Thursday, June 01, 2017

Lady Chatterley's Lover by D. H. Lawrence

  (Book Review)

So, who out there has heard of this book?
It has a bit of infamy surrounding it.

As a history/literature geek, I kind of assumed the story behind the publication of this book was pretty much common knowledge.  But in conversation with people over the past few weeks, I've discovered that a lot of people actually don't know the story.  So I'll recount it briefly here.  (If you already know all this stuff, then just skip to the next section.)

When this book was first published in 1928, it was banned as obscene in most of the world.
 (Wikipedia recounts the obscenity trails in Britain, Australia, Canada, Japan and India.)

The author D.H. Lawrence had the book published in Italy (where the Italian printers knew no English, and were ignorant of the words they were setting).  For the next 30 years or so, the book was illegally smuggled and sold on the black market in Britain and the United States and elsewhere.  Until obscenity laws were loosened in the 1960s.
(The exact year varies from country to country, and in fact to this day this book is still banned in many countries, for example China).

Why I Read This Book
Despite the rather infamous history behind this book, it wasn't really high on my reading list.  I had heard from a few people that D.H. Lawrence was a hard author to read, and so I stayed clear of him.

However, recently I found myself in Narita Airport in Tokyo when travelling from Vietnam to the United States.
On the flight from Vietnam to Tokyo, I had already finished half of my book (A Passage to India), and I was worried I would run out of reading material on the remaining 13 hour flight.

The selection of books  at Narita Airport was terrible.  (Narita, if you're reading this, you're an international airport.  You need to pick up your game and stock more books.)
It was funny, actually.  I swear Narita airport is still stocking the same exact books  they used to stock  8 years ago when I still lived in Japan.  Same selection of Dan Brown, Stephen King, self-help books and finance books.

Despite my ambitions to be seen as a literary person, I've actually never been an omnivorous reader.  Reading is work for me--it requires an effort  of concentration, and in order for me to be willing to put in that effort, it has to be something I'm really interested in, or some sort of literary classic that I feel is worth my while.
Out of the very limited options, I finally settled on Lady Chatterley's Lover.  It was a classic, after all, so it wouldn't be a total waste of time.  And, just based on my initial flipping through the book, it actually looked fairly readable.

I only got a couple of chapters into the Lady Chatterley's Lover before my flight landed.  (As it turned out, A Passage to India lasted me longer than I thought it would).  But those first two chapters were quite good, and I found myself thinking that this book was shaping up to be pretty interesting after all (in spite of what I had heard about D.H. Lawrence).

Once I was back in America and had access to normal bookstores, I quickly found myself getting distracted by - other - books.   And Lady Chatterley fell to the side.  But I wanted to get back to it.
And so, I suggested it for our next book club book.
None of the other bookclub members had every heard of it, but they were intrigued by my description.  (Whenever you mention that a book was banned because of obscenity laws, that always automatically increases the interest in a room).   And so we agreed to read this book for our next bookclub book.

And one month later, here I am with the review.

The Review 
So, another book that was pretty much universally hated by our book club.  (This is my second disaster after A Passage to India, and there was talk about making sure I didn't suggest the next book.)
Of the 10 people in the book club, only 3 of us finished this to the end.  And even the other 2 that did stick with the book really hated it.

People liked the beginning.  The general consensus is that the first 5 or 6 chapters were quite interesting.
But not a lot really happens in the middle of the book, and that's where a lot of people gave up on the book.
Of the 3 of us who made it to the end, we all agreed that the action does pick up again near the end, and the last few chapters are more readable.    But not everyone was sure the book redeemed itself.  (As Tom, one off the final 3, told me in a message: "In as much as there is a plot, sure, the final two chapters have a sense of swiftness to them. I quite liked the ending, but I'm not sure the novel justified itself to me.")
Personally, I thought the ending was pretty good, but I think the problem was that the middle so frustrated  all of us that by the time we actually made it to the end, the book had exhausted our goodwill.

Maybe this review would make more sense if I broke it down into the beginning, middle, and end, and explained my reaction to each of them.

I was really impressed by the first chapter.

In fact, right from the first paragraph, I was hooked.  The very first lines of the novel read:

Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically.  The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new little habitats, to have new little hopes.  It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future: but we go round or scramble over the obstacles.  We've got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen. 
This was more or less Constance Chatterley's position.  The war had brought the roof down over her head.  And she had realised that one must live and learn.
She married Clifford Chatterley in 1917, when he was home for a month on leave.  They had a month's honeymoon.  Then he went back to Flanders: to be shipped over to England again six months later, more or less in bits.  Constance, his wife, was then twenty-three years old, and he was twenty-nine.  (Chapter 1, opening lines)
Now, how's that for an opening!

