Happy New Year! and New Books! and New OLM!


2016 is getting off to a good start in my corner of the world. For one thing, I have a lovely array of new books, thanks to the kind people who basically ran my entire Chapters wish list. Isn’t that an enticing stack? My problem now is that I can’t decide where to start: rereading Mr. Impossible, because I know how fun that will be? rereading Little Women, because I finally have my own elegant edition? embarking on Jane Smiley’s ‘100 Years’ trilogy? plunging into Fates and Furies? wandering New York with Vivian Gornick? I suppose I could postpone the decision by settling down to finish The Portrait of a Lady — not least because I don’t want to read The House of Mirth until I’ve done that.

It’s not just the beginning of a new year, of course: it’s also the beginning of the month, and that means, as always, that a new issue of Open Letters Monthly has just gone live. I’m in it a couple of times: in brief in our feature of most-anticipated books of 2016,and at greater length in an essay about different editions of Middlemarch that is also a review of the elegant new Penguin Classics Deluxe edition. I’m always wary of writing autobiographically, but I couldn’t think how else to approach this review, and I enjoyed reflecting on the versions of the novel I’ve accumulated over the years as well as on how the editions we read of a book affect the relationship we develop with it.

oxfordlawrenceAs usual, the issue includes a wide range of other interesting pieces. One of my favorites this time is Dorian’s essay on D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love. My own experience with Lawrence so far is limited and ambivalent — but it has certainly made me curious, and Dorian writes so eloquently about both the language and the ideas of Women in Love that I’m feeling emboldened to read more Lawrence before too long. My co-editor Robert Minto offers a fascinating essay on Nietzsche’s Anti-Education, recently reissued by NYRB Classics, finding in it strains that might serve as cautionary to today’s “anxious citizens of academia”; Steve Donoghue reviews (as only he can) a new book on Sigismondo Malatesta, the only man ever to be reverse-canonized; Barrett Hathcock explores the hall-of-mirrors sensation of finding himself fictionalized by a student in his own creative writing class; and that’s just the top half of the Table of Contents. I hope you’ll check it out, and if you like anything about what we produce every month at Open Letters, I also hope you’ll consider supporting our efforts — we are entirely sincere when we say that a comment or a link is as welcome as a donation.

Very soon, I will also be launched on the new term. My classes this time are familiar ones in my teaching rotation: Mystery and Detective Fiction and 19th-Century British Fiction (Austen to Dickens edition). As usual, I’m feeling equal parts anticipation and dread at the prospect of starting it all up again. (I have already had one very typical anxiety dream in which I was unable to print notes or handouts because my files had disappeared, and the computer kept auto-updating as I desperately tried to find them, and the start time for class came and went … you’d think after all these years I would not need my subconscious warning me to prepare for class, but this did prompt me to go to campus early and print all my notes and handouts for Monday, so that’s good, I guess!) I’m also feeling very aware that this time last year my sabbatical term was just beginning: inevitably, I guess, that is provoking some reflection on how I used that time and what has become of the projects I worked on since it ended — more about that eventually, along with more of my regular posts on how things go in my classes.

But I still have one more full day, and since I did print my materials early (and have also built my Blackboard sites and labelled my folders and made my Powerpoint slides for opening day), I will spend it reading — if I can just settle on which book. Happy New Year!

“The Leap of Life”: D. H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley’s Lover


Connie went to the wood directly after lunch. It was really a lovely day, the first dandelions making suns, the first daisies so white. The hazel thicket was a lace-work of half-open leaves and the last dusty perpendicular of the catkins. Yellow celandines now were in crowds, flat open, pressed back in urgency, and the yellow glitter of themselves. It was the yellow, the powerful yellow of early summer. And primroses were broad, and full of pale abandon, thick-clustered primroses no longer shy. The lush, dark green of hyacinths was a sea, with buds rising like pale corn, while in the riding the forget-me-knots were fluffing up, and columbines were unfolding their ink-purple ruches, and there were bits of blue bird’s-eggshell under a bush. Everywhere the bud-knots and the leap of life.

