Women in Love – a work of very great genius OR insufferable, tedious, impenetrable, so bloody difficult?

WomenInLoveHaving 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‘But for me it goes on living, not as a historical document, because I happen to believe that we actually are continuing, we are still at the end of our tethers and don’t know who we are or how to find ourselves, we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.

Howard Jacobson and Germaine Greer

Howard Jacobson and Germaine Greer

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7 Responses to Women in Love – a work of very great genius OR insufferable, tedious, impenetrable, so bloody difficult?

  1. Adrian Franklin says:

    Bravo Jane. I read Women in Love as a young bloke of around 17 and it made perfect sense to me but it’s just as relevant to me today. You made me think: ‘these days’ do we not actually need good television presenters, who can actually make sense of things like good books? Who actually KNOW what they are talking about? Are at least a little bookish? Personally I don’t want presenters to be like me, I want them to inspire me, change me, challenge me – as books should. Thank heavens for Howard Jacobsen, but we need an Australian bookish person with soul too. And can’t we have something a little more exciting than a book club on a Tuesday night (something the local vicar might have set up in 1920….)?

    • Thanks, Adrian. Well, you ask some interesting questions. I think the three regular presenters do know about books, and usually present an interesting range of views, but not in this case – so yes, thank goodness for Howard Jacobson. And Grayling.

  2. Anu M says:

    The Book Club could be so so much better executed. As it stands it is pretty dull. And people really are afraid to or simply cannot provide a view that is not painfully hip. There was the episode on Jane Eyre for e.g., – not my favourite book – but the oh so misogynistic eye roll reviews were absolutely cringe making and a complete disservice to Bronte.

    Personally I find Lawrence both exhilarating and exasperating. Women in Love has some great passages and ideas and others that are not but that’s exactly what makes Lawrence interesting. Pity they are unable to review it more deeply than they seem to have.

    And don’t even get me started on their inability to have even a single episode on Asian fiction.

    PS: Always love your posts.

    • Thanks so much for your thoughts, Anu (and your PS). I don’t watch the Book Club regularly but you made me watch the Jane Eyre episode (also not my favourite book). Yes, misogynistic eye roll reviews – astonishing! But at least Marieke did later acknowledge that they were discussing the novel in ‘different layers’ – some seeing it in its historical context, while she came to it as a contemporary reader interested in the story. And that both approaches are valid. Given the show mimics a book club, I guess this is appropriate (how ever frustrating it might be to watch).

      And yes! Women in Love is brilliant and flawed, breathtaking and preposterous, great and not, but that’s why Lawrence is so compelling, for me anyway.

      (I’d actually like to get you started on their failure to have even a single episode – really?! – on Asian fiction.)

      Thanks again. cheers, Jane

  3. Sara Dowse says:

    Jane, I loathed Women in Love both times I read it. Not because I had anything against the writing – I have absolutely nothing against challenging writing, and wish there was more of it – but because of what I perceived at the times ( before and after our second wave feminism) as a exposition of hidebound patriarchal attitudes. (Not surprised about Jacobson’s admiration, Jacobson being the man who famously said that women who don’t wear make-up aren’t being considerate.) Not only that but we were TAUGHT in undergraduate English to dismiss Gudrun because she was a man-eater etc. Perhaps if I re-read WIL now my response would mellow, but I doubt it. I found The Rainbow a much richer, kinder book, extolling Ursula as ‘the new woman’; but in WIL Burkin spends all his time trying to get her to change. It was all leading up to Lawrence’s execrable New Mexican novels in which women are drawn ineluctably to sacrifice. Sure, he was railing against the sexual inhibitions of the time, and rightly so, but he was guilty as so many men were of blaming women for their ‘frigidity’. He also had fascist political tendencies. (Should that make us reject him as a writer – no. But it should alert us to what his agenda was, and agenda it was.) Funnily enough, I thought he was spot on with Kangaroo, and even for a while fell under Lady Chatterley’s Lover’s spell.

    • How fantastic! Thanks so much Sara for your strong and fascinating views on Lawrence. I completely get why you’d feel this way, in fact at one level I possibly understand why you loathed ‘Women in Love’ (twice!) more than why I’ve loved it many times. Yes, you are right about the way Birkin attempts to control Ursula – and I agree that sharing my view with Jacobson does nothing much to recommend it, especially in terms of the novel’s portrayal of women. And yes, Lawrence’s esoteric, mystical, Superman views, fuelled by Nietzsche, with their attraction to autocracy, or aversion to democracy, tend to fascism. And yet I still find this novel (and The Rainbow) compelling. I think because the relationship between men and the ‘new’ women, in all its dimensions, is his central concern. And because he was trying to understand its possibilities beyond Hardy’s late 19th century tragic view of it with Jude and Sue in ‘Jude the Obscure’.

      As for the way you were TAUGHT to read Gudrun, wow! I agree that Kangaroo is spot on – amazing when you consider how little time Lawrence spent in Australia and took to write it – and I’m intrigued to hear you fell under the spell of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Thanks again so much for your thought provoking comments, Sara.

  4. Sara Dowse says:

    Also: I did love Jacobson’s Brilliant Creatures. But the point is that all four of his expatriates were exactly that – because they felt they had to be. I was around then. The Sydney University English Department was being torn apart by the imposition of rampant Leavisitism. This was expressed in high relief in the championing of Lawrence over Joyce. Undergraduate grades were lowered if Joyce was preferred, and Greer and other tutors were effectively driven out because of it. All this changed soon after, but the legacy is still with us in the way generations of readers have been primed to read fiction. As per the cringe-worthy Book Club.

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