Reading Lawrence: Paul Morel (Early Version of Sons and Lovers)

Though I had hoped my excursion back through Lawrence’s fiction would have gone a bit quicker, I’ve been relishing Paul Morel, the early (unfinished) version of Sons and Lovers published by Cambridge University Press in 2003. The chapter entitled, “Paul Morel’s First Glimpses of Life,” is particularly stunning and includes scenes—to my recollection—which he later cut from Sons and Lovers. Here is a long, moving descriptive passage:

It was a beautiful morning, the sun illuminating a crisp frostmist. The lads stopped continually, first at the ld sheep bridge, where Paul found strange pleasure in seeing a bit of his own blue pot frozen and inaccessible beneath the water. The next halt was at the mill-dam, which spread out beside the road. William slung off down the slide, Paul wandered, full of wonderment and delight, to the edge of the sluice. The gate was down, the water frozen at the fall. The boy looked at the ropes of ice that crawled and slid up and down the race like serpents. It seemed an awful thing to him to stand on the brink of what was really a raging cataract. He stamped his foot: supposing the ice burst, and the whole crashed out into the meadow twenty feet below; he stamped again, and shuddered. Then he looked over the wide, alluvial meadows, frost-seared, where winter-ruddy, velvety horses wandered disconsolate. He liked to see the earth wan and stupified in a stern grip: it pleased him that the earth, the vaunter, could be seized thus helplessly by the invisible. He saw the bushes sealed within the water, grasses set in the solid. The truncated cone of the mill-tower, where his father, then a boy, had brought his gleanings to be ground, stood dark beside the ice. Paul thought the days of his father’s boyhood must have been wholly delightful.

The brothers proceeded to the crossing. Under the tank where the engines filled, an enormous naked fire was blazing. The boys warmed themselves thereat. Paul watched the heat wavering up to the tank. He imagined it tickling, rubbing on the base of the iron, the water within stirring uneasily at the warmth. (20.38-21.23)

Though Lawrence comes under continuous fire for being a “bad writer,” no other writer manages to arrange the co-activity of looking and learning quite like him. It is clear to me that Paul is not just passively experiencing sights. Rather, he is actively attending to surfaces, textures, temperatures, risks, dangers, visions, and intimations of the past. How does one learn to love a landscape? Learn to love a season? Become fascinated by visions of one’s own demise or injury? Learn to sense the earth—i.e., the land—as a vulnerable entity? To sense climate or weather as that “invisible” which affects it as well as us?

A friend once told me, “I just don’t think Lawrence writes women well.” At the time I did not really know how to respond except to acquiesce. How could one possibly prove that he does write women well? Since that conversation, I’ve come to think, Of course he doesn’t write women well. He doesn’t write men well either . . . 

Why? Because Lawrence is much more interested, as this passage shows, in the micropolitics of a mind and a body in the midst of their active and passive shaping. Paul Morel—even in the much more polished Sons and Lovers—has an unfinished quality to him, a quality he shares with Miriam and Clara and his mother, Gertrude. Whether major or minor, characters are never full-formed or self-contained or even coherent in Lawrence’s work. He renders them with smudges, with awkward repetitions of oddly chosen words, with sensuous and sensual assemblages of looking, thinking, and feeling that put a character’s mind and body into relation not only with other persons but with nonhuman textures and affects. His characters, in short, bleed across his pages and resonate with the Figures of Francis Bacon (the painter, not the essayist). They do not undergo transformations—which would suggest the positive changes of traditional “round characters”—but deformations and rearrangements that seem to move laterally rather than in positive or negative directions. More often than not, it seems to me that when Lawrence’s characterization disappoints us, it is possible that we are merely disappointing readers who have not yet learned to read him or to take his fiction as a reading task. This is of course a cliché of literary criticism (we have not yet learned to read so-and-so…), but in this case I think it fits.

Reading on . . .

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