Review: Lady Chatterley’s Lover

April 20, 2011 Comments Off on Review: Lady Chatterley’s Lover

This is such a great book. It’s a ringing validation not only of human sexuality but also of listening to yourself and following your nose to what makes you happy (which, of course, is a recent obsession of mine). And Lawrence is one of the greatest writers I have ever read. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I will go so far as to place him on the same level with Neal Stephenson, Tom Wolfe, and William Shakespeare. That’s right, I said it. He has a habit of using the same word over and over in the same sentence or paragraph, which is something that is anathema to the gods of English class, but Lawrence breaks that convention to pieces by making it into brilliant writing…although how is something I’ve yet to figure out. It has the effect of making you think you’re thinking; it’s as if, thinking privately to yourself, you’ve seized on one word that seems particularly apt, and you keep mulling over it. It’s easy to lose yourself in these paragraphs, mistaking his writing for your own musing thoughts. He also has the ability to write weird comparisons that after a split second of confusion make profound physical sense. He does have an unfortunate tendency to write about bowels and wombs as the seat of sensual love, which I guess is okay except it sounds kind of gross. I forgive him, though.

Lawrence clearly has a lot of problems with the society of his time, with people who don’t embrace their gender or try to be less whatever-they-are, and who only care about money and success and industrialization, and how these things are all destroying life in any incarnation worth living. The character of Sir Clifford, Lady Chatterley’s husband, although initially sympathetic, turns out to be pathetic and painful and embodies most of what’s wrong with the world, according to Lawrence. Some of the most cutting lines in the book are about Sir Clifford’s writing, for which he is moderately famous and earns a bit of money, which Lawrence describes as a puppy chewing a sofa cushion to bits: sometimes clever, often fun to watch, but ultimately nothing but destruction, and with no offer of anything to take the place of what was just so cleverly demolished. There is much talk of the pursuit of the bitch-goddess Success, and how it dehumanizes the men involved, which is most. Some of the chapters are pretty heavy, because much of this is still applicable today, and Lawrence really lays the weight of it on his readers’ shoulders, unsparingly. The deep discussions that the educated male characters have are amazing. They are intelligent debates with good points made by both sides, and yet they are portrayed as meaningless exercises in cleverness, avoiding all the real problems of the world, and particularly of these men’s lives.

Okay, let’s talk about the sex. The fact that this book went on trial for obscenity is just unbelievable to me. I mean, sure, the sex scenes are quite graphic, and openly use words like “penis,” but they are some of the most interesting scenes in the book, which is saying something because all the characters in the book are intelligent and have good things to say or imply about entertainment, human nature, and industrialization. But the sex scenes make even better points, often about the same things. And there is absolutely nothing dirty in these scenes. They are written with the greatest admiration and respect for the human body and for human sexuality, and with no hint of voyeurism, no feeling of salaciousness. It’s not about watching two characters have sex; it’s about sinking into your own flesh and paying attention to it, and ultimately these sex scenes are very personal experiences for the reader. Lawrence uses them to valorize the embracing of one’s own gender, and implies that you’re not really female or male unless you are comfortable with the urges of your own body. These themes are a little dated (as are the terms in which they are expressed), but I don’t think it makes them less true.

My only criticism of this book is on the character of Lady Chatterley’s lover. He is mostly great, but he has these weird mood swings that don’t really make sense, and he is a little too sharp and sardonic to be a romantic hero. I’m sure Lawrence intended to ruin him as one, because that wasn’t his point; he wasn’t writing a romance…but it’s what I would have liked. But he’s a good man, and a good character after all, and he makes an almost Sartrean rejection of bad faith, which, in the midst of the industrialization and soullessness the characters are surrounded by, is admirable and honest, and gives the reader something to aspire to.

EXCERPT:

The world was so complicated and weird and gruesome! The common people were so many, and really, so terrible! So she thought as she was going home, and saw the colliers trailing from the pits, grey-black, distorted, one shoulder higher than the other, slurring their heavy iron-shod boots. Underground grey faces, whites of eyes rolling, necks cringing from the pit roof, shoulders out of shape. Men! Men! Alas, in some way patient and good men. In other ways, non-existent. Something that men should have was bred and killed out of them. Yet they were men. They begot children. One might bear a child to them. Terrible, terrible thought! They were good and kindly. But they were only half, only the grey half of a human being. As yet, they were “good.” But even that was the goodness of their halfness. Supposing the dead in them ever rose up! But no, it was too terrible to think of. Connie was absolutely afraid of the industrial masses. They seemed so weird to her. A life with utterly no beauty in it, no intuition, always “in the pit.”

Children from such men. Oh, God! Oh, God!

Yet Mellors had come from such a father. Not quite. Forty years had made a difference, an appalling difference in manhood. The iron and the coal had eaten deep into the bodies and souls of the men.

Incarnate ugliness, and alive! What would become of them all? Perhaps with the passing of the coal they would disappear again, off the face of the earth. They had appeared out of nowhere in their thousands, when the coal had called for them. Perhaps they were only weird fauna of the coal-seams. Creatures of another reality, they were elementals, serving the element of coal, as the metal-workers were elementals, serving the element of iron. Men not men, but animas of coal and iron and clay. Fauna of the elements, carbon, iron, silicon: elementals. They had perhaps some of the weird, inhuman beauty of minerals, the luster of coal, the weight and blueness and resistance of iron, the transparency of glass. Elemental creatures, weird and distorted, of the mineral world! They belonged to the coal, the iron, the clay, as fish belong to the sea and worms to dead wood. The anima of mineral disintegration!

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