Book of the Week: Life with a Capital L

4 Feb|Geoff Dyer

‘I don’t care what a man sets out to prove, so long as he will interest me and carry me away,' D. H. Lawrence.

Geoff Dyer introduces a brilliant new volume of D. H. Lawrence’s lesser-known essays.

I can remember quite clearly how I first encountered D.  H. Lawrence as a writer of something other than fiction. We were studying Hamlet at school, reading the expected lit-crit by A. C. Bradley, G.  Wilson Knight and, more fashionably, Jan Kott (Shakespeare Our Contemporary). But my teacher also nudged me towards a strange piece of writing by Lawrence called ‘The Theatre’, about going to see a production of Hamlet, in Twilight in Italy. Wanting to reduce the piece to exam-directed utility I didn’t know what it was or how it was meant to be read. Obviously it was about Hamlet (a ‘statement of the most significant philosophic position of the Renaissance’) but it was also a kind of story, a re-creation of an actual experience and place. The critical essays I had read up to that point all seemed like more diligent and accomplished examples of what I was reading them for, i.e. homework. There was no suggestion of homework or compulsory diligence about ‘The Theatre’ and while this had an obvious appeal it also raised doubts as to the legitimacy and value of the piece. On reflection what I missed, I think, was the valorizing dullness that pervaded so much of the criticism that came to define the study of English at university. The gap in enjoyment between the novels or poems and the stuff we were expected to read about them was so huge. Until, that is, during the week devoted to Hardy when Lawrence came crashing in again and suddenly there was no gap. One moment he was pointing out, in his rather homely way, that Hardy’s characters ‘are always going off unexpectedly and doing something that nobody would do’ and the next making metaphysical pronouncements about ‘the great, tragic power’ of Egdon Heath. I read Study of Thomas Hardy for the light it shed on Hardy but it was also a revealing expression of who it was by. Study of Thomas Hardy was as much mirror as window. Up until then non-fiction existed either as a wholly distinct discipline (history, say) or as a kind of stepladder to help one better get to grips with poetry and novels. These pieces by Lawrence represented the first glimpse of a more labile relationship between criticism and fiction, between the necessary restraints of academic discipline and the vagrant life of the mind. (Lawrence famously went further, rejecting the limiting life of the mind in favour of ‘a belief in the blood, the flesh, as being wiser than the intellect’.

The combination of commentary and imaginative writing achieved full expression – or, in Lawrence-ese, was consummated – in Studies in Classic American Literature, which remains one of the wildest feats of critical mapping ever attempted  – not just of the main components of a national canon but the soul of an entire country. Those early pieces on Hamlet and Hardy  – comparatively early in Lawrence’s writing life and very early in my reading of him – were transformative. Forty years later the essays of Studies in Classic American Literature remain in constantly surprising proximity to my adult experience. At twenty-five Philip Larkin was too young to know whether his precocious claim that ‘no one who has really thrilled to Lawrence can ever give him up’ had any validity, but it has proved accurate in my case.

Extract from Life with a Capital L: Essays Chosen and Introduced by Geoff Dyer, D. H. Lawrence, edited by Geoff Dyer (Penguin Modern Classics, £9.99). Buy a copy here.