Thursday, August 7, 2008


I just finished reading THE VIRGIN AND THE GIPSY. It's the first D.H. Lawrence book I've read, and here's what I noticed about it.

Lawrence writes in a fussy sort of way that brings to mind other English authors of his era, especially E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf. His focus on women and their relationships with men, especially with how those relationships are tempered by social mores, also makes me think of Jane Austen (though Austen writes a tighter noose of propriety, and her dialog is much sharper). The vagueness of his descriptions, their allusion to something larger and more abstract, seems characteristic of Modernist British writing. Here's an example:

"Yvette went pale, and very distant. Her pride, that frail, precious flame which everybody tried to quench, recoiled like a flame blown far away, on a cold wind, as if blown out, and her face, white now and still like a snowdrop, the white snowflower of his conceit, seemed to have no life in it, only this pure, strange abstraction."

From this passage you can see how Forster uses multiple adjectives, and makes several small passes at whatever thing he is trying to describe. By doing that he lessens the force of individual words--they aren't allowed to hold as much weight as a word used by itself, and therefor they seem less forceful. It's like impressionist painting, in which several loose brush-strokes are used, resulting in a looser and less distinct representation of an object. Oftentimes whatever is being described is left conspicuously ambiguous, like the "abstraction" in the above paragraph--we never really learn what comes to replace the pride in Yvette's face.

Another thing the passage reveals is Lawrence's stitched together writing style, in which a comma is dropped in after every few words. You rarely get a straight-ahead sentence; usually you're jolting over all these little speed bumps. It reminds me, in a way, of the later writing of Celine, with it's two or three word clumps divided up by ellipsis. Celine uses the technique to create a strobing series of glimpsed images, while Lawrence seems to use it for the impressionistic brush strokes mentioned above, but the feeling the reader gets while reading them is somewhat similar. And Lawrence seems to use the resultant rhythm of this constant self-interruption as a way to advance the writing itself. Another example:

"And thence, for a long time, they stayed in the mud and dark and dampness of the valley, often with sheer rock above them; the water brawling on one hand, the steep rock or dark trees on the other./Till, through the darkness of overhanging trees, they began to climb, and Leo changed the gear."

It seems to me that Lawrence is using the repetition of "dark" and "trees" deliberately, as a way to connect one paragraph with the other. We hear it in the las sentence of the first paragraph, hear it in a disjointed, interrupted, repeated way, a way that goes back and restates part of what has already been said, which makes the words stand out in our minds. Then, in the next paragraph, the words are repeated again (though "dark" becomes "darkness"), provoking in our minds a small sense of familiarity, a recognition, that makes the connection between one paragraph and the next more explicit than proximity alone.

Another passage:

"She was truly simple in what she said. It was just what she thought. But it gave no hint of the very different feeling that also occupied her: the feeling that she had been looked upon, not from the outside, but from the inside, from her secret female self."

The narrator's intimate knowledge of the internal workings of his characters, which the characters themselves don't consciously know (as is illustrated above), is another one of the things that stands out to me about Lawrence's writing. The protagonist in this book, Yvette, is a rather dizzy girl, which makes it less surprising in regards to her, but it holds true for all the other characters too. Lawrence's creations are motivated by feelings and compulsions they have no awareness of, and no control over. They are the pawns of their own secret desires. I'll end this post with another passage showing this, specifically in the context of a man bound by social mores, and resentful of those less worried with propriety. It's one of the most compelling, in my opinion, found within the entire book:

"The rector looked at her insouciant face with hatred. Somewhere inside him, he was cowed, he had been born cowed. And those that are born cowed are natural slaves, and deep instinct makes them fear with prisonous fear those who might suddenly snap the slave's collar around their necks./ It was for this reason the rector had so abjectly curled up, who still so abject curled up before She-who-was-Cynthia: because of his slave's fear of her contempt, the contempt of a born-free nature for a base-born nature.:

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