Pico Iyer Journeys

Lawrence by Lightning

When finally I succeeded in falling in love (in a kind of Virgin and Gypsy episode with the characters reversed), I found myself reading the final sentences of Lady Chatterley’s Lover aloud to my new companion (the book’s original title, Tenderness, catching all the luminous sweetness and almost elegiac vulnerability of Lawrence in his final years, his strident dogmatism giving way to something more human and gentle, delivered in a spirit of farewell). I made my way back to his story “Love Among the Haystacks,” and was so moved by its air of protective intimacy that I paid it homage in the only way I could–by concocting a similar romance, set in the university library, which I called “Love Among the A Stacks.” In the same volume, I came upon Lawrence’s last story, “The Man Who Died,” and was so stunned by its tale of the risen Jesus, aching with incompleteness, and the priestess of Isis who ministers to his wounds, that I wheedled the Oxford University Arts Society into giving me a grant to turn it into a film.

But as the years passed, and my initial excitement in discovering freedom and love subsided a little, Lawrence fell away from me a little, too. Studying English and more English, as if longing to profess it (from the age of seventeen to the age of twenty-five–it seems insane to me now–I studied nothing but English literature, with even American literature generally regarded as beyond the pale), I turned to Lawrence whenever I wanted a jolt of electricity, something visionary and intoxicating to raise me above the day-to-day world–and, better yet, to a world whose contours were lined with gold. And whenever I traveled, I read what Lawrence had written about the place I was visiting, since he caught everywhere he saw with a quick impatience that put traditional “travel writers” to shame. When I went to Australia in 1988, the only guidebook of any use was Kangaroo, written sixty years earlier after a stay of only a few weeks; in the California where I had lived for thirty years, I never found the description to better Lawrence’s dashed-off assessment in a letter:

A queer place–in a way, it has turned its back on the world, and looks into the void Pacific. It is absolutely selfish, very empty, but not false, and at least not full of false effort … It’s a sort of crazy sensible. Just the moment: hardly as far ahead as carpe diem.

I even drove across country more than once, sleeping in my car, to visit the small hut above Taos where Lawrence had lived among the pines.

Yet the feeling always lingered, especially as I learned to read with a “critical” eye, that Lawrence was one of those enthusiasms of youth that one put away with childish things, like Hesse, in fact (or their radiant disciple, Henry Miller). He was never very far away from me–the pale, blazing figure in the corner whose eyes won’t leave you alone–but he was so much himself, I felt, at every moment and in every sentence, that he could not easily be fit into someone else’s life. (This must have been the problem for those who met him, too, and found themselves stranded between impatience and love.) Lawrence existed so far outside the usual categories–it was hard to assign him a race, a class, even at times a gender-that he could not be assimilated into any system. He had something in common with all the great English writers who railed against English narrowness and skepticism (Graham Greene and Somerset Maugham, John Berger and John le Carre), but he remained redoubtably an odd man out. And where the other unassimilable mavericks, like Melville or Thoreau, were apostles of aloneness, Lawrence insisted on bringing his ungovernable singularity to the theme of human connectedness, the sparks of divinity that fly between one soul and another.

Then, a few months ago, Lawrence unexpectedly gate-crashed my life again. An Englishman from Hollywood came to see me, interested in adapting a romance I’d written many years before, and as his calling card and letter of reference he gave me a script he’d just written, based on an early Lawrence novel. The best reader I know suddenly got in touch to tell me to read Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, a portrait of Lawrence so Lawrentian that it never actually addresses its subject or gets round to discussing most of his books (being content, instead, to loose a Lawrentian fury against the very notion of biography and, of course, against the unchanging stiffness and conventionalism of England). The passages from Lawrence’s letters that Dyer included in his meanderings shone like sparklers held up on a chill November evening, at a Guy Fawkes party in the Midlands, by a stranger who stands so close to you that you can see his breath condense in the dark.

That same month, an old friend from northern California called me up to ask whether I’d be interested in helping him work up a film based on “The Man Who Died” (the same project I’d hatched twenty years before)-though before I could answer he got caught in a tragicomic whirl over the screen rights that ended, a few months later, with the discovery that they belonged to a mysterious Italian fugitive whose ex-partners said, “He is either in America–or Hell!”

It was time, clearly, to put aside all these imperfect reflections of Lawrence and read the man himself again. I was now almost exactly the same age he had been when he embarked upon his great final period (lit up, as Keats’s last months were, by a flicker of almost posthumous radiance that sometimes seems to accompany the final stages of tuberculosis). More than that, I’d reached the point in life in which I was not so often discovering new writers as constantly rediscovering old ones, going back again and again to Love’s Labour’s Lost and Of Human Bondage, and to the letters of Keats in which he says that a “World of Pains” is necessary to “school an Intelligence and make it a soul.” Besides, I was now a world away from England and adolescence, living in a small apartment in the Japanese countryside where not freedom but seclusion seemed the greatest luxury.

Scroll to top