Pico Iyer Journeys

Lawrence by Lightning

One dark December afternoon, while the sweet-potato salesman outside played his unbearably melancholy traditional song and a child across the way picked out a simple melody on his piano, I picked up a copy of the tale that had so consumed me once, and returned to the damp English north. Almost instantly, of course, I found that nothing was as I remembered it: the virgin and the gypsy scarcely meet in all the brief eighty-five pages–everything is intimation and fleeting glances–and their bond is not even explicitly consummated. The teenage boy in search of forbidden excitements could only have been partially delighted by “The absolutely naked insinuation of desire made her lie prone and powerless in the bed as if a drug had cast her in a new, molten mould.”

I could see now, in fact, that the story had as much to do with class as with sex, and really was nothing more than a cry for release from the stifling puritanism and hypocrisies of English provincial life (a life I’d never known). Two young girls–Yvette, the virgin of the title, and her sister, Lucille–return from a “finishing year” in Lausanne, all fur collars and chic hats, to the ugly stone house of their father’s rectory, where he, one Arthur Saywell, sits like a frightened frog, wrestling for power with his mother, his sister, and a brother in “an atmosphere of cunning self-sanctification.” The girls’ glamorous mother, “She-who-was-Cynthia,” who stands for everything quick and flowing in them, is never mentioned (she having long since run away from this Horlicks Hell); and every time one of the young women opens a window in search of “fresh air,” Granny slams it shut, complaining of the “draughts.”

As all that suggests, The Virgin and the Gypsy is written with the kind of naked self-forgetfulness that Lawrence made his own. There is little subtlety or surprise in it, and you know, really, as soon as you see the title (even without Joanna Shimkus on the cover), what will happen, and what it all means. Uncle Fred is a “stingy and grey-faced man of forty, who just lived dingily for himself”; Aunt Cissie is “pale, pious and gnawed by an inward worm”; even the back-cover blurb talks routinely of “the stifling confines of home and family” and the “elemental force” that “threatens the conventional fabric of Yvette’s existence.” And that force is embodied, far too conveniently, by a married itinerant laborer “with full, conceited, impudent black eyes,” whom Yvette meets when her family car almost collides with his gypsy cart.

Yet what is more startling, perhaps, especially to one long past adolescence, is how this most familiar and predictable of stories-scarcely more than a Harlequin romance, it seems, of a pale girl rescued by a dark manly creature of the wild–is made something more, simply through the intensity and conviction Lawrence pours into it. On a sentence-by-sentence level, it is almost irredeemably sloppy and banal (“Feelings are so complicated” is about as subtle as the synopsis of Yvette’s feelings gets); yet burning through the sentences, and flickering at their corners, is a fire that cannot be easily ignored.

You read Lawrence, I came to see, almost entirely by flashes of lightning. Whole stretches are flat and quite unremarkable; it’s almost better not to take in the descriptions of “the mysterious fruit of her virginity” or “the rather resentful brown eyes of a spoilt Jewess”; the virtually unintelligible digression about how the “widow of a knighted doctor, a harmless person indeed, had become an obnoxity in their lives” (a what?); or Yvette’s recognition that the gypsy looked at her as if “he really, but really, desired me.” And yet, almost by the same token, the whole thing shines, often, with a white-hot intensity that (as in Emily Bronte again) has the power to pick you up and transport you like the wind rattling against the windowpanes. I found myself reading the story as quickly as Lawrence had no doubt written it, and so reading it (as, again, I’m sure it was written) not so much with the conscious mind as with the senses and the instincts.

In a certain respect, in fact, Lawrence’s prose enacts the very liberation it describes, speaking to one as the gypsy does, and touching something unprotected and soft, something virginal, that makes one feel as if cynicism is a distant country. There are no half-measures here (every sentence is thrown down like a dare, even as it contradicts one in the previous paragraph), and Lawrence writes as if under the possession of a spirit that does not allow him to linger over details or niceties.

It is this, perhaps, that helps him get us to care for Yvette as wholly and solicitously as he clearly does. She is an archetypal heroine from his later period–all tenderness and longing, a moist snowflower waiting for her spring. But she is also a typical nineteen-year-old–flighty, proud, selfish, and spoilt (her “soft, virgin, heedless candor,” as he writes, is responsible for “her admirers and her enemies”). Yvette, he tells us, with a saving detachment, “was born inside the pale. And she loved comfort, and a certain prestige.” Even her wish to “fall violently in love” is, in a certain light, absurd (she “seemed always to imagine,” he writes, “that someone would come along singing Tirra-lirra! or something equally intelligent, by the river”).

