As a reviewer, DH Lawrence sets a formidable precedent. Hugely energetic and productive in verse and fiction, he also wrote dozens of essays responding to—and, typically, arguing with—books by other people. His style in such pieces was merciless on principle. “To my thinking,” as he told the world in 1927, “the critic, like a good beadle, should rap the public on the knuckles and make it attend during divine service.” The last thing he wrote, a few days before he died of tuberculosis on 2nd March 1930, was an unfinished article about Eric Gill’s Art-Nonsense and Other Essays (1929), a book to which he reacted with his usual bombastic ferocity: “Mr Gill is not a born writer: he is a crude and crass amateur… all this is most irritating… Mr Gill is so bad at the mere craft of language, that he sets a real writer’s nerves on edge all the time.” And this was a book that Lawrence liked.
Unsurprisingly, some of his reviews landed badly. But he made no apology for his grumbly, combustible treatment of other people and their books. “I can’t help it,” he told one correspondent, “I had to write what I felt.” What he felt most of the time might be summed up by a comment in another letter: “I love trying things and discovering how I hate them.”
In her new, indulgent biographical confection, Frances Wilson sets out to recover a decade of Lawrence’s writing life, the years from 1915 to 1925, in which he and his wife Frieda crisscrossed the world from England to Italy to America and back again. In the course of its almost 500 pages, Burning Man determinedly foregrounds the minor works and downplays the novels for which Lawrence is best known, arguing that the latter are not “his major achievement.” Curious pieces of occasional writing, in particular his damning preface to a “sodden, slipshod” autobiography by an American chancer called Maurice Magnus, are given pride of place. By proceeding in this way, Wilson hopes in some sense to recuperate as well as to shed new light on an author often slammed for his misogyny, and to represent instead the full range of his complexity and idiosyncrasy.
Such an approach is welcome insofar as it licenses fresh readings of works and characters often ignored. But Wilson’s minutely plotted account of Magnus—the “little scamp,” “little loving vampire,” and “impossible pigeon” (as Lawrence calls him)—proves wearying. Forever sponging on friends and fleeing his debts, Magnus eventually committed suicide in Malta; Wilson recounts his every move. Too often in this part of the book she simply repeats or paraphrases what Lawrence himself asserts more compactly in his restless, brilliantly acerbic introductory memoir.
Dwelling on his lesser-known compositions necessarily fails to do justice to the primacy Lawrence accorded the novel, that form of writing in which, as he said, “the most secret places of life” might be revealed and in which there can be “no didactic absolute.” The novel was the crucible in which his wildly arresting generalisations about men and women were made to collide with individuals whom he drew from life; it was the place in which theory encountered a re-imagined reality, with results that could be at once explosive and absurd.
Wilson declares early on that she cannot tell the difference between Lawrence’s art and his life—a potentially alarming admission from any biographer, whose task must surely include an attempt to discriminate between the two. What we have instead in this book is, in her own words, “a triptych of self-contained biographical tales.” Anyone relatively new to Lawrence’s life is likely to find the arrangement bewildering and the large cast of disreputable characters hard to keep in focus. They are for the most part an appalling and scurrilous bunch, ranging from Magnus’s friend and literary executor, the florid pederast Norman Douglas—who sported, Lawrence said, “a wicked red face and tufted eyebrows”—to a pretentious, sex-crazed community of rich girls slumming it on a mountainside in New Mexico.
The woman in charge of this ramshackle group, Mabel Dodge Luhan, was envisaged by Lawrence as “a big, white crow, a cooing raven of ill-omen” and is described by Wilson as “a psychoanalytic lab rat” who deliberately infected herself with gonorrhoea. In 1922, she somehow managed to tempt her pet author and his wife to join her pueblo in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in New Mexico. Here, Mabel had the bright idea that she would tease out Lawrence’s best writing—which would, of course, be all about her—and “seduce” his spirit. It is perhaps needless to say that things didn’t quite work out as planned.
“Wilson says she cannot tell the difference between Lawrence’s art and his life—a potentially alarming admission from any biographer”
Wilson chooses to configure Lawrence’s life in terms of Dante’s Divine Comedy, an odd decision that results in the book being divided into sections called “Inferno,” “Purgatory,” and “Paradise.” This way of organising her material proves distracting as well as inapt. The Dantesque model sits very peculiarly with an author whose only professed “great religion” was a “belief in the blood, the flesh, as being wiser than the intellect”; who remained drawn to what he identified as “the lower places of mankind’s activities”; and who insisted (in an essay on Herman Melville) that “there is no paradise. Fight and laugh and feel bitter and feel bliss: and fight again. Fight, fight. That is life.”
The prevailing Lawrentian metaphor for life is perhaps better summed up by the title of a poetic cycle narrating “the crises of manhood” which he published in 1917: Look! We Have Come Through! (the collection is briefly discussed in Burning Man). Here, human progress is predominantly a matter of moving across a landscape, struggling and breaking into and out of a series of places and spaces; not of moving up from the depths to a more elevated position, but rather of persisting through confinements and around obstacles on what seems for the most part to be a level plain—until it culminates in a “brink.”
But Wilson sets herself apart from Lawrence’s many other biographers and critics on the basis that they have all been—quite wrongly—considering him “from a flat perspective” and “horizontally.” She regularly introduces forced or merely spurious comparisons between Lawrence and Dante in order to sanction the tripartite structure of her book and its insistence on progression through life as an “ascent” from hell to heaven. When Lawrence is described as having just finished a novel, it does not add anything useful to the reader to be told that Dante in the Divine Comedy also “reached the Eternal Light” and at that point “understood how all the disparate events and all the arbitrary thoughts and all the chance occurrences of all the universe were connected.” Nor is the supposed parallel between Lawrence’s attitude to Maurice Magnus and that of Dante’s Beatrice to her dead husband remotely illuminating. And in what sense does it help us to understand anything about Lawrence’s departure from Capri to know that, when Dante and Virgil were transported to Purgatory, the sun also happened to be shining?
What Lawrence’s purported lifelong “ascent” turns out to mean, in practice, is that each successive house he inhabited was at a slightly higher altitude than the last. Even if true, it is hard to believe that this constitutes a revelatory discovery, or that it adds up to an existence in which the author “rose from underworld to empyrean.”
Burning Man is a thoroughly Lawrentian book in one sense: its governing idea or doctrine—that the novelist’s life was a Dantesque rise from the depths to the heights—fails to map coherently or persuasively onto what we know about that individual. The framing device feels like an imposition with which the biographer is being compelled for some unknown reason to wrestle, as if to re-stage Oliver Reed’s celebrated fireside grappling with Alan Bates in Ken Russell’s adaption of Women in Love. The result is perversely unsatisfactory and entirely in keeping with its subject.
Burning Man: The Ascent of DH Lawrence by Frances Wilson (Bloomsbury Circus, £25)