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Monday, January 02, 2017

shirley hazzard and the Lawrentian novel

In 2000, Gary Adelman, a D.H. Lawrence scholar, wrote an essay for Triquarterly about the strange death of D.H. Lawrence’s reputation in the academia and among readers at large. Adelman uses two sources for probing into the cultural discontent with Lawrence. One was the responses of the students to a course he taught on Lawrence; the other was the responses he gathered from  a letter he wrote to 110 novelists, asking about their own past and present reading of Lawrence. The students, Adelman writes, ended up hating Lawrence.  The writers gave a more mixed response. Some, like Doris Lessing, claimed that the idea that D. H. Lawrence is “not important” is purely ideological. Lessing claims that at least two of Lawrence’s novels (Sons and Lovers and The Rainbow) are among the greatest novels of the twentieth century. On the other hand, Ursula LeGuin had a lot of sympathy with the antipathy expressed by the students, especially for the change in the character of Ursula from The Rainbow to Women in Love. Adelman notes, parenthetically, that even his students loved The Rainbow.  Only in the context of being fed all things Lawrence did they turn on it.
My own sense is that Lawrence suffers now fromm having been elevated by Leavis and similar critics in the 40s to the status of Great Britain’s great 20th century novelist. At the same time, this crew beat down Virginia Woolf, whose pathologies they emphasized and whose styles they derided. Woolf looks to me like she has ridden out that storm, and that Lawrence, in comparison, has suffered from having his pathologies elevated and his style – for mostly, he had one style – derided.
But what Lawrence tried to do with the novel is, I think, very much alive. Lawrence liked to have a number of romances at the center of his novels in order to show, firstly, the greater social contract that pushed upon these supposedly private passions, and secondly, to show how the greater social contract was being catalyzed through these romances. It is the second function that lent these romances a mythic power, which Lawrence often translated into terms that are a bit misleading and inadequate: that is, the terms of “man” and “woman”. The inadequacy of any person representing these vast categories is at the heart of the critique of essentialism.  Nevertheless, essentialism is the grid through which most popular critics today operate, figuring out how, for instance, young women “are” through the characters in “Girls” or even “Broad City”, etc. Of the drawing of conclusions about the greater social contract, there is no end, even as what categories are highlighted and which ones are subdued is an historical variable. There’s little talk, for instance, about the class of characters on TV today. Class has become unfashionable. This has definitely had an effect on the reading of D.H. Lawrence, who grew up in class-ridden England and never for
got the enclosing, deadly nature of class  (although sometimes, when he was at his worst, he seemed to think you could fuck your way out of it).    

I’m thinking of Lawrence not because I am reading him, but because I am reading Shirley Hazzard’s Transit of Venus, which is built upon the Lawrentian dialectic of romance and the social contract. Shirley Hazzard is, I think, much more intelligent than Lawrence – she has the kind of intelligence that Lawrence so often rejected, the kind that analyzes as well as synthesizes. Hazzard died this past December. When I read of her death, I felt a pang not so much of grief but of guilt. I have long known I should read Shirley Hazzard, but for some reason I thought that it would be an effort. So I took up the novel that, it is generally agreed, is Hazzard’s masterpiece. And the effort – as in all great reading – is aided and then overwhelmed by the tidal flow of the thing.  It has, whether Hazzard thought in these terms or simply absorbed them,  the Lawrentian lineaments of a thing both monumental and living – of history tested by sensibility. I want to say something fuller about it in some future post. But the thing to say about it in this one is: read it.          

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