Yet in the midst of all this, there is something else in her, something indefinable–a flame, or candle, inside her being–that Lawrence tends to zealously. To a remarkable extent, he sits inside her being–one reason why one of the great androgynous writers has always appealed to women as much as to men-and cheers her spirit on. “There is something about me which they don’t see and never would see,” she thinks at one point, and Lawrence acts as the custodian of that hidden angel, bringing it forth with all the understanding of a spirit no less intuitive and rebellious and turned toward heaven.

Of course, I thought, in my elder self, an adolescent boy in a boarding school would thrill to this tale of a spirit inside him that no one but he can recognize (the theme of Hesse, again, and of all our favorite questers). And Lawrence, writing with a furious, headlong, hit-or-miss abandon, catches some of these sensations as one would a flame. (I recalled that part of his force came from the fact that he revised not by tinkering with words or polishing cadences but by writing the whole manuscript–all five hundred pages of it, if need be–out from scratch again, so as to catch that heedless momentum.) But I also saw that a teenage boy would have been stirred less by the heroine’s “bare upper arms”–or by the fact that she, like him, is longing for real experience (with, as Lawrence insists, someone other than a boarding-school boy)–than by lines like “On her face was that tender look of sleep, which a nodding flower has when it is full out.”

At the climax of the brief story, both these strands–the absolute looseness of the brute judgments and repetitions, and the light shining within and in spite of them–come together dramatically. Suddenly, after a flash flood in a nearby river, the waters rise outside the rectory and begin to pour into the garden, where Yvette is sitting on a nostalgic spring afternoon (the former graduate student in me rolling his eyes at the heavy-handedness of the symbolism). “She was barely conscious: as if the flood was in her soul,” Lawrence writes, in defiance of every ascetic precept taught in literature classes. At that very moment, of course, the gypsy shows up, pulls her up to safety, and, while hated Granny dies, is obliged to strip off his clothes and take the naked Yvette into his arms to protect her from the rising wind and waters.

Yet just as everything seems to be dwindling into caricature, Lawrence defers, as few writers do, to mystery. The dark animal wanderer holds the virgin princess in his arms–the moment we’ve been waiting for all along–and that is all he seems to do. At precisely the instant when we most expect Lawrence to fulminate, he rises into silence (as he does earlier in the story when Yvette visits a fortune-teller and, miraculously, follows her into a caravan so we never learn what passes between them). There is a numinousness at the heart of the tale (and of his conception of the link between his characters) that Lawrence has the sense not to mess with, and as the story drifts into the fragile, intimate moments of his later period, its mysterious beauty is of the same kind you feel when the priestess washes Jesus’ wounds in “The Man Who Died,” or the woman who gets on a horse in New Mexico simply rides away into the mountains. Geoffrey meets the sodden Lydia in the haystacks and just shelters her all night, in a communion more moving than any love scene I can think of; the gypsy sends Yvette a letter on the final page–Lady Chatterley again–and we learn for the first time that he has a name.

I thought back, closing the book in my modern Japanese apartment, to the fifteen-year-old in his little cell, devouring the whole story in an afternoon, and I saw that something more valuable than his prurience, or even his nascent sense of romanticism, was being encouraged. Escape was less the point than a kind of tenderness that could flicker into something higher. And I thought even more of the fledgling student of literature embarking on a ten-year course of learning to read books by breaking them down into pieces. Like almost no other writer I can think of, with the exception of Melville or the Shakespeare of Poor Tom (or such idiosyncratic forces as Arundhati Roy or Keri Hulme), Lawrence refuses to let you read him in that way: either you surrender to him, and to a spirit that flings out every sentence as if it were its last, or you are condemned to remain forever on the sidelines.

As someone trying to be a writer now myself, and thus more concerned than ever with carefulness and craft, with all the prohibitions that watchfulness creates, I think I heard Lawrence even more powerfully than ! had twenty-five years before, enjoining me to read and listen with the soul (as he does, preeminently, in his Studies of Classic American Literature), and taking me precisely to those areas where words are of no use. Lawrence approaches the world, his characters, and even the reader as if he were their lover (and an impatient, restless lover at that), and taking him on his own terms, as one has to do, I hardly had the consciousness to notice that the story–now in its twenty-eighth printing–comes these days with a cover image of a young woman staring into a fire bright as lightning (the movie version having long since been forgotten). Its elegant gray spine proclaims it to be now, as it had not been in 1972, a Penguin Modern Classic.

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