He put his hand to his mouth and threw his cigarette away, a gleaming point, into the unseen hedge. Then he was quite free to balance her.
‘That’s better,’ he said, with exultancy.
The exultation in his voice was like a sweetish, poisonous drug to her. Did she then mean so much to him! She sipped the poison.
‘Are you happier?’ she asked, wistfully.
‘Much better,’ he said, in the same exultant voice, ‘and I was rather far gone.’
Women in Love by D. H. Lawrence (1920) is my next pick from Harold Bloom’s Western Canon list which, frequent readers of this infrequently updated blog will remember, I am reading in reverse alphabetical order by title.
I don’t know if I’ve ever had so many strong (negative and positive) feelings for a single novel in my life. My one other experience with Lawrence was reading Lady Chatterley's Lover in college and really not caring for it at all. Either Women in Love is a better novel or 40 year old Kristy has a perspective that 20 year old Kristy didn’t have, because while I struggled pretty heartily with parts of this long saga, in the end I honestly really loved it. My friend Daniel’s advice to imagine all the characters as Edward Gorey drawings, really helped.
The plot is intense and complicated on one hand and as simple as a soap opera on the other. Wikipedia describes it like this: “Gudrun Brangwen, an artist, pursues a destructive relationship with Gerald Crich, an industrialist. Lawrence contrasts this pair with the love that develops between Ursula Brangwen and Rupert Birkin, an alienated intellectual who articulates many opinions associated with the author. The emotional relationships thus established are given further depth and tension by an intense psychological and physical attraction between Gerald and Rupert. The novel ranges over the whole of British society before the time of the First World War and eventually concludes in the snows of the Tyrolean Alps.”
While the action of the book takes place before World War I, you can almost feel the post-War fatigue and abandon dripping off of the pages here. Lawrence’s work had been banned before, and this book follows the same pattern. The characters are restless, seeking something that can’t be pinned down, playing with each other, their sexuality, and their social class. Bixsexuality, anal sex, pre-marital sex, and the crazy idea of never wanting to get married at all are all mixed in to this story that mostly takes place in a pretty conservative small coal mining town in the midlands of England.
Several years ago I watched the 1969 Ken Russell version of Women in Love (trailer here), which stars Oliver Reed (the most Ken Russell-y of all actors) and generally lives up to what you might imagine from such a combination of book and director. To be honest, I didn’t remember much about the movie except that Glenda Jackson was awesome in it and a rather odd nude wrestling scene between the two male leads that took place on a bear-skin rug in front of a fireplace. I imagined that the wrestling scene and some of the other excesses of the movie were part of the Ken Russell touch, but was intrigued to find them all intact in the source material. Lawrence and Russell were really made for each other.
I think what charmed me more than anything else in this novel is Lawrence’s amazing use of language. He repeats words, lengthens and shortens sentences, occasionally sneaks in a first person sentence amongst chapters of third person perspective, and generally exhibits the freedom in his descriptions that his characters are exploring in their relationships. I realize this is probably going to be dull for anyone but me, but I’m going to conclude with a few of my favorite snippets. The last one is really long, but so so worth it. If you are intrigued, you can help yourself to the full ebook here.
Let's start with Gerald entering a café in Paris:
They met again in the cafe several hours later. Gerald went through the push doors into the large, lofty room where the faces and heads of the drinkers showed dimly through the haze of smoke, reflected more dimly, and repeated ad infinitum in the great mirrors on the walls, so that one seemed to enter a vague, dim world of shadowy drinkers humming within an atmosphere of blue tobacco smoke. There was, however, the red plush of the seats to give substance within the bubble of pleasure.
Gerald moved in his slow, observant, glistening-attentive motion down between the tables and the people whose shadowy faces looked up as he passed. He seemed to be entering in some strange element, passing into an illuminated new region, among a host of licentious souls. He was pleased, and entertained. He looked over all the dim, evanescent, strangely illuminated faces that bent across the tables. Then he saw Birkin rise and signal to him.
An example of why you may need to keep a dictionary nearby:
‘I think you are very silly. I think you want to tell me you love me, and you go all this way round to do it.’
‘All right,’ he said, looking up with sudden exasperation. ‘Now go away then, and leave me alone. I don’t want any more of your meretricious persiflage.’
‘Is it really persiflage?’ she mocked, her face really relaxing into laughter. She interpreted it, that he had made a deep confession of love to her. But he was so absurd in his words, also.
I love the descriptions of the two men here:
Gerald fastened the door and pushed the furniture aside. The room was large, there was plenty of space, it was thickly carpeted. Then he quickly threw off his clothes, and waited for Birkin. The latter, white and thin, came over to him. Birkin was more a presence than a visible object, Gerald was aware of him completely, but not really visually. Whereas Gerald himself was concrete and noticeable, a piece of pure final substance.
