Lawrence is one of the easiest writers to dismiss, and one of the hardest to get away from. He seems – from a rational point of view – so often and so obviously nuts. And there’s a way of reading him that brackets the ‘obviously nuts’ parts, and enjoys him as if he were a more simpler writer who was good at describing the countryside, the mining villages, relations between heterosexual men and women, and relations between social classes.
Lawrence is hard to get away from because he seems (to me) to ask the hardest questions. For example, How do we live? What is important to us? Also, What can a novel achieve? Why is it worth writing about particular individuals?
To this second pair of questions, I think he has a better answer than almost any other writer I know. I don’t think Joyce’s answer, in Ulysses, can compete. Joyce seems to say, It’s worth writing about Bloom because he’s an ordinary man, and ordinary men are all extraordinary, and I’ve happened from my godlike position to choose this little beggar. And I don’t think Joyce’s answer in Finnegans Wake will do either. Here Joyce says, It’s worth writing about HCE because he’s Everyman, and you can’t write about anybody more important than Everyman, and I’m going to write about Everyman more universally than anyone ever has before, so there.
Other writers have different answers. Woolf seems to say, in The Waves, I’m writing about these people because, on the fringes of their experience, is something that has never been recorded before – it’s been seen as trivial, as fleeting rather than essential.
Forster says, We’re all in a terrible muddle, and it might comfort you to see some people muddling through their particular muddle.
I’m mentioning Lawrence’s contemporaries. Among writers working today, it’s rare for someone to believe a novel can be much more than an entertainment – ultimately. (If they do believe something more ambitious, they’re likely to keep quiet about it.) Perhaps the novel is a feat of empathy, or a specific social insight, or a panoptic vision of a fracturing culture, or a set of unprecedentedly immaculate sentences. These are some present day options.
Lawrence, I think, says this: It’s worth writing about Lady Constance Chatterley and Oliver Parkin because they are a test case. They – like the two pairs of lovers in Women in Love – are pioneers in their human relations. Or, if not pioneers, they are such rare birds as to be important in themselves. How often is such unrestricted contact (this is still Lawrence) between woman and man attempted? How frequently does such a large gulf class open within a couple, and can it be bridged? Can the conflict between intellectual being and fleshly being ever be resolved except at moments of orgasm?
Sometimes what is most touching about Lawrence is his absurd clumsiness in going at these questions, and sometimes what is breathtaking is how delicately he achieves a statement or a moment. If you can integrate the two of these approaches into one writer, you are getting close to a sympathetic reading of Lawrence. The characters in The First Lady Chatterley are, alternately, clumsy and delicate with one another.
Here is Parkin, the former gamekeeper, on Lady Chatterley and her class:
You folks is all doors, an’ you keep ’em all shut even with yourselves. And sometimes you never open one, and sometimes you open two. But you niver open ’em all, not to God nor man nor the devil. You’ve always got yourselves shut up somewhere where nothing can get at you: Though a body might think you was open as the day –
I do think that dismissing Lawrence is closing yet another door. And the more blithely you do it, the less you’ve learned from even the gesture of dismissal. He believed the novel had a real purpose, in driving people (readers) toward a more fulfilling life. He pursued that purpose in a way that was not tasteful or terribly considered – and so it’s embarrassing. He tried to write with all doors open. For this alone, it’s worth closely reading The First Lady Chatterley. It’s a book about, among many other things, class war. The section in the middle, about the hot-blooded ones and the cold-blooded ones, about two irreconcilable ways of being in the world, seems particularly timely.