Tuesday, September 1, 2009

D.H. Lawrence, Alex Jones, Jill Dimond and Peter Kirkpatrick, Pixie O'Harris

September, 2009: To further develop my new friendship with D. H. Lawrence, I bought Lady Chatterley’s Lover at Kingsford Smith Airport. Thankfully, there was a small contingent of Penguin Classics in the bookshop; there was otherwise nothing I would have wanted to read. I was afraid Lady Chatterley might have dated awkwardly, and that its racy reputation might have rested soley on a bit of ambiguous “making love”. But D.H. didn’t disappoint. On page 35, Tommy Dukes says, “I don’t over-eat myself, and I don’t over-fuck myself.” This book was first published in 1928! Heavily censored, of course. The words ‘fuck’ and ‘cunt’ appear countless times, always for a good reason, never blasphemously. The whole novel is about sex; D.H. might even have written it as a sex education manual. Tommy, asked whether he believes in anything, goes on to say:

“Me? Oh, intellectually I believe in having a good heart, a chirpy penis, a lively intelligence, and the courage to say ‘shit!’ in front of a lady.”

“Well, you’ve got them all,” said Berry.

Tommy Dukes roared with laughter. “You angel boy! If only I had! No; my heart’s as numb as a potato, my penis droops and never lifts its head up, I dare rather to cut him clean off than to say ‘shit!’ in front of my mother or my aunt…they are real ladies, mind you; and I’m not really intelligent, I’m only a ‘mental-lifer’.”

I left Lady Chatterley in Broome for Anna and Ben to read, and, several months later, they have returned it to me; looking back over it now, my amazement at the ‘modernness’ of D.H.’s language is eclipsing the actual content, or intent, of the book – the answer to Errol’s handy question, “But what’s it about?” But D.H.’s intent is everything – in no way was he writing to be clever and modern, or to shock. Lady Chatterley is his response to “the sexual problem”, a conversation topic of his day (and ours, though we might phrase it differently, e.g. - ergh! – the ‘men are from Mars, women from Venus’ issue); D.H. believes, and makes his hero and heroine say in a hundred different ways, that our inherent and beautiful masculinity and femininity has been strangulated by the “insentient iron world and the Mammon of mechanised greed”. His arguments are very convincing, except when he suggests that if men got around in tight scarlet leggings, they’d all feel a lot better about themselves.

Towards the end of the book, here’s an exerpt from a conversation between Lady Chatterley and the sexy, proud gamekeeper with whom she has fallen in love, Mellors. Says Mellors:

“The money is yours, the position is yours, the decisions will lie with you. I’m not just my Lady’s fucker, after all.”

“What else are you?”

“You may well ask. It no doubt is invisible. Yet I’m something to myself at least. I can see the point of my own existence, though I can quite understand nobody else’s seeing it.”

“And will your existence have less point, if you live with me?”

He paused a long time before replying:

“It might.”

She too stayed to think about it.

“And what is the point of your existence?”

“I tell you, it’s invisible. I don’t believe in the world, not in money, nor in advancement, nor in the future of our civilisation. If there’s got to be a future for humanity, there’ll have to be a very big change from what now is.”

“And what will the real future have to be like?”

“God knows! I can feel something inside me, all mixed up with a lot of rage. But what it really amounts to, I don’t know.”

“Shall I tell you?” she said, Looking into his face. “Shall I tell you what you have that other men don’t have, and that will make the future? Shall I tell you?”

“Tell me then,” he replied.

“It’s the courage of your own tenderness, that’s what it is: like when you put your hand on my tail and say I have a pretty tail.”

The grin came flickering on his face.

“That!” he said.

There is a description, about five paragraphs long, of Lady Chatterley having an orgasm; there are detailed accounts of the pair having good sex, and not-so-good sex. The end of the novel (i.e. the final sentence) is unlike anything I’ve ever read – it’s so daring! I mean in terms of novel-writing (I can’t say why, without giving it away). D.H. is no master novel-writer. His novels are vehicles for his ideas; so his use of plot and characterisation is pretty sparing; not clunky and inept, as is George Orwell’s use of plot and characterisation in 1984, another vehicle for an idea. There is very little distinction between D.H.’s main characters, the ones the reader is meant to identify with; not just between Connie and Mellors, but between Connie and Alvina, the heroine from The Lost Girl, and, indeed, between Connie, Mellors, Alvina and the David Herbert Lawrence that comes across in his letters. But I’m happy to read a novel where the main characters feel with D.H.’s sensitivity, bridle with his sense of outrage and injustice, and speak with his imaginative, free choice of words. As a novelist, however, I can see that D.H.’s free-flowing, non-revising writing method has its limitations – as does any method. His method creates a work that is fresh, smooth, flawed (by the unedited whims of the moment) but seamless; but if a novelist lingers over her material, reshapes it, breaks it up and puts it back together repeatedly over a period of years, she has a better chance of escaping herself, and her own limited way of seeing the world, and of drawing closer to that impossibility: of creating characters who are not herself, and who see the world from their own points of view.

If D.H. wrote a blog, I’d get the internet just so that I could read it. If D.H. had written Infinite Jest, I might have read past page 200. If D.H. had written Memoirs of Duc de Saint Simon, I’d be trying to find English translations of those other unabridged twenty-seven volumes. That’s how strong my love is. Last pondering on D.H.: what would he think of ‘now’? We’re more enslaved than ever to the fantasy of money, but there’s much less sexual hypocrisy. What parts of ‘now’ would he approve of? WWOOFing?