Why, what did you think “the leap of life” would refer to in the context of Lady Chatterley’s Lover? And yet if you were imagining that it was somehow a sexual reference, you’re not wrong just because the phrase actually comes from this lush description of nature, because unless I misunderstand the novel profoundly (which is not by any means impossible*), its central preoccupation is our dissociation from nature — the intrusion or domination of the mechanical, “the mechanical greedy, greedy mechanism and mechanized greed,” both literal (industrial) and spiritual — and the resulting failure of tenderness, to both of which sex is (or at any rate can be) the antidote. The world in which Lady Chatterley takes a lover is a broken, alienated, isolating place:

Merrie England! Shakespeare’s England! No, but the England of today, as Connie had realized since she had come to live in it. It was producing a new race of mankind, over-conscious in the money and social and political side, on the spontaneous, intuitive side dead, but dead. Half-corpses, all of them: but with a terrible insistent consciousness in the other half. There was something uncanny and underground about it all. It was an under-world. And quite incalculable. How shall we understand the reactions in half-corpses? When Connie saw the great lorries full of steel-workers from Sheffield, weird, distorted smallish beings like men, off for an excursion to Matlock, her bowels fainted and she thought: Ah God, what has man done to man? What have the leaders of men been doing to their fellow-men? They have reduced them to less than humanness; and now there can be no fellowship any more! It is just a nightmare.

She felt again in a wave of terror the grey, gritty hopelessness of it all. With such creatures for the industrial masses, and the upper classes as she knew them, there was no hope, no hope any more.

 Who wouldn’t seek refuge from this nightmare in a lover’s arms? Except Lady Chatterley’s affair is not really an escape from it — or, at any rate, it provides no escape for the reader (it does appear to be intermittently distracting for the lovers themselves) because every encounter is so saturated with symbolic and thematic significance. The prose is always straining so much towards the metaphysical that the physical act seems almost beside the point, even as we are being urged to see it as the whole point:

 She quivered again at the potent inexorable entry inside her, so strange and terrible. It might come with the thrust of a sword in her softly-opened body, and that would be death. She clung in a sudden anguish of terror. But it came with a slow thrust of peace, the dark thrust of peace and a ponderous, primordial tenderness, such as made the world in the beginning. And her terror subsided in her breast, her breast dared to be gone in peace, she held nothing. She dared to let go everything, all herself, and be gone in the flood.

penguinchatterleyI tried not to find these morbidly florid passages ridiculous, really I did! I understand he’s trying both to convey bodily sensations with some immediacy and to go beyond them to other more abstract issues.  I appreciate, too, as the editor of my edition emphasizes, that despite his “phallocentrism” Lawrence is making “strenuous efforts to describe the female orgasm.” I also recognize — speaking as someone who has now read a fair number of romance novels — that writing  successfully about sex is always challenging because people have such different preferences, in language as in life. (There have been some very good discussions of this problem at Liz’s blog, e.g. here and here.) Lawrence’s language is especially tricky, though, I think, because he wants the sex to be about so much more than sex that it almost completely fails to be sexy. It is sexually explicit, of course. Maybe it is also sometimes erotic: your mileage may vary, as they say. But if sex is going to be the answer to all the ills of civilization, it had better not seem silly.

Or maybe what’s absurd or otherwise disconcerting is precisely making sex the answer to everything. Hard as it was not to laugh at some of the lovers’ antics (flowers woven in their pubic hair? really?), it was even harder not to recoil from the ways the novel essentializes both men and women but especially women, who are made to seem fully alive and human only insofar as they are sexually active and fulfilled. I thought there was something very sad about the scene of Lady Chatterley contemplating her naked body in the mirror and thinking that it looks “as if it had not had enough sun and warmth; it was a little greyish and sapless.” “Disappointed of its real womanhood,” it continues,

it had not succeeded in becoming boyish, and unsubstantial, and transparent; instead it had gone opaque.

