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.

What gives this small but quite ambitious book its quality is simply the freedom of comment and the independence of opinion that a good craftsman may enjoy as he contemplates, without envy, a great one. Lawrence could be silly, and Burgess will say so, though without ceasing to admire him; he will offer rational explanations for irrational conduct and give some account of themes and doctrines he doesn’t much like. He will sometimes say that in respect of one thing or another – Lawrence’s paintings, for instance – he lacks competence to speak. He even rather oddly excuses himself from sympathy with his subject’s Oedipal relation to his mother by saying that his own mother died very early, leaving him free of that supposedly universal plight. But all through the book, however outrageous Lawrence’s beliefs and behaviour, however careless and rushed his writing, Burgess is celebrating a stubborn intransigence he greatly admires, and a prophetic nerve that Blake, though very few of his countrymen then or since, would have applauded. And he catches very well the quality of Lawrence’s fiction that corresponds to this prophetic power: ‘In all the novels the characters wear clothes, smoke cigarettes, discuss Pelléas and Mélisande, take tea, but sooner or later they behave oddly, their pulses overcome reason, they are naked and not clothed, their voices speak from the unconscious. We recognise that they are behaving as gods and goddesses behave.’ This is a new mode, devised to allow the novel, with its strong historical connections with bourgeois readers, to turn prophetic and convert the British to a belief in Life.

For the most part, Burgess treats everything, even the pieces that fall far short of the best, with professional respect. He speaks well of The White Peacock, applauding its restraint, and pointing out that it lacks the usual characteristics of a first novel, which Lawrence held back until his third, Sons and Lovers. On the second, The Trespasser, he is jolly and censorious, disliking its refinement and its merely smouldering sex, but he hasn’t the space or inclination to explain how, at that particular moment, the young Lawrence would want to write such a book. On the new, fuller version of Mr Noon, which must have become available just as he was at work on the book, Burgess rightly notes that its value lies partly in the testimony it provides that Lawrence in going off with Frieda was moving out of the world of respectability and of conventional cultural aspirations. He was obviously a bit surprised, even shocked, to realise that there was in his partner a guiltless aristocratic libertinism extremely remote from the sexuality of Jessie Chambers or indeed Helen Corke.

Burgess accepts Lawrence’s own valuation of Sons and Lovers as ‘a great novel’, and even allows to pass without further dispute the author’s statement that his story is the story of thousands of young Englishmen, and that the corrupt mother-son relationship is an hereditary curse. According to Burgess, ‘the answer to the Oedipal problem is marriage to a woman like Frieda,’ which presumably means that few can solve it, and perhaps only at considerable cost. What he really likes about the book is its directness and its honesty in giving a portrait of the artist as in many ways unattractive and a bad lover as well. Lawrence’s ‘amazing honesty about himself’ and his habit of writing exactly about the reality of his own life make Look! We have come through! another of Burgess’s favourites; if Lawrence says that in his new experience of physical love he has ‘found the other world’, we should believe him.

On the ‘nightmare’ war years the book has little to add except a note of sympathy: Lawrence’s near-madness and his disregard for the sufferings of others are justified by his horrified understanding that a ‘great salvatory principle’ was being denied: man, who could belong to the cosmos, chose instead to destroy himself with his own machines. Of the major works of the war period, The Rainbow is called something of a failure, though the work of a great novelist; the Studies in Classic American Literature are commended for their amazing novelty, but their merits cannot be properly exhibited in so brief an allusion. Burgess keeps his space, and his enthusiasm, for the other great war novel, Women in Love, here described as one of the ten great novels of the 20th century. He dislikes the way the novel ends, or simply fades out on an unresolved issue between Ursula and Birkin: but that was the kind of ending Lawrence was henceforth to use most. Burgess condemns it again in writing about The Plumed Serpent: I’m obliged to think him wrong in both instances. What he rightly admires Women in Love for is the way in which Lawrence desocialises fiction, creating ‘naked primitives’ who are also civilised, social beings. Though this achievement must owe something to Hardy, it is for Burgess Lawrence’s great contribution to the modern: the introduction of the poetry of nakedness into the heavily socialised genre.

On the books generally accepted as the major novels Burgess, though fresh and accurate, hews close enough to the standard judgments. Elsewhere he gives more weight to preference and prejudice. Aaron’s Rod fails to interest him (‘a loose improvisation of which not much need be said’), though Kangaroo, also a loose, hasty improvisation and also a political fantasy, is one of his favourites (‘the formlessness contributes to the effect’). The Lost Girl gets short shrift (‘very British’). All the travel books are greeted with enthusiasm, especially Sea and Sardinia, though Burgess says of Etruscan Places that Lawrence needed the Etruscans more than they needed him, which is fair enough. He greatly admires Birds, Beasts and Flowers. And his admiration is enhanced by his willingness to take his author to task for his short temper and absurd off-the-cuff judgments, as when he talked about the ‘boneless suavity’ of the East.