September, 2009: I took Morris In Iceland (2008), by Alex Jones, to Rainbow Bay, right on the border of NSW and Queensland. Morris In Iceland has two storylines, one following William Morris as he rambles through Iceland in 1871, and the other following a retired English professor as he potters around Sydney University locale, circa 2008. In Rainbow Bay, where I temporarily let go of my own life to lead my friend’s life for a few days, the familiar world described by Alex Jones was a comfort. It’s a strange book: frivolous, funny, with everyday drama, even ending with a wedding. The two storylines were too far apart to add much to each other; I wondered whether through reluctance of giving away too much of his real life, the author chose not to draw the two storylines any closer together. From the Morris storyline (based partly on Morris’s diaries), here’s an image – the one skin covering two – that kept coming back to me:

Methought also that Iceland had been to me like a mountain pass, or like a river that I must cross; that I must find my proper place in the world of men, and having found it might truly be at one with what I loved, and draw the one skin to cover us both.

The ye-olde tone of Morris’s story-line – much more ye-olde than 1871 – is probably accurate. Morris seems to have had a tendency towards nostalgia, and probably affected some mediaeval motifs, even – or especially – in his own, private (well, sort of) journals.

September 10, 2009: I’m slightly obsessed with Rowe Street, Sydney (what’s left of it) and the Australia Hotel which used to be there; this is Theodor’s hotel of choice in Earthly Things. My breakfast reading at the moment is Literary Sydney – A Walking Guide (2000) by Jill Dimond and Peter Kirkpatrick. They mention Rowe Street, and give the following quote from Sumner Locke Elliot’s Fairyland (1990), in which S.L.E. describes an incident in the Australia Hotel. I loved Eden’s Lost, one of the few books I’ve read twice. It is a book that has merged inextricably with my real experiences of Medlow Bath and the Hydro Majestic; the book’s mixture of charming frivolity and terrifying emptiness has been siphoned directly out of the atmosphere of the Blue Mountains. I love Sumner Locke Elliot more than ever now that I’ve discovered we have the same – well, almost - taste in men:

In the gradually diminishing room, he caught sight of the tall man. Leaning against the wall near him, thin as tin, gaunt, the sun of years burned into the deep-lined flesh of the face, unshaven under the wide-brimmed dirty hat, a jackeroo perhaps, boundary rider from out west probably, cattle or sheep country, the ultimate in manhood, the shearer, maybe, who, drunk, would knock your head off in the country pub over a slight disagreement because his type lives in actions not words, the epitome of raw, brazen, outdoor paddocks in Australia. For a few moments their eyes met and then, shockingly, unbelievably, the boundary rider winked at him, surreptitiously winked, and the wink was as daring as nudity in the street, concupiscent and inviting. The wink good as said, come on over here a minute, cobber, and I’ll give you the sweetest feel of your darling arse.

Also from Literary Sydney is this quote from my new friend, D.H. Lawrence, taken from Kangaroo (1923):

The morning was very rainy as Sydney, big city as it is, a real metropolis in Pitt Street and George Street, seemed again like a settlement in the wilderness, without any core. One of the great cities in the world. But without a core…

Sydney puzzles me, so I am always on the look out for clues.

September 3, 2009: My mother gave me Pixie O’Harris’s autobiography, Was It Yesterday? (1983), for my birthday. When I was a child, I loved visiting Pixie. She was seventy years older than me. She talked about fairies, and let us play with such treasures as rainbow-throwing prisms and sandalwood fans. She gave me a little blue enamelled brooch with a tiny silver pixie sitting in it. Reading her autobiography was very touching – there she was, just as I remember her! Except that I’ve grown older and she younger. She would still like me, despite the fact I’m a woman, because she seems to make an exception for woman novelists. Otherwise, she saves her enthusiasm for children and young men, not including her husband, but including my father:

Geoffrey Lehmann, when sixteen, sat for me for his portrait. He has since been painted and drawn by artists more brilliant – Charles Blackman and Salvatore Zofrea. Geoffrey has a stentorian voice, and on one occasion, when accompanying me shopping, read his poetry aloud, much to the amazement and amusement of other shoppers.

Geoffrey, as a child, had lived within sight and sound of Luna Park and had gone to sleep to the sound of music from the merry-go-round and laughter from the crowds, but he had never been there until he came with me when he was eighteen. What an evening that was! He was determined to enjoy everything and did so with the wonderful spirit of a child.

Pixie was fifty-five when she took my eighteen-year-old father to Luna Park. I couldn’t help thinking, “What a woman!”, but then – having declared war on sexist double-standards – forced myself to turn Pixie into a fifty-five-year-old man, say, Martin Sharp (seeing as we’re at Luna Park), and my father into a starry-eyed, uni-student poetess. Not so admirable now, oh no!

Having just come back to Sydney from W.A., I liked this comment from a letter written by Pixie’s father, in which he compares Sydney and Perth of the early ‘20s:

’You can walk briskly to work here, in Perth one could not do so, here, people move as though they had something to do, even running in swarms to catch trains. In Perth you exist, here you live, that is the difference. There is plenty to see, plenty of change, plenty of people, and there is so much beauty in the city itself.’

I rather like the idea of merely existing.