Lawrence and Burgess

Frank Kermode

  • Flame into Being: The Life and Work of D.H. Lawrence by Anthony Burgess
    Heinemann, 211 pp, £9.95, September 1985, ISBN 0 434 09818 3
  • The Kingdom of the Wicked by Anthony Burgess
    Hutchinson, 379 pp, £9.95, May 1985, ISBN 0 09 160040 5

Most people would call Mr Burgess a prodigiously fluent writer, but he would demur, pointing out that a professional should be capable of a thousand words a day, which is 365,000 a year, or five moderate-sized books, with plenty of time left over to deal with the input of information required for at least some of the output. It’s obvious that his powers of assimilation are, by the standards of normal or normally lazy writers, exceptional. Nor does he squander the knowledge thus acquired: it goes into a TV series and a novel or a critical biography. One’s admiration for all this prudent industry may sometimes be tempered by a feeling that the product, efficient as it is, lacks aura, lacks the zest we associate with this writer in his more exuberant, less mechanical novels. His last novel-of-the-TV-series, The Kingdom of the Wicked, combines Acts and other early Christian evidence with a rehandling of the I, Claudius historical material into a large, well-conceived and doggedly executed novel, inventive but also well-researched, and authenticated by a scattering or smattering of Greek, Latin and Aramaic words from his polyglot store. For all its informative energy, the book somehow seems a bit dull.

This biography of Lawrence is also related to something for television. One may see it as continuing Burgess’s survey of his favourite writers (Shakespeare, Keats, Joyce, Enderby). It required him once again to process a lot of information, the extent of which is suggested by his subtitle and by his insistence that you have to take on the whole of Lawrence, all the life and all the works, if you are properly to grasp his importance. Here, though, there is small danger of his simply or routinely rehandling the facts, and this book, for all its oddness, is much better Burgess than its predecessor, partly because Burgess himself comes into it a lot, having a much livelier relationship with Lawrence than with St Paul.

Mr Burgess wanted to pay a ‘centennial tribute’ to a writer who has deserved his admiration, and at the same time to introduce Lawrence and his works ‘to those who know nothing of either’, except – in his view, unfortunately – for Lady Chatterley’s Lover. It is fair to say he succeeds in this aim; he gets in a reasonable amount of biographical detail, in spite of the poverty of his list of sources, which includes neither Nehls’s ‘Composite Biography’ nor Moore’s variously entitled Life, to say nothing of all the other obvious aids available. And he discusses a good deal of Lawrence’s writing in some detail, though he has little to say about the short stories and the novelle except St Mawr. But Burgess isn’t, of course, simply adding one more to the numerous surveys of Lawrence’s life and work. The special merit of his book must be that it is the tribute of one independently-minded professional writer to another.

Burgess’s admiration for Lawrence is not based on any clear affinity between them. There is little in common between the Northern Catholic and the Midland Nonconformist; Joyce feels much closer kin, and is also a possible technical model, which, Burgess says, Lawrence cannot be to any later writer. All the same, Lawrence is ‘a powerful exemplar of those virtues which all who write for a living, and at the same time to promote a pleasure in living, like to think inhere in the practice of their craft or art – energy, doggedness, desperate sincerity, delight in the daily struggle to make words behave’. In following that example, a writer may, as it were, accidentally happen upon similarities between himself and the recipient of his tribute: not only are both very copious, but both chose to live abroad with aristocratic foreign wives.

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