In fact, the whole first chapter was really great.  It was like a miniature novel in itself.

After briefly sketching out the tragedy of the war, the first chapter jumps back in time to describe the idealism of the young Edwardian generation in England (before World War I came out of nowhere and smashed their generation to bits).
I was interested in the descriptions of generational conflict in Edwardian England, as in the description of young pre-war Clifford Chatterley.

Nevertheless he [Clifford] too was a rebel: rebelling even against his class.  Or perhaps rebel is too strong a word; far too strong.  He was only caught in the general, popular recoil of the young against convention and against any sort of real authority.  Fathers were ridiculous; his own obstinate one supremely so.  And governments were ridiculous: our own wait-and-see sort especially so.  And armies were ridiculous, and old buffers of generals altogether, the red-faced Kitchener supremely.  Even the war was ridiculous, though it did kill rather a lot of people.  (Chapter 1, p.7)

 It's an interesting reminder that generational conflict did not originate in the 1960s--even back in the 1910s young people were recoiling against the authority of the older generation.

Then the war comes along and wipes out half of the characters in the first chapter.
The narration is remarkably unsentimental.  (As you can see in the opening lines bit I quoted above.)   The narrator simply records that people suddenly died in the  war, and that everyone else went on with their lives.

However, came the war, Hilda and Connie were rushed home again [from their study abroad in Germany, to their home in England] after having been home already in May, to their mother's funeral.  Before Christmas of 1914 both their German young men were dead; whereupon the sisters wept and loved the young men passionately, but underneath forgot them.  They didn't exist anymore. (Chapter 1, p.6)

It strikes the modern reader as rather heartless, but perhaps this was what life was like in World War I.  So many people died that the emotions were exhausted.
The matter-of-fact narration even got me thinking a little bit about the nature of life and death.  Maybe this is just how the world works.  Everyone dies, no point in over-sentimentalizing it.

After a masterful first chapter, the book settles down to a rather mundane plot (about Lady Chatterley being bored in her country estate), but there are still a lot of interesting discussions going to keep the novel interesting.  There are several political discussions and there's even a discussion among Clifford Chatterley and his friends about whether descriptions of the sexual act have any place in a novel.  (Ironically enough, inside of a novel that is famous for its descriptions of sex--I personally thought this quite clever.)

But then, the middle hits.
The middle of the book is the actual love affair--the one that you knew was coming sooner or later because it's right there in the title of the book.  And it's really tedious.
For one thing, it's so repetitive.  Lady Chatterley and her lover meet up.  They talk about their feelings for each other.  They go back to their respective homes.  They think about each other.  They meet up again and talk about their feelings.  Then go home again.  Then meet up again.  Et cetera.

If you like romance novels, you'll probably have a higher tolerance for this whole middle section than I did.  But I just had very little patience with all the exchanges of affection that went on for page after page after page.  (And everyone else in the bookclub felt the same way.)

The book is infamous for it's descriptions of sex, but it's... Well, it's pretty boring actually.  It's obvious that what shocked people in 1928 doesn't shock people nowadays.

The sex scenes are just not that interesting.

My copy of the book (Signet Classics, 2011)
9780451531957: Lady Chatterley's Lover (Signet Classics)

contains an afterward by John Worthen (W), in which Worthen admit that the D.H. Lawrence's sex scenes are pretty boring, but defends them because D.H. Lawrence was the first author to ever attempt to "create an explicitly sexual relationship in fiction that was not an object for some kind of voyeuristic fascination" .  So, according to Worthen, D.H. Lawrence had nobody else's work to base his prose on, and he had to try to create the whole genre from scratch, and that's why the prose in the sex scenes is often so underwhelming.

Of course, all of this is me complaining about the book in the 21st century.  I'm spoiled by all the depravity of media in the modern age, so I'm harder to impress.
The publishing history of this book indicates that D.H. Lawrence's contemporaries were very interested in this book.  (During the entire 30 year period it was banned, this book was apparently very much in demand on the black market.)

Then, in the last few chapters, the plot does come back again, and the book again starts to become interesting.  But by that point, only a handful of us were left in the bookclub.

There's actually quite a lot going on in this book thematically.