So over the top, and so perfect:
She looked up, and in the darkness saw his face above her, his shapely, male face. There seemed a faint, white light emitted from him, a white aura, as if he were visitor from the unseen. She reached up, like Eve reaching to the apples on the tree of knowledge, and she kissed him, though her passion was a transcendent fear of the thing he was, touching his face with her infinitely delicate, encroaching wondering fingers. Her fingers went over the mould of his face, over his features. How perfect and foreign he was — ah how dangerous! Her soul thrilled with complete knowledge. This was the glistening, forbidden apple, this face of a man. She kissed him, putting her fingers over his face, his eyes, his nostrils, over his brows and his ears, to his neck, to know him, to gather him in by touch. He was so firm, and shapely, with such satisfying, inconceivable shapeliness, strange, yet unutterably clear. He was such an unutterable enemy, yet glistening with uncanny white fire. She wanted to touch him and touch him and touch him, till she had him all in her hands, till she had strained him into her knowledge. Ah, if she could have the precious KNOWLEDGE of him, she would be filled, and nothing could deprive her of this. For he was so unsure, so risky in the common world of day.
‘You are so BEAUTIFUL,’ she murmured in her throat.
He wondered, and was suspended. But she felt him quiver, and she came down involuntarily nearer upon him. He could not help himself. Her fingers had him under their power. The fathomless, fathomless desire they could evoke in him was deeper than death, where he had no choice.
But she knew now, and it was enough. For the time, her soul was destroyed with the exquisite shock of his invisible fluid lightning. She knew. And this knowledge was a death from which she must recover. How much more of him was there to know? Ah much, much, many days harvesting for her large, yet perfectly subtle and intelligent hands upon the field of his living, radio-active body. Ah, her hands were eager, greedy for knowledge. But for the present it was enough, enough, as much as her soul could bear. Too much, and she would shatter herself, she would fill the fine vial of her soul too quickly, and it would break. Enough now — enough for the time being. There were all the after days when her hands, like birds, could feed upon the fields of him mystical plastic form — till then enough.
Gerald’s mother’s reaction to her husband’s death:
‘Ay,’ she said bitterly, at length, speaking as if to the unseen witnesses of the air. ‘You’re dead.’ She stood for some minutes in silence, looking down. ‘Beautiful,’ she asserted, ‘beautiful as if life had never touched you — never touched you. God send I look different. I hope I shall look my years, when I am dead. Beautiful, beautiful,’ she crooned over him. ‘You can see him in his teens, with his first beard on his face. A beautiful soul, beautiful —’ Then there was a tearing in her voice as she cried: ‘None of you look like this, when you are dead! Don’t let it happen again.’ It was a strange, wild command from out of the unknown. Her children moved unconsciously together, in a nearer group, at the dreadful command in her voice. The colour was flushed bright in her cheek, she looked awful and wonderful. ‘Blame me, blame me if you like, that he lies there like a lad in his teens, with his first beard on his face. Blame me if you like. But you none of you know.’ She was silent in intense silence. Then there came, in a low, tense voice: ‘If I thought that the children I bore would lie looking like that in death, I’d strangle them when they were infants, yes —’
‘No, mother,’ came the strange, clarion voice of Gerald from the background, ‘we are different, we don’t blame you.’
She turned and looked full in his eyes. Then she lifted her hands in a strange half-gesture of mad despair.
‘Pray!’ she said strongly. ‘Pray for yourselves to God, for there’s no help for you from your parents.’
‘Oh mother!’ cried her daughters wildly.
But she had turned and gone, and they all went quickly away from each other.
And, finally, this one is so long that I had to save it for last, but such an amazingly vital and weird scene that I couldn’t share just part of it. If you think you’ll read the whole book, just skip this one (although it doesn’t give too much away). If you love wild action, words that just zing off the page, and the sexualization of plant life, then read on:
He went into her boudoir, a remote and very cushiony place. She was sitting at her table writing letters. She lifted her face abstractedly when he entered, watched him go to the sofa, and sit down. Then she looked down at her paper again.
He took up a large volume which he had been reading before, and became minutely attentive to his author. His back was towards Hermione. She could not go on with her writing. Her whole mind was a chaos, darkness breaking in upon it, and herself struggling to gain control with her will, as a swimmer struggles with the swirling water. But in spite of her efforts she was borne down, darkness seemed to break over her, she felt as if her heart was bursting. The terrible tension grew stronger and stronger, it was most fearful agony, like being walled up.
And then she realised that his presence was the wall, his presence was destroying her. Unless she could break out, she must die most fearfully, walled up in horror. And he was the wall. She must break down the wall — she must break him down before her, the awful obstruction of him who obstructed her life to the last. It must be done, or she must perish most horribly.
Terribly shocks ran over her body, like shocks of electricity, as if many volts of electricity suddenly struck her down. She was aware of him sitting silently there, an unthinkable evil obstruction. Only this blotted out her mind, pressed out her very breathing, his silent, stooping back, the back of his head.
A terrible voluptuous thrill ran down her arms — she was going to know her voluptuous consummation. Her arms quivered and were strong, immeasurably and irresistibly strong. What delight, what delight in strength, what delirium of pleasure! She was going to have her consummation of voluptuous ecstasy at last. It was coming! In utmost terror and agony, she knew it was upon her now, in extremity of bliss. Her hand closed on a blue, beautiful ball of lapis lazuli that stood on her desk for a paper-weight. She rolled it round in her hand as she rose silently. Her heart was a pure flame in her breast, she was purely unconscious in ecstasy. She moved towards him and stood behind him for a moment in ecstasy. He, closed within the spell, remained motionless and unconscious.
