Neither Paradiso nor Inferno: An Imperfect Life by DH Lawrence
In Burning man (Bloomsbury, £ 22.50) Frances Wilson, in her acclaimed new biography of DH Lawrence, takes issue with Kate Millett’s attack on Lawrence as a literary misogynist. This attack dealt a fatal blow to his reputation and kicked him from college reading lists. Wilson admires him and saves the great writer from Women in love, Sea and Sardinia and Birds, beasts and flowers. She praises “her solidarity with instincts, her will to offend, her rants, her seriousness, her identification with animals and birds, her forensic analyzes of sexual jealousy, the speed of her thought, the warmth of his sorrows “. But she’s not Lawrence’s first female biographer; Brenda Maddox predeceased her in 1996.
Wilson’s book is based almost entirely on print sources, and even the matte paper photos are familiar. So, like most literary biographers, she needed a seemingly new approach to attracting a publisher. She brings into play its dubious claim to originality by focusing on Lawrence’s intervening years from 1915 to 1925, although in 1996 Mark Kinkead-Weekes published a volume on Lawrence’s decade from 1912 to 1922. Wilson gives “major roles to these supposedly minor characters”. and aims “to reveal a lesser-known Lawrence by presenting his lesser-known works”. To make Lawrence more appealing, she strategically excludes her controversial “leadership” novels: Kangaroo and The feathered serpent. She divides her book into three sections – on her life in England, Italy and America – each highlighting his wife Frieda, his parasitic friend Maurice Magnus and his patron Mabel Luhan.
Wilson’s intelligent, well-written, and lively book is radically flawed by dozens of wacky comparisons from Lawrence to Dante, with Shelley in the mix, that interrupt the narrative and are more entertaining than enlightening. Wilson states with typical obscurity: “In his pursuit of paradise, however, Maurice Magnus played a major role: replacing Shelley as Lawrence’s guide, he led the pilgrim to the mountain of Purgatory. In other words, he invited Lawrence to the monastery of Monte Cassino. She persists with: “Magnus carried, like Dante’s doorman, his keys on a chain” – as if that was unusual. “Virgil bids farewell to Dante, and that night Lawrence announced that he was going to leave. “
In Wilson’s absurd Paradiso, Lawrence contracts fatal tuberculosis and Mabel is his Beatrice. But no one could be more different from Dante’s view of idealized love than a selfish, domineering, four-time-married Mabel. In a moment of lucidity, Wilson calls Mabel “a manipulator, an exhibitionist and a bully.” . . jealousy was its guiding star and love an obstacle rather than a goal ”.
Despite the errors in the book, Wilson profusely thanks his incomparable copy editor. But Metz in Lorraine, where Frieda grew up before World War I, was then a German garrison town, not a French one. The French Foreign Legion, which Magnus joined, was not “Europe’s most elitist fighting force”. As Wilson herself writes, he combined “regiments of the lowest type” made up of “cutthroats and sharpeners and sodomites.” by Herman Melville Omoo is a travel book, not a novel. In an astonishing howl, she declares that the hero of Melville’s film Type “is stranded on Nantucket Island and lives four months among the cannibals”. In another geographic error, she claims that Mabel’s birthplace, Buffalo, “is a city very much like Freud’s Vienna.” Wilson is quite wrong to claim that Mabel Luhan, obscure in America and unknown in England, was “as famous when she knew him as Lawrence was himself.”
Strangely deviating from the truth, Wilson believes that “it is the biographer’s mandate to edit the facts that do not match.” She says Magnus’ great friend, the English writer Norman Douglas, “is surely the model for Lolita‘s Humbert Humbert ”. But Douglas, a pederast, has had sex with young boys, while heterosexual Humbert is in love with the young Lolita girl. When Claire Tomalin speculates, without evidence, that Lawrence infected Katherine Mansfield with tuberculosis, Wilson turns it into “he killed Mansfield”. She maintains that each house that Lawrence lived in “was located on a higher place than the previous one.” In fact, Lawrence’s ranch in the Rocky Mountains (not the foothills) was 8,600 feet and after that all of his houses were lower.
