Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Women in Love - Final Thoughts!

Sons and Lovers bored me. Well, maybe not bored me exactly, but there is some reason why I cannot remember one – not one – thing about that novel, and the only explanation I can come up with is that it was so boring I slept through the entire book.

The Rainbow bored me. A 400 or 500 page book about egocentric women doing not much of anything except talking and talking and talking does not an exciting read make. And let me be clear – by “talking and talking” I don’t mean dialog. I mean waxing poetic about pseudo-philosophical claptrap for pages at a time.

Being 0/2 with D.H. Lawrence, I was not expecting much from Women in Love. But what I discovered is something entirely different, and probably something that Lawrence did not intend. Humor. Why should I be bored when 90% of the novel is just ridiculous?

Now, in the beginning, it really was tedious, and the entire plot appeared to be strapping, young, self-serving intellectual men and the women who they hung out with (sometimes upper crust, sometimes school teachers like Ursula and Gudrun, and sometimes women like Pussum – yes, there is a character named Pussum) sitting around, talking nonsense about the nature of life in the vein of “give me freedom or give me death” – by freedom here meaning the freedom to do whatever it is you want to do. All the pontificating (paragraph after paragraph after paragraph) is variations on that theme: the freedom to love, or not to love, to die for love, to die for lack of love, to run naked through a forest, for men to wrestle naked with other men. You know, all the important stuff.

Ursula is in love with Birkin. Birkin, at first, isn’t in love with her, but then decides he is and asks her to marry him. Then she isn’t sure she loves him, but decides she does and they get married. In there is Hermione, who unfortunately is only present in about half the novel. It seems that Birkin and Hermione had some form of relationship since childhood – you know the type, in which everyone assumes they will be together one day, but just never are officially. Hermione is unpleasant, and Lawrence knows it, and because of that she feels like one of the truly authentic characters. The only scene between Ursula and Birkin that felt real was when they fight about Hermione. Then they make up, and are ridiculous again.

Gudrun, Ursula’s sister, is in love with Gerald. Or something – maybe not love, but she is very attracted to him. Gerald is the son of the mine owner, and seems a class or two above the Brangwan sisters. Gerald is more in love with himself and his maleness than he is with anyone else. But since Ursula and Birkin are together, it made sense for Gerald and Gudrun to be together too. That doesn’t end well, especially for Gerald.

But the elephant in the room is the relationship between Gerald and Birkin. Birkin is very in love with him. Gerald appears to have some feelings for Birkin in return, though Gerald is really only concerned with himself. Birkin wants to be “blood brothers” with Gerald, and talks and talks and talks about a “different kind of love” that can exist between two men, and isn’t possible to have with a woman (an “eternal conjunction”). It appears, though, that Ursula and Birkin’s marriage is the wedge that drives them apart – they know it will never be the same when there are women involved with claims over them, and they part. Birkin’s reaction to Gerald’s death and final dialog with Ursual in the novel is perhaps the only other scene in which I felt there was genuine emotion involved.
”He should have loved me,” he said. “I offered him.”

“Aren’t I enough for you?” she asked.

“No,” he said. “You are enough for me as far as a woman is concerned…Having you, I can live all my life without anybody else, any other sheer intimacy. But to make it complete, really happy, I wanted eternal union with a man too, another kind of love,” he said.

“I don’t believe it,” she said. “It’s an obstinacy, a theory, a perversity…you can’t have two kinds of love. Why should you!”

It seems as if I can’t,” he said. “Yet I wanted it.”

“You can’t have it, because it’s false, impossible,” she said.

“I don’t believe that,” he answered.
I imagine, if people like Ted Haggard were a bit more honest with themselves (but probably not entirely honest), this is the kind of discussion they would be having with their wives.

With Women in Love, Lawrence has built an entire novel around the celebration of maleness and male physicality, with Gerald as the ideal (Gerald being based on Katherine Mansfield's husband). It contains what might be the most graphic descriptions of the male body – as in “glistening, muscular thighs” – outside of romance novels with Fabio on the cover. It’s RIDICULOUS. Gerald’s blood is constantly being “penetrated.” Women’s passion for their men are always insatiable. Quotes like this illustrate my point:
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.
Seriously – that text is from a novel that is considered one of the masterpieces of 20th century literature. Seriously.



