"WHOEVER READS ME," D. H. Lawrence wrote in 1925, "will be in the thick of the scrimmage, and if he doesn't like it -- if he wants a safe seat in the audience -- let him read somebody else." A similar warning should attend Keith Sagar's scrupulous compact life of Lawrence which is copiously illustrated, dense with facts and allows Lawrence and his friends their own voices whenever possible. $ sagar draws an unsettling portrait of Lawrence's jarring behavioral contradictions, offering a picture darkened by Lawrence's rancor, yet brightened, too, by the brilliance of his responsiveness to people and places. A man who "raves, roars, beats the table, abuses everybody," and one whose "passionate eagerness for life . . . is what one loves so" (both descriptions are Katherine Mansfield's), Sagar's Lawrence emerges as fiercely combative, driven for good and ill by a furious lifelong labor against waste and decay: "I hate England, the oldness and grubbiness and despair." "One must speak for life and growth."
Agitated and restless, insistent upon the primacy of change, Lawrence seems a difficult subject for a biographer whose job must be in large part to describe things as they are. "What next? That's what interests me," Lawrence once wrote, "What now?" is no fun any more." Yet Sagar manages to chart the changes, recording Lawrence's early "deep belief in human relationships and potentialities," and taking full measure of his increasing despair at finding himself during the years of World War I the target of vicious "jingoistic hatred and hypocritical puritanism" which effectively stripped him of his livelihood. With copies of his novel The Rainbow seized and destroyed in the name of tthe Commissioner of Police (one reviewer concluded that it had "no right to exist," and another decried its denail of the "lofty" spirit of "young men who are dying for liberty"), Lawrence could only rage: "It makes me swear -- such a damned mean, narrow-gutted, pitiful, crawling, mongrel world, that daren't have a man's work and won't even allow him to live."
Sagar maps Lawrence's frentic search on several continents "for a vision of reality to replace the madness of . . . war and the war fever." He persuades us that this pursuit of the utopian colony that Lawrence called Rananim was important more as idea than as place -- a last resort of hope which Lawrence "never dared follow through . . . it was too precarious to put at risk." Lawrence was a perpetual beginner, moving through a series of wild, often primitive, physical and philosophic landscapes. Sagar takes us along -- from old worlds to new, through various Lawrentian intellectual and emotional incarnations. Some, like Lawrence's well-known "belief in the blood" are embarrassing in their display of metaphysical mumbo-jumbo. Some are offensive: "Leaders -- this is what mankind is craving for . . . men must be prepared to obey, body and soul, once they have chosen the leader."
But even at their worst, Lawrence's exaggerations are not incomprehensible.
Bertrand Russel called Lawrence's intuitive perception "wonderful -- it leaves me gasping in admiration." Many examples in Sagar's text invite concurrence. Lawrence's remarks to friends celebrating the armistice on November 11, 1918, dispay terrifying prescience:
"I suppose you think the war is over and that we shall go back to the kind of world you lived in before it. . . . The hate and evil is greater now than ever. Very soon war will break out again and overwhelm you. . . . The crowd outside thinks that Germany is crushed forever. But the Germans will soon rise again. . . . Even if the fighting should stop, the evil will be worse because the hate will be dammed up in men's hearts and will show itself in all sorts of ways that will be worse than war. Whatever happens there can be no Peace on Earth."
Almost alone in his clarity of insight, it is no wonder that Lawrence felt forced toward extremes. Sagar convinces us that he was driven by "the depth of his caring." In his last years he arrived not far from where he began. In 1928 he wrote from Italy that "the leader of men is a back number. . . . And the new relationship will be some sort of tenderness, sensitive, between men and men and men and women."
At times in the last third of his book Sagar seems to lose the human center of the narrative, offering instead a travel guide to the many places through which Lawrence moved. And sometimes straining for emotionally resonant prose, Sagar simply produces a hollow clatter, as when he describes Lawrence's "soul . . . like a chyrsalis writhing in its case, unable to complete its metamorphosis."
But such Lawrentian lapses are uncommon. Keith Sagar's Life is informative, rewarding in its brevity and pleasing in its clarity.