The Capital/Labor Question
There's several discussions in the book about the capital/labor question.
Based on these passages, one gets the impression that D.H. Lawrence was a socialist, or at least very sympathetic to the socialist position.
In fact, the whole book was apparently inspired by the miners strike in 1926 (W), according to the publisher's introduction.   D.H. Lawrence, on a trip back to his hometown, saw all the out of work miners on the streets, and that caused him to want to write a book about his town.
However the publisher's introduction (my edition contained both an introduction and an afterward) by Geoff Dyer (W) also says that D.H. Lawrence's politics were all over the map   Lawrence was from a working class background, and was always sympathetic towards the working class, but his actual political ideas apparently lacked consistency, and could be anywhere from socialist to proto-fascist.
I didn't realize this while I was reading the book.  (I never read the publisher's introduction until after I finish the book).  But I wasn't surprised.  This probably explained why D.H. Lawrence's characters spent a lot of time talking about the capital/labor question without any sort of concrete proposals being advanced.
In a way, it's probably better that way.  Maybe political consistency is over-rated.  The world is a complex place, and anyone who thinks there's only one simple answer to the world's problems is probably fooling themselves.

Another theme of the book is how the English countryside was being changed by industrialization.
This was another thing that apparently impressed D.H. Lawrence during his trip home in 1926.  He thought that the old English countryside was being destroyed by the new era of industrialization, and he thought that this was leading to an uncertain future for humanity.
So this theme also comes up in the book.  And unfortunately, it takes up a lot of print space.
Along with the boring romance plot, this was the other thing that exhausted the patience of our book club.  The long descriptions.  Lawrence spends a lot of time describing both the old English forests of Chatterley Manner, and also the new industrial town.
Perhaps a more patient reader could have appreciated these long descriptions more, but in my book club we all hated it.
There's a long description of the mining town on chapter 11, in which I wrote in the margins (after about 15 pages of description of the landscape), "This is really getting hard to stay focused".
To be perfectly honest, I'm not sure I would have ever finished this book if we hadn't been doing it for book club.  But since it was a book club book, and especially since it was my suggestion in the first place, I trudged on through it.

And then there's what this book is most famous for: it's descriptions of sexuality.

In chapter 4, some of the characters of the book discuss whether there's any point in detailed descriptions of sex in a novel (something I thought was a clever bit of meta-irony).  To quote from that conversation:

There was Charles May, an Irishman, who wrote scientifically about stars.  There was Hammond, another writer.  All were about the same age as Clifford; the young intellectuals of the day.  They all believed in the life of the mind.  What you did apart from that was your private affair, and didn't much matter.  No one thinks of enquiring of another person at what hour he retires to the privy.  It isn't interesting to anyone but the person concerned.
And so with most of the matters of ordinary life ... how you make your money, or whether you love your wife, or if you have "affairs".  All these matters concern only the person concerned and, like going to the privy, have no interest for anyone else.
"The whole point about the sexual problem," said Hammond, who was a tall thin fellow with a wife and two children, but much more closely connected with a typewriter, "is that there is no point to it.  Strictly there is no problem.  We don't want to follow a man into the W.C., so why should we want to follow him into bed with a woman?  And therein lies the problem.  If we took no more notice of the one thing than the other, there'd be no problem.  It's all utterly senseless and pointless; a matter of misplaced curiosity." (Chapter 4 p.30-31)

 (The conversation actually goes on for a few pages, but I'm only quoting a snippet of it to give you an idea.  For the full discussion, read the book).

Clifford and his intellectual friends think that the sexual urge is simply just a basic human need (like going to the bathroom) that needs to be satisfied, but that there's no purpose in writing about it.  They are more interested in the "life of the mind".

At the end of the book, however, Lady Chatterley ends up coming to the opposite conclusion.  The physical sexual experience is the essence of being human, and those people obsessed with the "life of the mind" are just walking corpses.

This theme comes up in several of the later chapters, but I'll just quote selectively from a couple of them.
In chapter 16, Lady Chatterley is arguing with Clifford about sexuality versus the life of the mind.

"...but then I suppose a woman doesn't take supreme pleasure in the life of the mind."  [Said Clifford]
"Supreme pleasure?" she said, looking up at him.  "Is that sort of idiocy the supreme pleasure of life of the mind? no thank you!  Give me the body.  I believe the life of the body is a greater reality than the life of the mind: when the body is really wakened to life.  But so many people, like your famous wind-machine, have only got minds tacked on to their physical corpses."
He looked at her in wonder.
"The life of  the body," he said,  "is just the life of the animals."
"And that's better than the life of professional corpses.  But it's not true!  The human body is only just coming to real life.  With the Greeks it gave a lovely flicker, then Plato and Aristotle killed it, and Jesus finished it off.  But now the body is coming really  to life, it is really rising from the tomb.  And it will be a lovely lovely life in the lovely universe, the life of the human body." (Chapter 16 p.249)

A couple pages later, in the same chapter, Lady Chatterley reflects to herself:

What liars poets and everybody were!  They made one think one wanted sentiment.  When what one supremely wanted was this piercing, consuming rather awful sensuality. (Chapter 16, p.264) 
And reflecting on her sexual encounter of the night before, Lady Chatterley says to her lover:

"Don't you think one lives for times like last night?" she said to him (p.267)
This was interesting food for thought.

