Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The One Bright Book of Life. (Books)

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The One Bright Book of Life. (Books)

Article excerpt

Once revered as a "great genius of our time", D H Lawrence has today become something of a national joke. A S Byatt defends the ambition and vision of a writer considered increasingly unworthy of being taught at our universities

The relations between literature, literary criticism and structures of belief have always been both fiery and dubious. I studied English literature at Cambridge in the heady days of Dr Leavis, who believed that D H Lawrence was "the great genius of our time", and that his novels "made for life" as opposed to "doing dirt" on it -- as Djuna Barnes, Henry Miller and Lawrence Durrell, all admired by T S Eliot, did. Eliot needed religious belief. He said, "Our literature is a substitute for religion and so is our religion", a statement that explained much to my temperamentally agnostic undergraduate self. Lawrence wrote: "The novel is the one bright book of life", and Leavisite examiners set the quotation as an exam question, whilst their students went out into the world as teachers with the mission of connecting their pupils with life, and themselves, through literature.

The forms of the 19th- and 20th-century novel in English are deeply tied to their relation to the Christian religion and its semidivine Book, with its human stories and prophetic poetry. James Joyce's Ulysses is a theological novel, coming out of a Catholic culture, playing with the idea of Father and Son, building hierarchies of interpretation. Lawrence comes out of Protestant exhortation and preachments. He said, and Leavis in The Great Tradition quoted: "Primarily I am a passionately religious man, and my novels must be written from the depth of my religious experience...you should see the religious, earnest, suffering man in me first, and then the flippant or common things after." As a student, I resisted his preaching, as I resisted attempts to cast me as a "Lawrentian woman". But the art -- the ambitious shaping of The Rainbow and Women in Love, the ferocious precision of the poems -- was exhilarating.

The trial of Lady Chatterlcy's Loverwas one of the great comic moments in British culture, as the forces of righteousness -- priests, professors, E M Forster and a token young woman -- declared that Lawrence's "tenderness" was wholesome and holy. The one bright book of life was being solidified into a religious text, which would bring us liberation. We were all to be burned clean, like Constance Chatterley. Leavis complained, saying that the novel was not a very good novel, and the rhetoric was unjustified. But it went on to the syllabuses. I myself taught it to adults and art students. I said it was -- like the rest of Lawrence's novels -- an ambivalent beast, and that a novel, in this case often despite its author, is not a belief system but a story. "Never trust the teller, trust the tale" was another Lawrentian mantra, which came in handy.

What happened next was partly that Lawrence was attacked by Kate Millett -- and other feminists -- for doing dirt on women. She had a case, and a good case, which needed to be made precisely because Lawrence had become a kind of literary-critical Holy Book. But her attacks have to be seen in a context where literary criticism, and the teaching of literature, became a belief system, and indeed a societal structure almost independent of books and what was or is in them. A kind of moral fervour, accompanied by a glorying in their own power, led critics to cleanse the canon, to hunt out little snakes of sexism, racism, cultural assumptions of superiority, aestheticism, and destroy them. People got on to the syllabuses because they were virtuous and promoted sane and socially desirable values. George Steiner made the wise and necessary distinction between a canon -- what the writers of books have thought it necessary to read and preserve -- and a syllabus -- what teachers think it is good for people to read, which includes the reading procedures they must use. …

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