canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

My love affair with DH Lawrence 

by Alexandra Leggat

The last drop of Avelox enters my pneumonia scarred body. I had spent seven days holed up in isolation in Niagara Falls General Hospital. A broken down institution with a reputation as ill as its patients, even the healthy had died there. I couldnít wait to go home. All I could think about was curling up in the safety of my own bed with a good book, my husband close by.

Throughout my life I have sought solace in books and on many levels the great authors have never let me down. Once home I headed straight to our trusty book collection, all spines faced out but it was D.H. Lawrenceís, England, My England that leapt out at me. I bought this collection of Lawrenceís short stories about ten years ago from a small book store in Falkirk, Scotland, on one of many pilgrimages to my homeland in search of restitution. Iíd always loved Lawrence and read the book on the train from Glasgow to Norwich. I was young, had other things on my mind, unlike the continual lingering effects of Sonís and Lovers and Women in Love, it didnít leave a huge impression at that time. Read me now it begged from the shelf, read me now and Iíll rejuvenate your weary soul. So I grabbed it and retreated to my bed to begin my convalescence.

He was working from the small common, beyond the small brook that ran in the dip at the bottom of the garden, carrying the garden path in continuation from the plank bridge on to the common. He had cut the rough turf and bracken, leaving the grey, dryish soil bare. But he was worried because he could not get the path straight, there was a pleat between his brows. He had set up his sticks, and taken the sights between the big pine trees, but for some reason everything seemed wrong.

For the first time in seven days everything seemed right, that strength and perfection in Lawrenceís prose, the precision. I read on, the pages swelling like a river with that voice. The tale comes to life and brings with it the English country side, the struggle of a family man facing his last days of peace before war and Iím lost in the depth of the countrymanís struggle, of the countryís struggle, of a humanís continuous struggle. Iím transported from my sick bed along side Egbert on the edge of the common, hypnotized by the title story England, My England and for the next twelve hours we did not leave each otherís side D.H. Lawrence and me.

My husband comes into the bedroom to check on me and I confess that Iím falling in love with D.H. Lawrence, his stories, his voice, the detail, the imagery. "You have to read this, honey," I say. He looks at me funny, checks my pulse, my temperature and leaves. Perhaps it was my raw state of mind, my hungry psyche that latched onto to and fell in love with the truth in Lawrenceís work, the sensory perception, the authority of the characters or the complete paradox of what one might expect from the man that wrote the controversial Lady Chatterleyís Lover, had most of his work banned and art work confiscated. I knew he was honest but I didnít realize how uncanny he was in pointing out the foibles and wickedness of human nature. Which he observes with the precision of a raptor scoping from the treetops. This is where his brilliance lies.

In "Tickets, Please," which I believe has become one of my favourite short stories of all time, up there with OíConnorís "The River" and Hemingwayís "Snows of Kilimanjaro," a group of female ticket takers of a single-line tramway turn on their philandering boss.

This, the most dangerous tram-service in England, as the authorities themselves declare, with pride, is entirely conducted by girls, and driven by rash young men, a little crippled, or by delicate young men, who creep forward in terror. The girls are fearless young hussies.

As I read on I discover that the man who charms each and every one of them is in for a rude awakening as they lock him in a room and terrorize him physically and mentally.

He went forward, rather vaguely. She had taken off her belt, and swinging it, she fetched him a hard blow over the head with the buckle end. He sprang and seized her. But immediately the other girls rushed upon him, pulling and tearing and beating him. Their blood was thoroughly up. He was their sport now. They were going to have their own back, out of him. Strange, wild creatures, they hung on him and rushed at him to bear him down.

Jesus, I think, the horror. My sympathies were torn, the poor women, the poor man lying defenseless on the floor and Lawrence wrote this eighty-four years ago, these mad women turning on their boss. I run into the backyard in my pajamas and slippers and tell my husband that this is one of the best short stories Iíve read; the intricacy of detail, emotion, imagery, symbolism, humanism prevalent in every story, every thought, every character. I imagine Iím seeing these stories through his eyes, right through those eyes that felt and lived every moment of his short and tumultuous life. I waved the book in my right hand. Colour returned to my cheeks, energy flooded my apathetic veins.

In Anais Ninís book D.H. Lawrence, an unprofessional study, she writes, Lawrence approaches his characters not in a state of intellectual lucidity but in one of intuitional reasoning. His analysis is not one of the mind alone, but of the senses. He recognized a deep, subterranean connection between what he called the Ďdark godsí in us, entirely apart from the sophistries of intelligence ÖLawrence was patient. He gave his characters time. They are to find their own way and hour of resurrection.

I devour one story after the other, "Monkey Nuts," "Wintry Peacock," "Samson and Delilah," "The Blind Man," and on. Every character pops into view, the way they walk, the slumping of the shoulder, the chewing of tobacco, the large breasted barmaid, the blushing cheeks of an older womanís young lover and the eyes of a blind man. Every line heaving with empathy, heart, soul. Thereís love among the haystacks and mines and pubs and terrace houses lining cobbled streets, miners, and soldiers, barmaids and mothers and the heavy English sky bares down on everyone, amongst it all an exhibition of peacocks being tormented by the wind.

The short story is profoundly underestimated, but Iím beginning to realize that short stories are like bad dogs. Itís not the dogís fault, itís the owner. Itís not the mediumís fault, itís the writer. A good writer can write anything and everything of worth, like Lawrence, poetry, criticism, plays, novels, travel books and the short story. A good short story is as satisfying if not more satisfying than a good novel. A novel is its own thing, in process as much as the reading of it. There are people who enjoy canoeing, the whole portage thing. Then thereís the adventure seeker drawn to the carnival ride. What makes a carnival ride exciting is its rapidity, the instant gratification, the element of surprise, like a moment in life, it happens and then itís gone and one reflects. What made it wonderful was that it happened, and then it was gone and the reflection.

No stranger to Lawrence, my short story writer husband Salvatore Difalco, rereads "Tickets, Please." Laughing out loud, he says, "Wow, I forgot how good he was. This is better than any short story writer writing today, not an ounce of pretense, or self-consciousness. Heís so organic."

Provoked by Lawrence, we discuss what we think makes a good short story writer and the irony that the two hardest things to do well, write poetry and short fiction, everyone does. A short story is like surgery, no room for mistakes. And you canít teach a writer empathy, or life experience, which are essential to fiction. Lawrence believed that life had to be lived. He argued that instincts and intuitions are more important than the reason. "Instinct makes me run from little over-earnest ladies; instinct makes me sniff the lime blossom and reach for the darkest cherry. But it is intuition which makes me feel the uncanny glassiness of the lake this afternoon, the sulkiness of the mountains, the vividness of near green in thunder-sun, the young man in bright blue trousers lightly tossing the grass from the scythe, the elderly man in a boater stiffly shoving his scythe strokes, both of them sweating in the silence of the intense light."

And perhaps itís intuition and instinct that draws us to certain books, to certain writers at a time in our lives when we need the very thoughts, ideas and events they are depicting between the covers. Iím not sure which takes the credit for my speedy recovery, the Avelox, or England, My England, the spirit of Mr. Lawrence himself. I err on the side of the latter, a fortuitous medicine. I place Lawrence on my bedside table and give him a wink of the eye to all that is real.

Alexandra Leggat is a short story writer. She was once interviewed in TDR.







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