The Original Rainbow

The Rainbow came into the world more or less without literary antecedents. Nothing like it had been written before: Lawrence’s novel defined new territories that enabled the representation of human experience to move forward into the modern age…

begins an article in The Guardian by Rachel Cusk, to coincide with some BBC adaptation.

Which obviously made Obooki’s eyes light up with glee.

Lawrence’s radicalism seems here to include:

  • his disarming “frankness” (Obooki was reminded of the scene in the Zola novel he’s reading (1885), in which a girl, innocent of such matters, experiences with horror her first period; – no, I don’t think early Lawrence is so very frank)
  • “the total significance of self” / self as representation of mankind (though I remain unclear as to the contrast being drawn between this and “Victorian” fiction – self, though, is surely a strong theme throughout all literature – particularly that ever so personal thing, love poetry – though, just for today, I’m prepared to grant you that it began with the Reformation)
  • the “generational movement out of a timeless agrarian communality towards the individualism and alienation of life in an industrialised society. This was the movement of history itself; the journey of man out of the fields and into the cities” (which no one had actually noticed in the Victorian Age, particularly not say Dickens or Karl Marx)
  • unravel[ling] “the woman question” – “it is the problem of the day,” he wrote, “the establishment of a new relation, or the readjustment of the old one, between men and women” …  the achievement of The Rainbow in creating the conditions for such questions to be asked is momentous” (though this had, of course, been a staple of late Victorian fiction from, say, the 1880s on)
  • his “prose” (though the piece quoted reminded me enormously of the beginning of Strindberg’s ridiculously over-symbolised novel Getting Married; – I’ve never noticed anything particularly spectacular or interesting about Lawrence’s prose – apart from its Godawfulness as he gets later on in his career)

When speaking of Lawrence’s originality, I think maybe it’s best always to qualify this with the phrase “in England”. Other countries in the world seem to have had far less hang-ups in the first half of the c20th; and their writers to have done far more radical things. Everything you’ll find in Lawrence, you’ll find 50 years before in Zola – apart, that is, from the mystical mumbo-jumbo – but better written, more entertaining, and not all described with a dour humourlessness. (There’s not a joke in the whole of Lawrence’s work; – nothing, I recall, that’s likely even to raise a smile).

etc. etc.


10 thoughts on “The Original Rainbow

  1. Some of the sex scenes In Lady Chatterly are pretty funny but sadly the humour doesn’t appear to be intentional.

  2. As a teenage reader of Henry Miller (whom I admired extravagantly: I had truly never read anything like his work before) I came to DHL in keen anticipation. Miller had gone on about him at length and damn near idolised him. What a disappointment. Only the travel writing struck me as being worth a damn. Jesus…all that blood and ‘nature’ and mystical codswallop: it was like Ella Wheeler Wilcox at her most glutinous meets Strindberg at his flat-out craziest. Lawrence–pah.

  3. The Colossus of Maroussi – which I suddenly realise is the only Henry Miller I’ve ever read – I seem to remember containing a lot of that same nature mumbo-jumbo you find in Lawrence, which is why I gave it up halfway through.

    I’ve owned a lot of Miller books, but for some reason – something I can’t really fathom now, because I like sex in a novel – I’ve never read any of them. I’ve read more Anais Nin.

  4. I based my decision to skip this article on 2 criteria: it was about DH Lawrence, whose writing I loathe; and it was by Rachel Cusk, who (possibly erroneously) symbolises for me the worst aspects of self-importance and self-obsession in literary culture.

  5. I thought you meant skip my article for a moment there (and perhaps you did).

    It’s funny you say that about Rachel Cusk: – I only know her for writing short stories within compiliations designed to promote young British writing talent; and in my judgement she’s usually quite close to bottom in a list whose top isn’t exactly rarified.

  6. Ach no, I meant the Gruan article which I saw trailed on the Books front page.

    I just don’t understand why Cusk seems to be viewed as some kind of “big gun” for the boyos in the Books section to wheel out. Why is she writing this piece about Lawrence, eg? Is she an expert on his life and works (clearly not, as you’ve shown) or is her own reputation so unimpeachable that her views demand attention?

    I gather her own works are “acerbic” and consist in large part of detailing the failure of others to live up to her standards or expectations. So I just don’t understand how she has such (relative) prominence.

  7. She must indeed be an expert: her Wikipedia page says she studied English at New College, Oxford – which is more than I’ve ever done. (Perhaps she happened to skip the lecture when they dealt with the period 1870-1930!?). – She must have studied Lawrence at some point; – even I “did” Lawrence at school.

  8. Only did his poems at school, which aren’t bad despite their frequent laxity. His descriptions of nature are pretty impressive (to me, at least), and there are many well-observed scenes in his novels. That’s not an especially original quality, of course, and when it came to characters… not so good.

  9. I always thought he was good at nature and relationships (the latter, at least, in the earlier novels); bad at symbolism (esp. bringing it in where it’s unwanted). I must read The Plumed Serpent one day.

    I was going to go on and say something about Cusk and studying literature at university: – just a wild prejudice that this is the way I sense literature is taught at university – i.e. greatness and importance is justified on a notion of “originality”, in much the same way as science – whilst the originality itself is argued in a circular (and generally implausible) manner from greatness or perceived importance – thus forming a canon and ignoring anything that might could against it. I suspect dons know perfectly well this is the case, but teach it thus nonetheless out of a sense of mischief or contempt. (After all, the undergraduates have not read the books they’re being taught, so one’s instinct would be to mislead them).

    OK, never having studied the subject, I might be entirely wrong.

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