Sunday, March 29, 2009


For those of you who envision a future (or current) career as provocateur and/or curmudgeon, you might be dismayed to read Elizabeth Tallent’s review of John Worthen’s new D.H. Lawrence biography.

As opposed to G.B. Shaw, who took great pains to make his vitriol clear and easily portable across state lines, Lawrence liked his camouflage: “I hate ‘understanding’ people, and I hate still more to be understood.” Kind of the wrong profession to be in, wouldn’t you say? Working in a mode whose raison d’etre is the transmission of information, much of it psychological?

Tallent makes some good points about the excesses Lawrence grants his characters, noting that while one of his characters in Lady Chatterly’s Lover admits that “When I'm with a woman who's really Lesbian, I fairly howl in my soul, wanting to kill her,” “nobody has accused Lawrence of wanting to strangle lesbians.” Similarly, Lawrence’s attributed sexism may be complicated or undercut by his “long, sympathetic poem about menopause.”

Lawrence seems rather confident of humanity to accommodate his bile, writing to estranged friend Katherine Mansfield that her very disease (tuberculosis) offended him: “I loathe you, you revolt me stewing in your consumption.” From Tallent’s review, it seems that Worthen had his work cut out for him, as the bio works very hard to make sure Lawrence’s beating of his dog and his assault of his wife Frieda is “contextualized."

I used to devour biographies of writers endlessly: Frank O’Hara, William S. Burroughs, Byron, but it’s fallen off of late, precipitated by a bio of E.E. Cummings, wherein our hero blithely recounts a near-rape of his ex-wife that manages to be both contemptuous (of her body, which seems not to attract him at all) and breathlessly proud in a particularly mindless way of his physical accomplishment in subduing her. At this point, if I ever had a chance at enjoying another of his poems, I had to put down the book. I also recently completed Richard Ellman’s biography of Wilde, which was similarly depressing (the central point of which seemed to be Ellman’s thesis that Wilde suffered from syphilis), and I don’t plan to read the bio of Robinson Jeffers that was next on my list, for fear of discovering that he snuck off into the woods to rip out and consume the hearts of eagles while chanting Pictish.

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