Friday, May 28, 2010

Review: Out of Sheer Rage

I picked up Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence because of a) a discussion a friend and I had about Geoff Dyer - he simply stated that he was reading Jeff in Venice... - and b) because of this Millions article. I'm a fan of blended genres, and it is true, as the Millions article states, 'the book conveys Lawrence better than any conventional biography'. Moreover, perhaps in my view it conveys Lawrence better than any biography that I would want to read. Mostly because it's about anything but being a biography of DH Lawrence. Or is it?

Generally I find biographies or memoirs to be terribly dull, even when they are well told and well written. Either they're too laden with detail (like Hermione Lee's biography of Edith Wharton), or the brush strokes are too grand to make anyone care (like Edith Wharton's autobiography). It's hard to strike a happy medium, and even if you do, you're still going to have detractors.

Bringing it back to Lawrence, in all of the English courses I took at university, the only book that I ever decided not to read was The Rainbow by Lawrence; after reading about 100 pages I knew that I wasn't going to be interested in the narrative. Too many characters; I don't really like stories that span generations. When we discussed it in class, it was the day I chose to sit in the back, where the professor couldn't see my indifference to this novel that felt more Victorian than Modern.

Anyway Geoff Dyer's novel-memoir/memoir-novel details how the narrator is having trouble writing his biography or study of DH Lawrence. It seems that the narrator has the best intentions every day to write something about Lawrence - he travels all over the world to where Lawrence lived and wrote, he reads all of Lawrence's letters to get a sense of the man and to find more respect for the author's strong opinions - but something always seems to come up to distract him. Either he gets into an accident, or he believes that by reading all of the Lawrence letters that he couldn't add anything to the discussion, that somehow by reading the letters the study doesn't need to be done, the letters themselves being hermetic. Each page becomes a tirade on why the study can't be written, won't be written. At least not by this narrator.

The book can really be summed up by one of the three epigraphs. Dyer chooses Gustave Flaubert's comment on Victor Hugo's Les Miserables to partially introduce the reader into what he's about to embark upon: 'Endless explanations of irrelevancies, and none whatever of things indispensable to the subject'. As the Millions article states, 'By getting up in the morning, we get up in the morning. By not writing our biographies of D.H. Lawrence, we write our biographies of D.H. Lawrence.'

The narrator, as you can well imagine, is fascinating in that he can procrastinate better than the best, but he's also terribly obnoxious: you just want to tell him to write already, that if only he focused all this rage against writing the book to actually writing the book, we'd have a totally different product before us. Then again, would we be interested in reading another straightforward book on DH Lawrence?...

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