Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 16 Aug 2018

Flame Into Being: The life and work of D.H. Lawrence by Anthony Burgess

Published in 1985 to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the birth of D.H. Lawrence, Anthony Burgess provides a portrait that is part biography, part overview of his literary output and part advocacy for a writer whose reputation, even then, was on the decline. It is, I think, interesting to contemplate the fact that in Lawrence and Burgess you have two novelists and essay writers who have suffered a very similar fate – going from highly regarded contemporary writers to, at best, hugely unfashionable in the space of very few years.

To be fair, however, Burgess does this kind of literary portrait excellently – he doesn’t labour the life story and load it with clutter and unnecessary detail and nor does he overdo the academic literary criticism. It’s a hard balance to strike and necessitates a really first class familiarity with the subject and Burgess can’t be faulted for his background research and reading. He does as good a job here as he does with his similar publication on James Joyce called Here Comes Everybody – which is well regarded amongst Joyce scholars.

What I liked most about the approach Burgess takes to Lawrence is that he keeps a realistic eye on his subject – in essence what this study has to tell us can be boiled down to quite a simple proposition: Lawrence was a considerable pain in the arse who was full of crackpot ideas that damaged him and all those close to him. But, taking all due account of that, he was capable of being a sublime writer and first rate novelist whose skills are often clouded over by the controversy created by his often obscure mysticism and nature worship.

Burgess doesn’t hesitate to give us a warts-and-all picture of Lawrence but he always sets it in the context of his status as a great writer – a genius in fact whose self-destructive propensities were epic. For those who know anything about Lawrence’s work, what is here in terms of literary criticism wont come as much of a surprise. The great and lasting works that can claim to be significant and influential are probably Sons and Lovers and Women In Love and his popular fame is more likely to be associated with a late and pretty embarrassing novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover. I should hasten to say that I use the word embarrassing here not in the prudish or moralistic sense but in terms of its tendency to toe-curling and often crass half-baked philosophical notions and a propensity for ranting at his reader (a fault all too common in Lawrence across the board).

Possibly the most tantalising and ultimately fascinating aspect of this book is that you can’t escape the feeling that Burgess is at times writing as much about himself as D.H. Lawrence. Although the two writers have very little in common in terms of their literary style, it’s evident from the outset that what gives Burgess’s narrative such energy and authenticity is that he clearly believes that he shares some quintessential essence of being with Lawrence. Both authors were exiles from an England they loved from a distance, both married into a low grade aristocratic family and both could claim to be misunderstood – and although Burgess never explores this, I would add that both of them had some pretty dodgy right wing or authoritarian tendencies. At times Burgess’s desire to insert himself into the text becomes almost comical – just as Lawrence’s fame often revolves around the less than marvellous Lady Chatterley, so Burgess can’t resist equating that with his fame hanging on A Clockwork Orange, a book he came to thoroughly dislike because he felt it was something he just knocked off in a rush and, as a result, it didn’t showcase his real talents as a novelist of substance.

It’s impossible not to be impressed by Burgess’s extraordinary capacity to absorb huge amounts of detail and to master them effectively enough to roll it out again in a form that’s eminently readable and at times quite racy. If you’re looking for something that will act as a ‘primer’ to the life and works of Lawrence you could do a lot worse than go for this.

Copies are easily available online for a few pounds in hard or paperback.


Terry Potter

August 2018