Having blogged about Women in Love yesterday I later found myself listening to its great champion – novelist and literary scholar Howard Jacobson – discuss it on the First Tuesday Book Club in 2011, along with philosopher AC Grayling and the regular crew of Jennifer Byrne, Marieke Hardy and Jason Steger.
I was mesmerised by Jacobson expounding on Lawrence and his novel’s genius. He called Lawrence ‘the most extraordinary genius of the English novel’ and called Women in Love ‘a novel of excruciated beings’. He said:
‘It’s about people at the very end of their tethers. One of the reasons that it drives some people mad … is because the language is so extreme and wild and at times chaotic. None of that bothers me because … it’s trying to render people in a way that the novel has not rendered them before … Character, I’m not sure he even believes in character. It’s a novel that’s trying to find where we are as human beings, what we are as human beings, at a particular time in history, too. We are at the end of our tethers because the First World War has happened. The world has collapsed and Lawrence is thinking about how we rebuild this world, not politically and economically, but emotionally and spiritually. How do we rebuild ourselves?
‘But for me it goes on living, not as a historical document, because I happen to believe that we actually are continuing, we are still at the end of our tethers and don’t know who we are or how to find ourselves, we don’t know what language there is to describe who we are – and this is a novel that attempts to find it.’
I was completely absorbed by this, by Jacobson’s sense that Lawrence was thinking about how to rebuild this world destroyed by the First World War. Lawrence like most people thought this war would be over by the end of 1915, which is why he called his earlier novel finished in March 1915 The Rainbow, to herald the forthcoming peace and the promise of a new beginning for England and for the modern world. When peace did not come, Lawrence wrote: ‘I’m afraid I set my rainbow in the sky too soon, before, instead of after, the deluge.’ And so he wrote a sequel – Women in Love – about the deluge. I was particularly struck by the way Jacobson distinguished the fact that it was emotional and spiritual rebuilding that Lawrence was thinking about, not political and economic. This seems to me to get to the crux of this novel and of Lawrence’s work in general. And it is profound work indeed. I think Jacobson is right to say that we, (western) women and men, are still doing this work – or, that we are still at the end of our tethers and that this is work that still needs to be done, emotional and spiritual rebuilding.
So I was utterly dismayed to find that not one of the three regular readers on Australia’s only television show devoted to books and reading could stomach Women in Love. Jason Steger was ‘ambivalent’, Marieke Hardy called it ‘insufferable’ and Jennifer Byrne said ‘I struggled like crazy’.
AC Grayling called it ‘a work of very great genius’.
Byrne said ‘It’s so bloody difficult, Howard.’
Jacobson said ‘So what if it’s difficult. It’s a book. Do you want it to be readable? You want it to be unputdownable? You want to be able to read it in 5 minutes? It can be hard work because it’s asking you to think.’
Byrne halted the conversation mid flight (time ran out), concluding that Jacobson and Grayling see Women in Love as a ‘novel of ideas’. She then asked: ‘But is that enough? These days, do you actually need to make it a good novel, a good novel that you can understand, that makes sense to you …?’
Jacobson said he caught Byrne on the verge of saying ‘Shouldn’t it be a good read?’ – ‘And,’ he continued, ‘you know what we would all think about talking about wanting a novel to be a good read, when a novel can be so much grander than that.’
Hear hear Howard Jacobson. A novel can be so much grander than that. It can be Women in Love – or War and Peace.
My dismay over the fact that not one of the regular readers on this book show could enter into Women in Love in any fruitful way has only compounded my heartbreak over this show’s treatment of four great novels in November 2013. It so happens that Howard Jacobson made the documentary Brilliant Creatures shown on the ABC last year. It was about four supreme Australian thinkers, the great Germaine Greer, Clive James, Robert Hughes and Barry Humphries. I’ve not yet seen Brilliant Creatures, but I was intrigued to read Myf Warhurst’s review of it in the Guardian. She says it all, really, about these thrilling, scintillating Australian minds – and about the dullness of today’s media landscape in comparison. She wrote:
‘The show also reminded me that those with rugged, robust and inquiring minds like the aforementioned foursome are rapidly disappearing from our media landscape. And they probably won’t be replaced. … This vigorous lot challenged the status quo at the time. Of course, this meant they weren’t always loved. But they didn’t seem to care much that many Australians thought they were “up themselves”.
‘Compared to those heady days, the current lay of the land looks pretty dire. Public figures are more likely to be applauded if they appear to be just like us. In this new age of TV, likeability is the king, never mind that it’s dull.’ She’s talking about the plague of cooking and renovation shows, but without the visiting brilliance of Jacobson and Grayling, I’d be adding this book show to the list.