Ever since Plato (or before?) people have believed that the most important thing is the life of the mind.  The body has certain physical needs that must be satisfied (food, sleep, bathroom, sex), but we do not live to satisfy these needs.  Rather, we satisfy these needs in order to free up our mind to think about other more important things.

In Lady Chatterley's Lover, D.H. Lawrence seems to be arguing that satisfying our physical needs are the most important part of the human experience.

I'll be honest, I'm not quite sure what to make of this argument.  My own biases are more towards the Platonist view, but I found D.H. Lawrence's counterpoint interesting food for thought.
I went back and forth a bit on this a little bit in my own mind, and we got some interesting discussion out of this at the book club.
(For example, it's interesting to consider the rise of erotic fan fiction that has come with the modern Internet age.  Consider that this is not a trend created by some slick corporate marketing campaign.  Rather, this is what people naturally want to write about when left entirely to their own devices.  What does this say about the importance of sexuality to people's being?)
But I don't really have anything resembling coherently formed thoughts on the subject, so I won't bore you with my ramblings.

At any rate, I think in the novel D.H. Lawrence does a good job of posing both sides of the argument.  Either sexual experiences are like going to the bathroom--they are an important biological function, but not of interest to anyone else.   Or, the physical acts are what make us human, and we shouldn't degredate their importance.

So, the word "fuck" pops up a lot in this book.

Of course, you couldn't print the word "fuck" in 1928, which is one of the reasons why this book was banned.
But the fact that Lawrence's characters make such liberal use of the word implies that it was in common parlance in 1928.

Although I had known the word "fuck" had old Anglo-Saxon roots, I had mistakenly gotten the idea that the word didn't come into popular use until after World War II.
(In my defense, that was the narrative presented in the documentary on the word "fuck" that I watched years ago.)

In fact, I'd even gone so far as to complain in some of my movie reviews that Pre-World War II uses of the word "fuck" were anachronistic (as I did in my review of Lincoln).
It looks like I may have been wrong about that.

Religion is notable in this book by its absence.
In fact, the sexual question is discussed from just about every angle but religion--characters talk about sex as an animal impulse, as an expression of love (or sometimes of hate).  Characters talk about the problems of sex in relationships, and the problems of scandal, and class boundaries, and gossip.  But never once does the religious question even enter into it.

I discussed this with the other members of the Book Club, and Tom (who grew up in the American South) agreed with me that this book probably would have been a lot different if it had been written in America.

This seems to confirm what I was saying before in my review of A Passage to India--by the 1920s, England was largely a post-religions society.

(Or... on second thought maybe this is just a difference between American religion and European religion.  Many countries in Europe that have been nominally Christian have always had very relaxed attitudes towards sexual purity.)

Cultural Impact of this Book
I was surprised how no one in my book club had heard of this book before I proposed it.  (But then again, I tend to spend way more hours on Wikipedia than a normal healthy person, so maybe I'm just strange.)

The publisher's afterward (by John Worthen) gave some extra information.  Apparently this novel has had a rise-and-fall in terms of cultural significance.  It had a huge impact at the end of the 1950s and in the 1960s, but nowadays in the 21st Century D.H. Lawrence is an often overlooked writer.
And, according to Worthen again, in Britain Lady Chatterley's Lover is still regarded as the main book in connection with the sexual liberation movement of the 1960s.
(So I suppose this book also connects with my interest in the 1960s).

Both the publisher's introduction, and Wikipedia, include Philip Larkin's poem Annus Mirabilis to illustrate the cultural impact of this book in 1963.  (1963 was the year that the British courts allowed Lady Chatterley's Lover to finally be published).

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the "Chatterley" ban
And the Beatles' first LP.

(Sidenote:  I read this poem about a month ago when first starting this book.   Coming back to it now, I'm realizing that for the past month I had been mis-remembering it.  The version I had remembered in my head was:
Sex began in nineteen sixty-three
which was rather late for me
With the Lady Chatterley
And the Beatles' first LP.

I think the reason I mis-remembered it that way is because the rhymes line up better in my version:  "3, me, Chatterley, LP" .  And yet, Philip Larkin is one of the great poets--he must have had some reason for writing it with the rhythm that he did.  I wonder what he was going for.)


