Lawrence is one of these authors whose books I’ve always collected, but whose work I’ve never really found the courage to read. Where does one begin? It was my mother who handed me a copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover when I was still a teenager, which was all I ever really received as far as a ‘birds and the bees’ talk goes, and I would skim through it looking for some magical description of the female orgasm. But, you see, I viewed it as pornography before literature, so that I looked towards the end of the book, and, finding nothing of interest, tossed it aside, figuring, I mean, hell, what could anyone know about sex way back then anyway. Anais Nin’s Unprofessional Study and how it brought her together with Henry Miller is when I began considering that perhaps I should be reading his works, and so a few years ago I did read The Fox, which I recall as being a cross between Jules et Jim and Bergman’s Persona, nothing ever really feels cleared up. We all giggled nervously at age 17 when masturbation was brought to light in “The Rockinghorse Winner”–but, without a doubt, Lawrence has become one of the most important writers of my life. Yes, I came to my sexuality with my best friend Anais Nin in one hand, I came to my senses with Henry Miller in the other (no, let’s be serious, it was the same hand. just kidding!), but I came to understand my masculinity thanks to Lawrence, and furthermore, it’s in this early novel of his that I find the truest illustration of your complete servitude to the most ephemeral of feelings, feelings that must in truth be something like little bats clumsily bobbing through the air, avoiding Siegmund by scent and smacking into the faces of Helena, who, well, reacts as you characteristically do his myopic and oppressive male chauvinism. And so, it is this book which has led me to make firm my conclusion that I’ve been unsure about for ages, but now am quite certain, because all these games must finally end: I must hide myself, and this may be the only way to finally shake you to your senses, to remind you of reality, there needs to be a complete restructuring of the existing social organization so as to produce full and equal status and protection of both sexes and all genders in order that we might attune our natural with our cultural rights, and perhaps then, perhaps then, the universe will be okay.
What’s most fascinating is the extent to which Lawrence clarifies the logic of his characters in a novel of which I see no signs of his biography, yet I see myself, and I see a confounding episode of my own life that takes place in the same settings as this novel does, under similar circumstances, and I had to deal with the same nonsense of it all–and while I had no answers before, I do now. I am a misogynist. But, before I leave an extended number of quotations that struck me for one reason or another, I will mention two things in particular:
In chapter 29, Lawrence breaks the rules pretty violently after writing up to this point in the past tense, suddenly he draws us out of the story and leads us to believe that there is something beyond the novel, something in reality that continues even after we close the book, something in the present [emphasis mine]:
Now Helena believed he was ill, perhaps very ill, perhaps she only could be of any avail. The miles of distance were like hot bars of iron across her breast, and against them it was impossible to strive. The train did what it could.
That day remains as a smear in the record of Helena’s life. In it there is no spacing of hours, no lettering of experience, merely a smear of suspense.
Towards six o’clock she alighted, at Surbiton station, deciding that this would be the quickest way of getting to Wimbledon. She paced the platform slowly, as if resigned, but her heart was crying out at the great injustice of delay. Presently the local train came in. She had planned to buy a local paper at Wimbledon, and if from that source she could learn nothing, she would go on to his house and inquire. She had prearranged everything minutely.
And then, not long afterwards, he draws us out of the narrative flow like this:
Helena stood still on the station for some time, looking at the print. Then she dropped the paper and wandered into the town, not knowing where she was going.
‘That was what I got,’ she said, months afterwards; ‘and it was like a brick, it was like a brick.’
She wandered on and on, until suddenly she found herself in the grassy lane with only a wire fence bounding her from the open fields on either side, beyond which fields, on the left, she could see Siegmund’s house standing florid by the road, catching the western sunlight. Then she stopped, realizing where she had come. For some time she stood looking at the house. It was no use her going there; it was of no use her going anywhere; the whole wide world was opened, but in it she had no destination, and there was no direction for her to take. As if marooned in the world, she stood desolate, looking from the house of Siegmund over the fields and the hills. Siegmund was gone; why had he not taken her with him?
This is all quite absurd, really, and quite brilliant, and perhaps in some way paying homage to the real Siegmund and the real Helena, whose story he used as his source, but I think goes quite a bit further than that. Chapter 27, as Siegmund is contemplating suicide, he finds solace in the idea that ‘the heart of life is implacable in its kindness. It may not be moved to fluttering of pity; it swings on uninterrupted by cries of anguish or of hate.’ And then furthermore,
Siegmund was thankful for this unfaltering sternness of life. There was no futile hesitation between doom and pity. Therefore, he could submit and have faith. If each man by his crying could swerve the slow, sheer universe, what a doom of guilt he might gain. If Life could swerve from its orbit for pity, what terror of vacillation; and who would wish to bear the responsibility of the deflection?
