Like so much of that which Lawrence furiously ejaculated onto a page in the name of Art during his career, Women in Love is, to use the contemporary parlance, a complete and utter twat-fest. Lawrence doesn’t really do likeable characters, and that’s fine (some of my least favourite characters in literature are generically ‘likeable’: Amelia Sedley from Vanity Fair, Esther Summerson or John Jarndyce from Bleak House, Little Dorrit – in fact pretty much every Dickens good guy). But the extent to which Lawrence’s characters manage to provoke crippling misanthropy without ever really doing or saying anything that bad, is truly remarkable.
An ongoing discussion with a friend over which character deserves the title of all-time ‘biggest literary twat’ has thrown up some interesting contenders: Gilbert Osmand in The Portrait of a Lady; Stephen Daedalus; God in Paradise Lost; Martin Amis in Money; Paul Auster in The New York Trilogy. But within this debate, Lawrence is so far ahead of the game as to deserve his own sub-category.
Among the rich field of competitors for the Holy Grail of Biggest Lawrentian Twat, there are a few stand-out performers: Paul Morel, the pretentious, arrogant arsehole who miraculously turns up half-way through Sons and Lovers to render an already deeply tedious novel genuinely unreadable; Mrs Morel, the pretentious, arrogant arsehole who idles around polluting the world with her pointless negativity, patronising her poor bastard of a husband who spends 12 hours every day down a coal-mine, and fawning over her pretentious, arrogant sons; Lady Chatterley, the pretentious, arrogant arsehole who seems to think a bit of social missceganation is a whole lot more remarkable and transcendent than anyone else does; the interchangeable assortment of Brangwen morons.
But even within this constellation of prize tossers, Women in Love raises the debate to a new plateau. Following the lives, shags, homo-erotic naked Greco-Roman wrestling matches and moronic conflicts of two pretentious, arrogant, libidinous, insecure and disaffected Males (Gerald Crich and Rupert Birkin) and two pretentious, arrogant, stupid and ridiculously high-maintenance Females (Ursula and Gudrun Brangwen), the novel weaves its rich tapestry of cuntishness.
Rupert Birkin is an extravagantly obnoxious portrait of the artist whose semi-intelligible rants vie with his pseud’s-corner interior monologues (or Stream of Cuntishness) to tap into the reader’s most exquisite reserve of vitriol. Our first foray into Birkin’s Stream of Cuntishness sets a standard that is escalated to provoke ever more exhilarating spasms of rage as the novel progresses:
“Birkin looked down into her eyes, which were blue, and watching heavily. He could not understand them. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ he said to himself, almost flippantly.
Then he remembered, with a slight shock, that that was Cain’s cry. And Gerald was Cain, if anybody. Not that he was Cain, either, although he had slain his brother. There was such a thing as pure accident, and the consequences did not attach to one, even though one had killed one’s brother in such wise. Gerald as a boy had accidentally killed his brother. What then? Why seek to draw a brand and a curse across the life that had caused the accident? A man can live by accident, and die by accident. Or can he not? Is every man’s life subject to pure accident, is it only the race, the genus, the species, that has a universal reference? Or is it not true, is there no such thing as pure accident? Has everything that happens a universal significance? Has it?”
Plot-wise, highlights include: Hermione whacking Birkin over the head with a paper-weight and him wandering around the hills naked; Ursula and Gudrun staging their own waifish, frolicsome equivalent of a Kate Bush video surrounded by puissant young bullocks (a scene subtly interwoven with sexual symbolism); Gerald and Birkin letting off some steam by having a naked wrestling match before collapsing, exhausted, in each other’s sweat-slick embrace (the most homo-erotic scene in literature since Coriolanus put the ‘anus’ back into Shakespearean tragedy); and the climactic farce where Gerald’s murderous, cock-blocked rage turns the novel into an episode of Eastenders.
Now, this tirade is not necessarily to suggest that one should not read Lawrence. I mean, what could be more joyously entertaining than peeling apart the clotted pages to uncover such calorific, pullulating, jismatic splurges as this?:
“Their life and inter-relations were such; feeling the pulse and body of the soil, that opened their furrow for the grain, and became smooth and supple after their ploughing, and clung to their feet with a weight that pulled like desire, lying hard and unresponsive when the crops were to be shorn away. The young corn waved and was silken, and the lustre slid along the limbs of the men who saw it. They took the udders of the cows, the cows yielded milk and pulse against the hands of the men, the pulse of the blood of the teats of the cows beat into the pulse of the hands of the men. They mounted their horses, and held life between the grip of their knees, they harnessed their horses at the wagon, and, with hand on the bridle-rings, drew the heaving of the horses after their will.” (The Rainbow)
Did you notice how when he talks about the pulsing of the cows he uses monosyllables so that it sounds a bit like pulsing? Genius.
After all, Martin Amis was so overcome by admiration for this passage that he couldn’t resist the temptation to pay tribute to it in London Fields:
“The days passed. Though making himself no stranger to pub or club Keith drank nothing and worked hard because of the life that was in him. He sensed the pulse and body of the street-trade and heard the cars lowing in the furrows. Like new corn the young Swedes and Danes formed lines at his stall, and were reaped. He walked dog and burped baby and drew the keening of wife after his will.”
No, certainly read Lawrence – for comedy value he is unsurpassed. But for the love of God, don’t take him as seriously as he took himself.