Her breasts were rather small, and dropping pear-shaped. But they were unripe, a little bitter, without meaning hanging there. And her belly had lost the fresh, round gleam it had had when she was young, in the days of her German boy, who really loved her physically. Then it was young and expectant, with a real look of its own. Now it was going slack, and a little flat, thinner, but with a slack thinness. Her thighs, too, they used to look so quick and glimpsy in their female roundness, somehow they too were going flat, slack, meaningless.

Her body was going meaningless, going dull and opaque, so much insignificant substance. It made her feel immensely depressed and hopeless. What hope was there? She was old, old at twenty-seven, with no gleam and sparkle in the flesh. Old through neglect and denial, yes, denial.

How poignant (if also, at 27, absurd) — and yet must the answer to this sense of withering away, this descent into meaningless opacity, be (to quote, surprisingly enough, Lady Chatterley’s father), “a good bit of fucking”? Overjoyed that his daughter has been saved from life as a “demi-verge,” Sir Malcolm is delighted with Mellors when they meet: “You set fire to her haystack all right,” he exclaims; “Oh, she’s a nice girl, she’s a nice girl, and I knew she’d be good going, if only some damned man would set her stack on fire! Ha-ha-ha!” He’s drunk, so there’s that, but doesn’t the novel more or less agree with him? For me, something about a woman without a man being like a fish without a bicycle comes to mind: aren’t there other ways she could find some source of energy and meaning in her life? Not that there’s anything wrong with wanting to be sexually active and fulfilled, but sweep away the excess verbiage and how different is Lawrence’s appeal to nature from the Victorian antipathy towards spinsters and “redundant” women? It sounds different — more celebratory — but overall I wasn’t sure whether Lawrence’s vision was liberating or reductive and retrograde. It doesn’t help that Mellors interacts with Connie more as “woman” generically, and as a collection of body parts, than as a particular woman: theirs is hardly a meeting of true minds. And then there’s his bitter hostility towards women who like sex their way rather than his.

Overall, though, what struck me most about the book is its melancholy: I didn’t expect it to be so sad so much of the time. Even when Connie and Mellors are happiest in the moment, there’s sadness: “As it drew out and left her body, the secret, sensitive thing, she gave an unconscious cry of pure loss, and she tried to put it back. It had been so perfect! And she loved it so!” And what moved me the most about it was its appeal to tenderness, which is the quality most threatened by the harshness of modernity:

He thought with infinite tenderness of the woman. Poor forlorn thing, she was nicer than she knew, and oh! so much too nice for the tough lot she was in contact with. Poor thing, she too had some of the vulnerability of the wild hyacinths, she wasn’t all tough rubber-goods and platinum, like the modern girl. And they would do her in! As sure as life, they would do her in, as they do in all naturally tender life. Tender! Somewhere she was tender, tender with a tenderness of the growing hyacinths, something that has gone out of the celluloid women of today. But he would protect her with his heart for a little while. For a little while, before the insentient iron world and the Mammon of mechanized greed did them both in, her as well as him.

“He’s lovely really,” Connie says to her sister about Mellors; “he really understands tenderness.” If sex is the extremity of tenderness, then it is not about desire or passion or even physical feeling at all so much as it is about trying to reach each other and nurture each other. Tenderness brings us back to nature, to the hyacinths, to “the tender green leaves of morning.” It’s tenderness, maybe, that is the real “leap of life.” And since I do love the way Lawrence writes about nature (as, for example, in the quotation I began with), and since for him nature is tenderness is humanity is love is sex, it occurs to me that maybe I don’t find the way he writes (or thinks) about sex as absurd or alienating as I thought.

*I decided to write this post without studying for it: after all, Lawrence’s first readers had to make what sense of the novel they could without the benefit of literary scholarship, and if I once started down the “you can’t write about it until you’ve done your research” road then I might as well throw in the towel on blogging and go back to writing academic articles. That means, of course, that I fully expect and even look forward to being re-educated in the comments.