His most serious censure is reserved for Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which he sees as occupying in the Lawrence canon the disgraced position of A Clockwork Orange in his own. That Lawrence’s most notorious book should also be so generally misread is, according to Burgess, the novelist’s own fault, since he made it difficult for people to read it as an exaltation of fidelity and chastity (among other things) by including the forbidden words, and especially ‘fuck’.

Admitting that the word is ‘ancient and honest’, Burgess affirms that over the centuries it has acquired an immoveable patina of filth, so that Lawrence’s attempt to recover it for marital or quasi-marital use was a mistake. It has always, he says, been a taboo word, and it ‘stands for a brutal act unsuitable for the marriage bed’, impersonal, aggressive, untender. ‘A man can fuck a whore, but unless his wife is a whore he cannot fuck his wife.’ (What does he become, then, if she fucks him?) This honourable argument, by which Burgess evidently sets much store, fails, I think, in the end. The state of affairs Burgess describes was what Lawrence wished to change; he wanted to elide the distinction between the social aspect and the natural (or ‘brutal’) aspect of copulation. It is true, as Burgess says, that Joyce uses ‘fuck’ more accurately – more in accordance with the historical tradition, that is to say, and with normal usage in the Twenties, as when Molly describes herself as being fucked by Boylan, and for the reason that her husband had ceased, not to fuck her, but to make love to her. Both the dysphemism and the euphemism are needed in the context. But once again, this was a distinction Lawrence didn’t want: he wanted husbands to fuck their wives. And to bring up the history of the word, as the philologist Burgess was of course bound to do, cannot settle the question, which is whether, after Lady Chatterley, the connotations of the word have altered. Is it usual, or even, to take Burgess’s argument at its most dogmatic, possible, for married lovers to fuck?

The answer nowadays is probably yes, though the usage may still be avoided by many, because the old associations linger (though possibly in less disagreeable forms than Burgess suggests with his ‘rapid release analogous to defecation’), and because the word is still in very common use as an expletive or insult. In short, there seems to have been a change: whether it is superficial or really a faint stirring in modern bedrooms of the Lawrentian primitive, who can say?

There is another aspect of la chose génitale on which Burgess holds strong opinions, and here he will probably meet with less opposition. Lawrence, for some reason, perhaps his need to dominate, abhorred female orgasm and made this clear not only in Lady Chatterley but in The Plumed Serpent. Shocked by this illiberalism into a joke, Burgess says: ‘one sometimes wonders whether Lawrence’s demand for domination over Frieda might not have gone as far as clitoridectomy if he had had a sharp enough knife handy.’ This certainly shows that writing about such matters raises difficult questions of taste.

For the rest, Burgess gives a fair account of the last years, observing the dying Lawrence mostly from the perspective of the Huxleys, and giving Frieda a hard time for being ‘submissive’ at the wrong moment and abetting her husband’s neglect of his health. It is on Aldous Huxley’s testimony that we are informed of Lawrence’s condemnation of Frieda just before his death: ‘Frieda, you have killed me.’ Burgess, who admires the Huxleys, doesn’t question this, but argues that, whatever the cost, Lawrence needed Frieda as partner in his ‘dialectical conflict’. Moreover, though he died so young, Lawrence had probably written enough already, and had he continued would have only met more disappointment, since his intention was to change the world; and although Burgess likes prophets, he does not think any writer can expect to achieve much along that line.

Yet Lawrence, it is admitted, changed something. Burgess says he opened the way between art and life. His carelessness, the headlong rush of the prose, the slapdash sequences, the lacunae, the writing for the sake of going on writing – all contribute to this effect. ‘He was the father of what Richard Aldington called the jazz-novel, the novel in which you blow what you wish on your trumpet with only the sketchiest adherence to an inherited melodic and harmonic pattern.’ What one learns from him is not technique, but that in the one bright book of life you can do anything, or anything that is necessary to break down the artificial barriers between writing and life.

Burgess says the book is longer than he at first meant it to be, and yet it is possible to say that it is too short. He often quotes a passage he thinks especially fine or characteristic, but rarely says enough about why it is so. Some of the more dubious beliefs he is content to adumbrate rather than discuss with the energy he gives to the sexual questions touched on above. Yet his book, though very personal and, where it chooses, opinionated, seems truly lacking in self-interest, a genuine tribute, sent, with deep respect, from one thousand-word-a-day man, living in exile out of disgust for his beloved country, to another who did the same, more restlessly, more absurdly even, yet not less patriotically. And the homage is properly formulated: Burgess’s book never ceases to remind one that Lawrence was a great writer, and that argument about him should always begin from a shared assumption of that greatness.