But in the end, I understand the appeal this novel could have for people. I feel as if had read this when I was 12, or 14 years old, and the ideas about freedom that are espoused here was still pertinent to me, I would have enjoyed it more, gotten more out of it. But I’m a cynical-almost-30-year-old, and to me these themes feel run-of-the-mill. His ideas about love and relationships and personal freedoms that his characters pontificate on ad nauseum have been echoed by every writer, filmmaker, and musician throughout the 20th century.

While I don’t believe Lawrence should be considered the best wordsmith, or the best storyteller, or plot maker, he pushed the envelope of acceptability within Edwardian society. It may seem ho-hum today, when it’s no longer (in most instances) shocking to the general public to read about young folks hooking up before they’re married, or two men being in love, but I can see some old woman sitting in her parlor, in a bustle or shirtwaist or whatever it was women wore back then, and “tsk tsking” about Lawrence’s immorality. The 1960s eliminated a lot of what made Lawrence unacceptable.

But something struck me the other day as I was nearing the end of this novel, and thinking about Birkin and Gerald – mostly Birkin, though, since I have no sympathy for Gerald. Had I been a gay youth in Lawrence’s time, I would have felt comforted by Women in Love, knowing that there are others out there “like me.” It’s unfortunate that there are instances in which gay youth still feel ostracized and marginalized in the same way, and for them it’s good that people like Lawrence, and Jeanette Winterson, and Radclyffe Hall, and others are accessible. It’s also unfortunate that today, people still feel the need to deny who they truly are in order to be accepted in their families, their community, their occupation, and in society in general. I thought about Ted Haggard a lot while reading Women in Love.

Women in Love was certainly better than I expected it to be. I get why it should be included on any list of important 20th century novels, not because it’s a better novel than others, but because it matters. I feel like Lawrence and I have made peace, and there is a lot more of him to be read over the next few decades. Moving out of the Modern Library list, I feel 1 for 3 isn’t a bad place from which to move forward.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Clea

Clea – the fourth (and final) installment in Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet – returns us to the narrative style of Balthazar, and picks up where it left off.

At the conclusion of Balthazar, Darley receives a letter from Clea, though since I read that novel almost a year ago I don’t have any recollection what that letter was about. But anyway, it was enough to prompt Darley, who had been living on an island with Nessim & Melissa’s daughter, to return to Alexandria.

Everything is different in Alexandria. The war is on, and places that used to be apartments are now brothels servicing the various military men that are all over the city. Justine is in exile, under house arrest for her role in the Hosnani Brothers arms smuggling deal. Mountolive has picked up with Pursewarden’s blind sister, Liza. Pombal, Darley’s former roommate, has a pregnant girlfriend whose husband is on the front, and then was taken prisoner (Pombal is not the father – her husband is). Balthazar was beaten up by his younger boyfriend and became a recluse, though he reenters society early in the story. Da Capo really is alive, as I had suspected. Scobie is now an unofficial saint.

Shortly after his return, Darley and Clea begin an affair, though to me, it only seems like a reshuffling. After all, she is the only female left from the core group presented in Justine, and I cannot help but feel that there is a lack of genuine feeling here – or really throughout the entire Quartet. The only real passion anyone appears to have has been for Justine. And perhaps Mountolive for Leila – or Leila for Mountolive.

I’m finding it difficult to summarize Clea, since this novel felt less like its own narrative – by which I mean it did not really contribute much new information to the story – and more like a wrapping up. Here’s all the characters moving on – perhaps symbolized best in the burning of Purswarden’s letters to Liza. The only organizing theme appears to be boat accidents. Pombal’s girlfriend is shot and killed during a disagreement between a naval crew (blockade?) and Pombal. Clea is harpooned while diving when the harpoon gun on board goes off and spears her to a wreck underwater.