The novel begins many months after the suicide, Helena characteristically cold, playing with the affections of her best friend, and some guy, and yes, Siegmund is dead, but very clearly things aren’t so bad after all. And then the narrator takes us back to the beginning, through the suicide, and the aftermath through one year. And the narrator proves just what Siegmund believed, which is that the world does not even hesitate for the blink of an eye at one’s suicide, and even his wife only cries out of mere fear.
If I was faced with the girl I love, hanging in the doorway by the strap of her portmanteau, her face unrecognizable and distended, piss and excrement beneath the shadow of her nightgown, I suppose she’s the only person in all the world whom I could cut down, and place delicately on the bed. And I don’t know that I could leave her alone until her body was underground. And you can’t even text me. Well, such is love, the fairest, truest love.
So, while the opening chapter may be necessary for the sake of framing, the closing chapters are less so, but they function to illustrate that indeed, life does go on, very easily, and perhaps smoother than before, for both wife, children, and mistress. And in case the reader wonders whether things continue on so well, there’s no question, because the narrator drags us to the present tense for a moment, letting us know that, indeed, the death of one man means nothing at all, not to anyone.
* * *
So, now let’s move on to things I really love about this, which is the sorts of conversations I know all too well, in fact, these may be my conversations, not the protagonist’s, because in case you haven’t heard, generally you see no relationship between words and reality.
“When Helena drew away her lips, she was exhausted. She belonged to that class of ‘dreaming women’ with whom passion exhausts itself at the mouth. Her desire was accomplished in a real kiss. The fire, in heavy flames, had poured through her to Siegmund, from Siegmund to her. It sank, and she felt herself flagging. She had not the man’s brightness and vividness of blood. She lay upon his breast, dreaming how beautiful it would be to go to sleep, to swoon unconscious there, on that rare bed. She lay still on Siegmund’s breast, listening to his heavily beating heart.
With her the dream was always more than the actuality. Her dream of Siegmund was more to her than Siegmund himself. He might be less than her dream, which is as it may be. However, to the real man she was very cruel.”
“Then again, when he raised his head and found her mouth, his lips filled her with a hot flush like wine, a sweet, flaming flush of her whole body, most exquisite, as if she were nothing but a soft rosy flame of fire against him for a moment or two. That, she decided, was supreme, transcendental.”
“‘I am her child, too,’ he dreamed, as a child murmurs unconscious in sleep. He had never felt her eyes so much as now, in the darkness, when he looked only into deep shadow. She had never before so entered and gathered his plaintive masculine soul to the bosom of her nurture.”
‘The best sort of women—the most interesting—are the worst for us,’ Hampson resumed. ‘By instinct they aim at suppressing the gross and animal in us. Then they are supersensitive—refined a bit beyond humanity. We, who are as little gross as need be, become their instruments. Life is grounded in them, like electricity in the earth; and we take from them their unrealized life, turn it into light or warmth or power for them. The ordinary woman is, alone, a great potential force, an accumulator, if you like, charged from the source of life. In us her force becomes evident.
‘She can’t live without us, but she destroys us. These deep, interesting women don’t want us; they want the flowers of the spirit they can gather of us. We, as natural men, are more or less degrading to them and to their love of us; therefore they destroy the natural man in us—that is, us altogether.’
‘I wonder,’ said Hampson softly, with strange bitterness, ‘that she can’t see it; I wonder she doesn’t cherish you. You are full and beautiful enough in the flesh—why will she help to destroy you, when she loved you to such extremity?’
Siegmund looked at him with awe-stricken eyes. The frail, swift man, with his intensely living eyes, laughed suddenly.
‘Fools—the fools, these women!’ he said. ‘Either they smash their own crystal, or it revolts, turns opaque, and leaps out of their hands. Look at me, I am whittled down to the quick; but your neck is thick with compressed life; it is a stem so tense with life that it will hold up by itself. I am very sorry.’
“Throwing himself down on the sand that was soft and warm as white fur, he lay glistening wet, panting, swelling with glad pride at having conquered also this small, inaccessible sea-cave, creeping into it like a white bee into a white virgin blossom that had waited, how long, for its bee.”
“All she knew was that he was strong, and was knocking urgently with his heart on her breast.”
She made a moaning, loving sound. Full of passionate pity, she moved her mouth on his face, as a woman does on her child that has hurt itself.
‘Sometimes,’ she murmured, in a low, grieved confession, ‘you lose me.’
He gave a brief laugh.
‘I lose you!’ he repeated. ‘You mean I lose my attraction for you, or my hold over you, and then you—?’
He did not finish. She made the same grievous murmuring noise over him.
‘It shall not be any more,’ she said.
As usual, a man produces a billion sperms every hour, and a woman produces one egg each month, so women are often, highly economic with words when it comes to things that matter, things that demand discussion. This case illustrates it well. And then, here’s a rather pretty line: “turning to Helena, he found her face white and shining as the empty moon.”
‘I see it has,’ he answered. Then to himself he said: ‘She can’t translate herself into language. She is incommunicable; she can’t render herself to the intelligence. So she is alone and a law unto herself: she only wants me to explore me, like a rock-pool, and to bathe in me. After a while, when I am gone, she will see I was not indispensable….’
