraw himself, yield himself up to his metamorphosis, his crucifixion, and so come to his new issuing, his wings, his resurrection, his whole flesh shining like a mote in sunshine, fulfilled and now taking part in the fulfilment of the Whole.

So I feel frightfully like weeping in a corner – not over myself – but perhaps my own resurrection is too new, one must feel if the scars are not there, and wince – and one must see the other people all writhing and struggling and unable to give up.

This tortured reasoning pervades Lawrence's early works, and I had similar thoughts when I was that age – 29 – though by then my expectations of others were already becoming quite low. There is something of the visionary in him, which adds to his appeal. Lawrence's struggle is of a type that one rarely encounters in the U.S., or perhaps anywhere.

I am going to attempt to move more quickly through this book, because I have a couple more lined up and don't want to dwell on this one forever.

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