I was sitting at my hairdresser’s waiting for my dye job to bake (or whatever it is that hair dye actually does - dry? absorb?) when I read the “Clea gets harpooned” scene. It was then that I suddenly realized how emotionally invested I am with these characters, in the same manner (though to a lesser degree) that I felt connect to Nick Jenkins & Co. from A Dance to the Music of Time. I felt like someone punched me in the chest. There were probably five or six hairdresser’s each working on their clients, and someone had brought in a dog, so there was a lot of commotion, and I almost felt compelled to ask for the proper respect to be paid to Clea – it felt as if I had just received word that someone I actually knew had been harpooned, and might die (she doesn’t). I hadn’t felt that Darley and Clea were going to live happily ever after (“And now this!”), nor did I particularly have any feeling regarding how I wanted any of the characters to end up, but I just felt so terrible. I was awash with relief and hope when they were able to save her. Though I have thoroughly enjoyed these novels, the thought never even crossed my mind that I might actually care about these people to some degree until then.

In the end, Darley leaves (again!) – and everyone knows he won’t be coming back. Amaril (who turns out to be her former lover) has constructed a new hand for her following the accident, and she is able to continue painting. Liza and Mountolive have married. And Justine reemerges. She has made amends with Memlik Pasha by discovering he just wanted an entrance into society. She and Nessim have reconciled (if they could ever have been considered estranged in the first place, given the revelations of Mountolive) and are conspiring to embark on an even bigger scheme in Switzerland. After months back on his island, Darley receives yet another letter from Clea, and we are given to believe that the two of them will meet up again in Paris.

I began the Alexandria Quartet back in December of 2008 or January of 2009 – I don’t
remember which, but I know it feels like a lifetime ago. I am sometimes criticized for being a list person, both online and offline – why do I spend time reading books I don’t expect to like? And even though I complain sometimes, and rage over certain books, selections like Quartet are exactly why I bother in the first place. This series was absolutely wonderful – a meditation on love, on relationships, on fidelity, on perspective – and I likely would never have heard of Durrell in the first place had it not been for the Modern Library list. Justine is clearly the gem of the bunch, and could be read as a stand-alone novel (though the others could not), I found them all worthwhile ways to spend my – now limited – reading time. I know that I will return to Durrell in the future – this may be a series (Justine in particular) that I come back to again and again in my life, and I will likely seek out more of Durrell’s work.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Women in Love - No longer initial thoughts

I thought I might save this gem for my final review, but I can't!

If you are a female, and had the following conversation with your (male) fiance:

“Must one just go as if one were alone in the world—the only creature in the world?'

'You've got me,' she said. 'Why should you NEED others? Why must you force people to agree with you? Why can't you be single by yourself, as you are always saying? You try to bully Gerald—as you tried to bully Hermione. You must learn to be alone. And it's so horrid of you. You've got me. And yet you want to force other people to love you as well. You do try to bully them to love you. And even then, you don't want their love.'

His face was full of real perplexity.

'Don't I?' he said. 'It's the problem I can't solve. I KNOW I want a perfect and complete relationship with you: and we've nearly got it—we really have. But beyond that. DO I want a real, ultimate relationship with Gerald? Do I want a final, almost extra-human relationship with him—a relationship in the ultimate of me and him—or don't I?'

Wouldn't your follow-up to that be something to the tune of, "Did you ever maybe consider that you're gay, and in love with Gerald?"

But of course not! Instead:

She looked at him for a long time, with strange bright eyes, but she did not answer.

What I cannot figure out in this novel is how much of this overtone was intended by Lawrence, and how much is only because I am viewing this through 21st century lenses? Did Lawrence intend that Gerald and Rupert have a "bromance" or did he want me to think that they are clearly bisexual or gay? Also, how much of this am I supposed to believe Ursula and Gundrun suspect or guess at? Am I to assume that Ursula is wondering about the nature of fiance's relationship with his best friend, or am I to assume that Ursula is wondering about the nature of her relationship with Rupert, and how much he is invested in it, if he keeps wondering about other people (male or not)? I'm finding it difficult to understand what Lawrence expects me to read between the lines.