‘Is that why I have failed? I ought to have had her in love sufficiently to keep her these few days. I am not quick. I do not follow her or understand her swiftly enough. And I am always timid of compulsion. I cannot compel anybody to follow me.
‘So we are here. I am out of my depth. Like the bee, I was mad with the sight of so much joy, such a blue space, and now I shall find no footing to alight on. I have flown out into life beyond my strength to get back. When can I set my feet on when this is gone?’
A line I rather like is, ‘the naked body of heat was dreadful,’ and I was also struck by “‘If now,’ prayed Siegmund, ‘death would wipe the sweat from me, and it were dark….’” And it is essential to note that in both chapters 18 and 19 Helena is overly concerned with the time. Siegmund provides no commentary on this, but it’s a trait in you I’ve noticed quite a number of times, as you people have shown an offensive obsession with the time, with timetables, with minutes and hours and schedules and itineraries, and then without explanation, they don’t care anymore, they push aside the importance of time, and then eternity is something that makes sense to them again, and then back to timetables, the importance of being someplace at a certain time when nobody is waiting for you, and another train is leaving in half an hour anyway, but perhaps I’ll never understand because I’ve never gestated anything but diseases, and the only blood I ever anticipated with certainty concerned my wisdom teeth. So perhaps you have some frightening intrinsic connection to the clock, but god knows it’s offensive and superficial.
‘She does not understand,’ said Siegmund to himself. ‘And whatever I do I must not tell her. I should have thought she would understand.’
As he walked home beside her there mingled with his other feelings resentment against her. Almost he hated her.
–which aligns with something a line from chapter 31, when Helena is with her new boy-toy, Cecil, told from his perspective as Helena takes him through the exact spots she took Siegmund, exactly one year later:
He looked at her, wondering how much he was filling the place of a ghost with warmth. He thought of Siegmund, and seemed to see him swinging down the steep bank out of the wood exactly as he himself was doing at the moment, with Helena stepping carefully behind. He always felt a deep sympathy and kinship with Siegmund; sometimes he thought he hated Helena.
As Helena continues her flimsy companionship, sometimes overcome with senseless unexplained passions, like every time you’ve thrown yourself at me and then jumped away crying ‘no, I cannot, I cannot,’ only to wake me up hours later by flinging yourself at me again and pulling the same stunt, followed by a two hour rant about why Senator Clinton trumps Senator Obama any day of the week; let’s see how Siegmund fares:
She had a peculiar, childish wistfulness at times, and with this an intangible aloofness that pierced his heart. It seemed to him he should never know her. There was a remoteness about her, an estrangement between her and all natural daily things, as if she were of an unknown race that never can tell its own story. This feeling always moved Siegmund’s pity to its deepest, leaving him poignantly helpless. This same foreignness, revealed in other ways, sometimes made him hate her. It was as if she would sacrifice him rather than renounce her foreign birth. There was something in her he could never understand, so that never, never could he say he was master of her as she was of him the mistress.
Some rather nice lines:
“Her father’s quiet ‘H’m!’ her mother’s curt question, made her draw inwards like a snail which can never retreat far enough from condemning eyes. She made a careless pretence of eating. She was like a child which has done wrong, and will not be punished, but will be left with the humiliating smear of offence upon it.”
“The west opposite the door was smouldering with sunset. Darkness is only smoke that hangs suffocatingly over the low red heat of the sunken day. Such was Helena’s longed-for night.”
Siegmund dealing with his youngest child, after all his family has turned against him, his youngest daughter who conspicuously disappears after his suicide, a bit like Celia’s mysterious and unexplained lack of a single line in the entire final act of As You Like It, when she stands there dumbly as every difficulty is resolved. But seriously, isn’t this the truth? Dear children, the only ones who can see life as it is because they’re the only ones who can see life as it should be, and they’re only wrong because they discount all human constructs as being so false as they truly are.
He waited in a daze of suspense. The child shifted from one foot to another. He could just see the edge of her white-frilled drawers. He wanted, above all things, to take her in his arms, to have something against which to hide his face. Yet he was afraid. Often, when all the world was hostile, he had found her full of love, he had hidden his face against her, she had gone to sleep in his arms, she had been like a piece of apple-blossom in his arms. If she should come to him now—his heart halted again in suspense—he knew not what he would do. It would open, perhaps, the tumour of his sickness. He was quivering too fast with suspense to know what he feared, or wanted, or hoped.
The best evidence for why I should hide from you, right now, is during Helena’s discussion with Cecil:
‘More sorrow over one kitten brought to destruction than over all the sufferings of men,’ he said.
She glanced at him and laughed. He was smiling ironically.
‘For the latter, you see,’ she replied, ‘I am not responsible.’
Because although she sometimes loved Siegmund in all the right ways, even in his absence, she also has that peculiar chilliness about her, the separation of body and mind and life and morality and emotions. It’s all a lot of shit.