Novels and notes

I was never terribly won over by the novels of D.H. Lawrence, and Out of Sheer Rage is not making me change my mind about that, but it is interesting me in Lawrence’s other works, his letters and criticism.

(I was trying to trick you with my post title into believing that I’d finally moved on to something besides Out of Sheer Rage, but I haven’t — sorry! I will post about something else soon — the Elizabeth Bowen novel I just finished, for example.)

Geoff Dyer himself feels ambivalently about Lawrence’s novels; he knows he should re-read them for his book, but he really can’t bear to, and so he doesn’t. It’s not that he disliked them that much; it’s just that he has no desire to re-read them. Instead, he’d rather read more in the other material — the notes to the great works rather than the great works themselves:

As time goes by we drift away from the great texts, the finished works on which an author’s reputation is built, towards the journals, diaries, letters, manuscripts, jottings. This is not simply because, as an author’s stature grows posthumously, the fund of published texts becomes exhausted and we have to make do not only with previously unpublished or unfinished material but, increasingly, with matter that was never intended for publication. It is also because we want to get nearer to the man or woman who wrote these books, to his or her being …. A curious reversal takes place. The finished works serve as prologue to the jottings; the published book becomes a stage to be passed through — a draft — en route to the definitive pleasure of the notes, the fleeting impressions, the sketches, in which it had its origin.

I have not experienced this myself, or perhaps I haven’t yet reached that stage, except possibly in the case of Virginia Woolf, but I do find what he has to say about Lawrence’s notes and letters intriguing. He quotes from Lawrence’s wife Frieda to explain his attraction to these more ephemeral forms of writing:

“Since Lawrence died, all these donkeys years already, he has grown and grown for me … To me his relationship, his bond with everything in creation was so amazing, no preconceived ideas, just a meeting between him and a creature, a tree, a cloud, anything. I called it love, but it was something else — Bejahung in German, ‘saying yes’.”

Dyer goes on to write that he finds this “saying yes” most clearly in Lawrence’s letters — it exists in the novels but comes through most excitingly elsewhere. There’s something about Lawrence’s writing that makes a reader wish to have known him, in a way no one, he says, really wishes to have known E.M. Forster.

Dyer then connects these ideas about Lawrence’s notes and letters to his own writing:

If this book aspires to the condition of notes that is because, for me, Lawrence’s prose is at its best when it comes closest to notes.

I do like this reversal of the traditional genre hierarchies, the “rules” that say that novels are more important and literary than letters and certainly more so than notes. I love the idea of aspiring to the condition of notes and would say that Out of Sheer Rage does have a note or letter-like quality; the ideas are developed, yes, but there is a rambling nature to the book, a spontaneity that you don’t often find in nonfiction.

Dyer gives Lawrence’s book Sea and Sardinia as an example of fine Lawrentian prose; Lawrence took no notes while visiting Sardinia, and wrote his book a few weeks afterwards based on memories:

The lack of notes, in other words, accounts for the book’s note-like immediacy. Notes taken at the time, on the move, and referred to later … would have come between the experience and the writing. As it is, everything is written — rather than noted and then written — as experienced. The experience is created in the writing rather than re-created from notes. Reading it, you are drenched in a spray of ideas that never lets up. Impressions are experienced as ideas, ideas are glimpsed like fields through a train window, one after another. Opinions erupt into ideas, argument is conveyed as sensation, sensations are felt as argument.

I wonder about this, actually — couldn’t it be the case that writing that seems the most spontaneous and impressionistic might be the writing the author most labored over? Wouldn’t spontaneity more likely be an illusion than a reality? I wonder if Lawrence really wrote the book in the way Dyer describes, and if, in fact, Dyer really wrote his book the way these passages imply he might have — carelessly, lazily, on-the-fly. Perhaps he labored over every transition, every seemingly-spontaneous and emotion-filled fragment and exclamation point.

At any rate, Dyer closes this particular section with an intriguing paragraph:

“A book which is not a copy of other books has its own construction,” warned Lawrence and the kind of novels I like are ones which bear no traces of being novels. Which is why the novelists I like best are, with the exception of the last-named, not novelists at all: Nietzsche, the Goncourt brothers, Barthes, Fernando Pessoa, Ryszard Kapuscindki, Thomas Bernhard …

A future reading list perhaps?

6 Comments

Filed under Books, Nonfiction

6 responses to “Novels and notes

  1. That last bit would be a good future reading list. I like the point you make about how some spontaneous writing might not really be so at all. Writers are, after all, supposed to be good at creating illusions.

  2. You succeeded in tricking me. I’ve never read any D.H. Lawrence (at least, I don’t think I have. I distinctly remember seeing the movie version of “Sons and Lovers” for an English course, but can’t remember if we saw it without reading the book or saw it after reading the book. Since all I remember is the movie, it seems I can’t have paid too much attention to the book, even if I did read it, so I might as well not have read it). Your posts are making me want to read both Lawrence and Dyer.

  3. booksplease

    I do like Lawrence, having recently read ‘Sons and Lovers’. I read ‘Women in Love’ years ago and saw the movie with Alan Bates and Glenda Jackson etc – it’s the film that sticks in my mind. At the time it was so much easier to watch than to read.

    The Dyer book sounds interesting. The idea that writing without notes is somehow fresher and more spontaneous has made me pause for thought. Notes for me record my initial thoughts and responses, mainly I suppose because I do them on the run, as it were, and then come back later to expand my ideas. I can see what he means though about notes coming between the experience and the writing – but I don’t usually have time for that. I suppose that’s why I’m not a writer.

  4. I’m not sure if I was a writer that I could write without notes. Probably someone comfortable and confident could do it successfully. Of course I suppose it depends on what you are trying to write. I like the first quote. I haven’t really read any one author so extensively that moving on to letters and diaries are the next natural step in the process, though I do like dipping into these things with some authors anyway (after having only read one or two books). The Dyer book has certainly given you a lot to think about!

  5. I remember one of my colleagues in the 17th century talking about the way that authors suddenly came into academic vogue and so just about everything that they had ever written got dragged into the light of day. He was joking, I recall, about Madame de Sevigny’s shopping lists and knitting patterns. I have to wonder at the academics who really love the marginalia (and some do). It’s like spending your whole time making model boats rather than sailing in a real one. But then, I am an impatient reader who likes to get to the meat of an author, and I am by no means in a position to prescribe to anybody what they should enjoy studying!!

  6. Stefanie — and sometimes I think writers tell lies about how they write! I’d like to read at least Thomas Bernhard from that list, and Barthes and Pessoa. The others would be interesting too.

    Emily — I’d kind of like to see the movie version of “Sons and Lovers.” But otherwise, I feel like Dyer has given me the perfect excuse not to read any more Lawrence novels (although I do want to know what all the fuss about Lady Chatterley’s Lover was). I would like to read some of Lawrence’s criticism and maybe travel writing though.

    Books Please — oh, another Lawrence movie to watch! The more I think about it, the more problematic Dyer’s whole idea of nothing getting between the experience and the writing is. I mean, you can’t take experience and put it directly onto the page; it’s always shaped and framed somehow.

    Danielle — I haven’t really read any author that thoroughly either, but I agree with you about dipping into the letters sometimes — with some authors that material is more interesting. Perhaps that’s true with Lawrence. I’d take it on a case-by-case basis though!

    Litlove — I think whether I loved studying the marginalia more than the main texts or not would depend on the author. It does seem like an odd choice, and surely there aren’t many authors with whom it would work, but I can sort of see the appeal. And perhaps it’s easier to publish on that stuff, if fewer people have looked at it …

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