Then swiftly, in a flame that drenched down her body like fluid lightning and gave her a perfect, unutterable consummation, unutterable satisfaction, she brought down the ball of jewel stone with all her force, crash on his head. But her fingers were in the way and deadened the blow. Nevertheless, down went his head on the table on which his book lay, the stone slid aside and over his ear, it was one convulsion of pure bliss for her, lit up by the crushed pain of her fingers. But it was not somehow complete. She lifted her arm high to aim once more, straight down on the head that lay dazed on the table. She must smash it, it must be smashed before her ecstasy was consummated, fulfilled for ever. A thousand lives, a thousand deaths mattered nothing now, only the fulfilment of this perfect ecstasy.
She was not swift, she could only move slowly. A strong spirit in him woke him and made him lift his face and twist to look at her. Her arm was raised, the hand clasping the ball of lapis lazuli. It was her left hand, he realised again with horror that she was left-handed. Hurriedly, with a burrowing motion, he covered his head under the thick volume of Thucydides, and the blow came down, almost breaking his neck, and shattering his heart.
He was shattered, but he was not afraid. Twisting round to face her he pushed the table over and got away from her. He was like a flask that is smashed to atoms, he seemed to himself that he was all fragments, smashed to bits. Yet his movements were perfectly coherent and clear, his soul was entire and unsurprised.
‘No you don’t, Hermione,’ he said in a low voice. ‘I don’t let you.’
He saw her standing tall and livid and attentive, the stone clenched tense in her hand.
‘Stand away and let me go,’ he said, drawing near to her.
As if pressed back by some hand, she stood away, watching him all the time without changing, like a neutralised angel confronting him.
‘It is not good,’ he said, when he had gone past her. ‘It isn’t I who will die. You hear?’
He kept his face to her as he went out, lest she should strike again. While he was on his guard, she dared not move. And he was on his guard, she was powerless. So he had gone, and left her standing.
She remained perfectly rigid, standing as she was for a long time. Then she staggered to the couch and lay down, and went heavily to sleep. When she awoke, she remembered what she had done, but it seemed to her, she had only hit him, as any woman might do, because he tortured her. She was perfectly right. She knew that, spiritually, she was right. In her own infallible purity, she had done what must be done. She was right, she was pure. A drugged, almost sinister religious expression became permanent on her face.
Birkin, barely conscious, and yet perfectly direct in his motion, went out of the house and straight across the park, to the open country, to the hills. The brilliant day had become overcast, spots of rain were falling. He wandered on to a wild valley-side, where were thickets of hazel, many flowers, tufts of heather, and little clumps of young firtrees, budding with soft paws. It was rather wet everywhere, there was a stream running down at the bottom of the valley, which was gloomy, or seemed gloomy. He was aware that he could not regain his consciousness, that he was moving in a sort of darkness.
Yet he wanted something. He was happy in the wet hillside, that was overgrown and obscure with bushes and flowers. He wanted to touch them all, to saturate himself with the touch of them all. He took off his clothes, and sat down naked among the primroses, moving his feet softly among the primroses, his legs, his knees, his arms right up to the arm-pits, lying down and letting them touch his belly, his breasts. It was such a fine, cool, subtle touch all over him, he seemed to saturate himself with their contact.
But they were too soft. He went through the long grass to a clump of young fir-trees, that were no higher than a man. The soft sharp boughs beat upon him, as he moved in keen pangs against them, threw little cold showers of drops on his belly, and beat his loins with their clusters of soft-sharp needles. There was a thistle which pricked him vividly, but not too much, because all his movements were too discriminate and soft. To lie down and roll in the sticky, cool young hyacinths, to lie on one’s belly and cover one’s back with handfuls of fine wet grass, soft as a breath, soft and more delicate and more beautiful than the touch of any woman; and then to sting one’s thigh against the living dark bristles of the fir-boughs; and then to feel the light whip of the hazel on one’s shoulders, stinging, and then to clasp the silvery birch-trunk against one’s breast, its smoothness, its hardness, its vital knots and ridges — this was good, this was all very good, very satisfying. Nothing else would do, nothing else would satisfy, except this coolness and subtlety of vegetation travelling into one’s blood. How fortunate he was, that there was this lovely, subtle, responsive vegetation, waiting for him, as he waited for it; how fulfilled he was, how happy!
As he dried himself a little with his handkerchief, he thought about Hermione and the blow. He could feel a pain on the side of his head. But after all, what did it matter? What did Hermione matter, what did people matter altogether? There was this perfect cool loneliness, so lovely and fresh and unexplored. Really, what a mistake he had made, thinking he wanted people, thinking he wanted a woman. He did not want a woman — not in the least. The leaves and the primroses and the trees, they were really lovely and cool and desirable, they really came into the blood and were added on to him. He was enrichened now immeasurably, and so glad.