Wilson says it’s hard “to understand why he hated [Ceylon] so much. ”At first, however, Lawrence was mesmerized by the spectacular beauty of the tropical island. But when his tuberculosis was severely affected by the oppressive heat and humidity, his enthusiasm turned to revulsion and he desperately wanted to escape to a healthier climate.
Wilson distorts the views of previous biographers in order to emphasize his own originality. She claims that “Lawrence is traditionally described as humorless.” I published an essay on Lawrence’s humor in Salmagundi (Fall 2006). Wilson insists that “there is no evidence” of Lawrence’s same-sex relationship with handsome farmer William Henry Hocking during wartime Cornwall. But she contradicts herself by writing that Frieda told Mabel “Lawrence’s affair with a young Cornish farmer during the war”. Wilson states that “Lawrence never found his place in the canon of twentieth century travel writers.” But in DH Lawrence’s legacy (1987) I showed Lawrence’s profound influence on WH Auden’s travel writing (photo below), Louis MacNeice, Christopher Isherwood, Graham Greene, Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell and Gerald Brenan – all, surely, canonical writers.
Wilson ends his book in a disastrous way. She first quotes disgusting gossip: “A third version of what happened to Lawrence’s ashes was told to me by a friend’s sister. . . . Frieda, Mabel and Brett sat together and ate [his ashes]. “Then, in a strange leap that confirms her obsession with Dante, she compares these three” blessed women “of Taos to Beatrice, Saint Lucia and the Virgin Mary!
Despite these glaring flaws, which could have been easily corrected by a good editor, Wilson’s book contains many useful ideas. Comparing New Zealand-born Katherine Mansfield and her husband Middleton Murry to Hilda Doolittle and her husband Richard Aldington, both traitorous friends of Lawrence, Wilson notes: “In each case a brilliant, bisexual expat woman got attached. to a handsome and priapic intellectual. opportunist who made a career out of knowing Lawrence.
The best part of this biography is Wilson’s portrayal of the bloodsucking con artist Maurice Magnus, who pursued poor Lawrence and extorted money from him mercilessly. He was the subject of Lawrence’s brilliant memoir and his vampiric poem The mosquito:
I see you standing
For a second caught in oblivion,
Suck my blood.
Like the French poet Max Jacob, Magnus was a homosexual of Jewish descent and a Catholic convert. Wilson writes that “Magnus learned to speak several languages badly, to produce indifferent prose, to mismanage money, to appreciate good food and to keep up appearances.” Cornered by the police in Malta, Magnus committed suicide (like Emma Bovary) by burning his throat with prussic acid. His last message said, with selfish bravado: “I want to be buried in first class, my wife will pay.” Although Lawrence had given Magnus generous help, he felt guilty for his death and concluded: “I could have, by giving half my money, saved his life, but I had chosen to. do not save her. Yet handing over more money would have simply delayed but not prevented Magnus’ suicide.
To portray Frieda as the most important woman in Lawrence’s life from 1915 to 1919 is hardly a revelation. Wilson states, “The problem with Frieda for literary historians is. . . that she did not know how to write. . . His sentences lack narrative energy. . . and are boring to read. But like most of Lawrence’s biographers, I saw Frieda as the greatest inspiration of her life and admired her precious memoirs. Not me, but the wind (1934). After quoting Witter Bynner’s sexually suggestive description of Lawrence’s rage over Frieda’s cigarettes – “You sit there, with that thing in your mouth and your legs open to all the men in the room!” – Wilson humorously calls “their smoking number the best-repeated act of the Lawrence roadshow.”
Lawrence was both the beneficiary and the victim of Frieda’s unbridled sexual appetite, who had more lovers when she was with Lawrence than she had when she was married to her first husband, Ernest Weekley. . His affairs began with Harold Hobson, on his honeymoon with Lawrence, and ended when Lawrence was helpless and dying of tuberculosis, with Italian officer Angelo Ravagli. Like Frieda, Ravagli left his wife and three children and married her after Lawrence’s death. In Lady Chatterley‘lover the manly Mellors and the crippled Clifford are both based on Lawrence, who believed in sexual freedom and tolerated Frieda’s humiliating promiscuity. His acceptance of her infidelities showed how much he needed her. After his death she wrote: “He never lost his own wonder of life. He never compromised with the small powers that be; if he ever lived a free and proud man, Lawrence was that man.
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