stories of sardinia: d. h. lawrence and grazia deledda

Below I’ve reproduced my review of D. H. Lawrence’s travel narrative, Sea and Sardinia, which I posted to Goodreads (my Goodreads page is here). I highly recommend checking out my other Sardinia-related review, of Grazia Deledda’s Reeds in the Wind. It is a wonderful novel by a now-obscure Nobel laureate; the fact that it’s virtually unknown in the States is our loss.

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D. H. Lawrence: when he’s good, he’s great, and when he’s bad, he’s awful.

Having just finished Grazia Deledda’s Reeds in the Wind, I was excited to return to the same landscapes through a different pair of eyes — Lawrence is one of my favorite novelists. What I got, however, was the worst of Lawrence. I had a distinct sensation of reading pages that Lawrence had to somehow get out of his system in order to be a finer writer in his other books. He should have written this and then cheerfully burned it to ashes.

The book begins with Etna and ends with a traditional Italian commedia dell’arte, but its unspoken subject is the state of Europe in the aftermath of the First World War, and both the mountain and the show turn out to be symbols of that conflict. Lawrence is miserable about the effect of the war on Europe’s cosmopolitan culture. As he travels through Italy and Sardinia, he is always reminded that he is first and foremost an Englishman. To an Italian he is indistinguishable from other Englishmen, because of the same galvanizing nationalisms that ignited the war — chasms that only got worse during the uneasy peace of the 1920s and 1930s, in part because of the devastated Italian and German economies. This erasure of his precious individuality sends Lawrence into a rage:

I can’t walk a stride without having this wretched cambio, the exchange, thrown at my head. And this with an injured petulant spitefulness which turns my blood. For I assure them, whatever I have in Italy I pay for: and I am not England. I am not the British Isles on two legs…. And still, for all that, I must insist that I am a single human being, an individual, not a mere national unit, a mere chip of l’Inghilterra or la Germania. I am not a chip of any nasty old block. I am myself.

The simplest scenes, like one description of a man eating noisily, become strangely infused with mourning for Europe’s fractured family: “‘Mother, she’s clapping!’ I would yell with anger, against my sister. The German word is schmatzen” (italics mine). Lawrence has already given us the English verb, “smacking.” There’s absolutely no reason for a digression into German, or (arguably) for the paragraph as a whole… except that there is. It’s Lawrence’s version of The Butter Battle Book: animosity over nothing, over differences of table etiquette.

This all probably makes Lawrence sound more humane and sensitive than he really is. In fact, he tries to keep himself going by adopting every single one of these harmful, petty enthusiasms. He complains that the Italians do not prepare good afternoon teas, which is pretty funny for somebody so desperate not to appear overly English. He fusses over coffee as well, and milk, and ferry prices. He swallows Italian wines and liqueurs under protest. In short, he comes across as precisely the kind of homesick traveler who makes life insufferable for everyone else. (In addition to the implied presence of the war, there is also the submerged fact of Lawrence’s chronic tuberculosis. This probably made it harder for him to travel, but he refuses to mention it directly, and sneers whenever a local feels sorry for him.)

Lawrence even tries to get on board with nationalism:

The workman’s International movement will finally break the flow towards cosmopolitanism and world-assimilation, and suddenly in a crash the world will fly back into intense separations…. For myself, I am glad. I am glad that the era of love and oneness is over: hateful homogeneous world-oneness. I am glad that Russia flies back into savage Russianism, Scythism, savagely self-pivoting. I am glad that America is doing the same. I shall be glad when men hate their common, world-alike clothes, when they tear them up and clothe themselves fiercely for distinction, savage distinction, savage distinction against the rest of the creeping world: when America kicks the billy-cock and the collar-and-tie into limbo, and takes to her own national costume: when men fiercely react against looking all alike and being all alike, and betake themselves into vivid clan or nation-distinctions. The era of love and oneness is over. The era of world-alike should be at an end. The other tide has set in. Men will set their bonnets at one another now, and fight themselves into separation and sharp distinction. The day of peace and oneness is over, the day of the great fight into multifariousness is at hand.

To read this now, in light of the fascist movements that led to the Second World War, is more than a little unsettling. Lawrence’s absurd conflation of nationalism and individualism, especially as a heroic rejection of Communist homogeneity, is completely in line with Nazi propaganda.

But even this grandstanding is not enough for Lawrence. He eventually feels compelled to invent an entirely apolitical theme for his narrative, namely “the battle of the sexes.” This is nothing but misdirection, and Lawrence knows it, and protests too much:

With smoke and sulphur leaps in Beelzebub. But he is merely the servant of the great old witch. He is black and grinning, and he flourishes his posterior and his tail. But he is curiously inefficacious: a sort of lackey of wicked powers.

The old witch with her grey hair and staring eyes succeeds in being ghastly. With just a touch, she would be a tall, benevolent old lady. But listen to her. Hear her horrible female voice with its scraping yells of evil lustfulness. Yes, she fills me with horror. And I am staggered to find how I believe in her as the evil principle. [italics mine] Beelzebub, poor devil, is only one of her instruments.

It is her old, horrible, grinning female soul which locks up the heroes, and which sends forth the awful and almost omnipotent malevolence. This old, ghastly woman-spirit is the very core of mischief. And I felt my heart getting as hot against her as the hearts of the lads in the audience were. Red, deep hate I felt of that symbolic old ghoul-female. Poor male Beelzebub is her loutish slave. And it takes all Merlin’s bright-faced intelligence, and all the surging hot urgency of the Paladins, to conquer her.

Who is this “symbolic old ghoul-female”? Like the wrinkled old woman in Ulysses, who becomes James Joyce’s symbol for Ireland, Lawrence’s “ghoul-female” is really each and every European power, with their “black and grinning” colonial subjects, and their demonic war machines coughing “smoke and sulfur.” But Lawrence is petulantly “literal” about his symbolism, as it were, and depicts a legion of masculine paladins struggling mightily against feminine Morgan Le Fay, the crone.

It’s a tawdry and familiar magic, this enchantment of the world by nationalism, and then Lawrence’s related daydream of men defending themselves against women. Lawrence proves, for the umpteenth time, that he is bisexual. He makes fun of his wife. He romanticizes Sardinian courtship, a subject about which he knows nothing. That’s it — that’s about all he can do with “the battle of the sexes.” Lawrence seems, by the end, a bit like those peasants in Sicily. He is tilling exhausted patches of soil in the shadow of a volcano.

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