Book Club Notes

For whatever it may or may not be worth, I'll duplicate some of the conversation from the book club Facebook page.
To protect other people's privacy, proper names are replaced  by XXXX

April 28--My Post
Okay, just to update everyone else who wasn't at the meeting today. We decided to finish with A Passage to India. (Part 3 was so short, it wasn't really worth meeting up a 3rd time just for that. Plus XXXX and I had already finished the book anyway so we were ready to move on.)
The 4 of us who were at the meeting today took the liberty of agreeing on the next book. Which is Lady Chatterley's Lover by DH Lawrence.
XXXX has generously agreed to find a PDF copy off of pirate bay again. (Thank you very much XXXX . You are the hero of the book club.) I'm going to be out of town for the holiday weekend, but I'll go down to the printer's shop on Wednesday or Thursday to print out a copy for anyone who is interested. Let me know before Wednesday if you want a copy. (XXXX and XXXX , I've already got you down for one copy.)
This book isn't very long, so I was thinking we could knock it off in a month. That is, one month from when everyone get's their copy in hand, so one month from next week.
There are 29 Chapters, so maybe meet up after 2 weeks to discuss the first 15 chapters, and meet up 2 weeks later for the last 14 chapters?
But we don't need to decide the schedule now. Once everyone has a copy of the book in hand and can get a feel for it, we'll revisit the question of making a schedule.
[Editor's note--there were actually only 19 Chapters.  I had a brain lapse reading the Roman numerals.]

XXXX commented
Haha it was subject of a watershed obscenity trial due to its depictions of sex... This city is getting cranked up a few notches
I responded
 it will be interesting. I imagine the book club will go one of two ways. Either it will be so tame compared to today's standards, that we'll all wonder what the fuss was about. Or, possibly, we'll all be incredibly scandalized by this book, and we'll all be blushing terribly at the discussion and afraid to make eye contact with each other.
XXXX Commented
 I remember reading a catcher in the rhye as a teenager and being let down by how tame it was..
I responded
And this is even 30 years older than Catcher in the Rye.
May 3--I posted 
looks like I'm going to the Printer's shop either this afternoon or tomorrow (depending on how time works out). XXXX and XXXX , I'll add you to the list.
I found this PDF online and am thinking I'll use this copy:

XXX commented
oh yeah. Joel. Adelaide has a great pdf, just like with some other book we read. in using that.
I responded
Thanks for the heads up Tom. I just looked it up. Is this it?
XXXX commented

That's the one.
I responded

Anyone have a preference? I'm noticing the Planetebook one has page numbers.
XXX Commented:

Page numbers are life
May 5--I posted
Okay, so I went to the printer's yesterday, and have distributed books out to most of the people who wanted them. (If you didn't get your copy yet, track me down).
Um, sorry about the comically oversized font. When viewing the PDF online, I didn't fully realize how needlessly large this would look on the printed page. Apologies to everyone who's going to have to lug around a big heavy book for the next month.
There was also some frustration at the print shop. The photocopy machine kept breaking down, and they kept having to open it up, clean out the jammed papers, and start it up again. There was a couple times when the wind blew the papers around.
Hopefully all the books have all the pages in the right order. But if not, at least we've got page numbers this time, so you can tell if you're missing a page.
If that happens to anyone, you can cross-reference with the original PDF document online.
The PDF I used is here:
I originally proposed reading through chapter 15 for the first meeting, but looking at the page numbers, it looks like not all chapters are equal length, and that perhaps a better halfway point in terms of pages would be through chapter 12. (That's through page 261 on the oversized PDF printed version.)
How does that sound to everyone? Meet up on Friday the19th to discuss chapters 1 through 12? Doable?

May 7--I Posted
Since I didn't hear any objections on my last post, I'm going to go ahead and make those suggestions into a schedule. Of course nothing is ever written in stone, and everything can be renegotiated as we go along.
But the plan for now is...Next meeting Friday May 19th, read through chapter 12.

May 28--I posted
Finished the book today. I find now that I'm done with it I don't really hate it that much. There's some interesting stuff at the beginning and the end. It's just the middle that's terrible.
But I guess we'll discuss this all in person.
Still on for Tuesday?
Moc cafe again?
I think last time, we ran into the lunchtime rush because we met up at noon. Maybe move things up an hour this time and meet at 11?
Or whatever, I'm easy because I live close. Let me know what works for you guys.

Video Review
Video review here and embedded below:

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky speaks at Crotty Hall May 30, 2017

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