A central episode in “Burning Man” demonstrates the complexity of Lawrence’s vices. Maurice Magnus, a onetime manager of Isadora Duncan, wrote a book “Memoirs of the Foreign Legion” about his terrible experiences in the French Foreign Legion. Shortly after completing it, Magnus, plagued by debt, committed suicide. Lawrence was asked to edit the memoir and add an introduction. Lawrence was quite proud of the result, “Memoirs of Maurice Magnus,” which he even described as “the best single piece of writing, as writing, that I have ever done.” But many — especially those who had known Magnus — saw Lawrence’s contribution as unkind if not vicious. Its publication precipitated a feud with Norman Douglas, a writer who had been friends with both.
Wilson, a critic and the author of “Literary Seductions: Compulsive Writers and Diverted Readers,” is unusually candid about her own mixed feelings toward Lawrence. “He was a modernist with an aching nostalgia for the past,” she writes. “A sexually repressed Priest of Love, a passionately religious nonbeliever, a critic of genius who invested in his own worst writing.”
Wilson points out that having rejected traditional religion, Lawrence more or less designed his own, though his understanding of just what this meant never seemed entirely clear. “For all his claims to prophetic vision,” Wilson writes, “Lawrence had little idea what was going on in the room let alone in the world,” she observes. “His fidelity as a writer was not to the truth but to his own contradictions, and reading him today is like tuning into a radio station whose frequency keeps changing.”
Part of the problem, perhaps, was that Lawrence rarely stayed put. The first part of the book finds him in England during World War I; the second finds him in Italy, where he became acquainted with Magnus and Douglas; and the third follows him to New Mexico, where he lived from 1922 to 1925, when the tuberculosis that eventually killed him caused him to return to England. “All Lawrence’s novels are about the hellishness of home,” Wilson writes. One of the great ironies of his life, in her account, was that his inability to be at home anywhere drove him to create new homes everywhere he went — homes that soon became intolerable to him and from which he then felt compelled to escape.
Of course, there were also other, more external factors that drove him. In 1915, his fourth novel, “The Rainbow,” was deemed obscene by British authorities. Following a trial, more than a thousand copies were seized and burned. It was not the only time Lawrence’s writings would face governmental censorship: His final novel, “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” was banned in the U.S. in 1929, and three decades later the unexpurgated version faced legal challenges in multiple countries. (Today many readers find the book, which has come to symbolize somewhat freedom of expression against oppressive restrictions, disappointingly mild and tame.)
In Wilson’s view, the prosecution of “The Rainbow” had less to do with the book’s sexual frankness — despite the obscenity charge — than with its author’s being an antiwar activist married to a German aristocrat who, as it happened, was a cousin of Manfred von Richthofen, the notorious fighter pilot also known as the “Red Baron.” The burning of “The Rainbow” no doubt fueled Lawrence’s desire to leave England (and the continuing resentment that he felt toward the place) and helped make him a permanent itinerant.
“Burning Man” is an unconventional biography — it skips Lawrence’s early life almost entirely — and, page by page, a fairly entertaining one. Its main virtues derive directly from its subject. Lawrence was unpredictable and unconventional enough to be often frustrating to those around him but fascinating to the rest of us, who may observe his antics at a safe distance. And he had a knack for finding and befriending (and, later, un-befriending) the oddest and most fascinating people, resulting in a cast of characters any novelist would envy.
But Lawrence’s flaws — his confusion and inconsistency, his lack of self-understanding, the overall sense that he lacked a coherent self — also impose themselves on the book, making it feel less than fully cohesive and, ultimately, somewhat unsatisfying. And it should be said that Wilson’s attempt to force a unity by imposing a Dante-esque structure on the book — its three segments are identified as Inferno (England), Purgatory (Italy) and Paradise (New Mexico) — feels artificial and unconvincing. Lawrence’s actual life does not seem to display any such linear trend.
Still, “Burning Man” will entertain those already interested in Lawrence, and it may have the salutary effect of sending many readers to seek out his literary essays, travel writing and other nonfiction works — writings that, in some respects, have held up better than Lawrence’s novels. Such readers might start with the “Memoir of Maurice Magnus,” included in the recently published “The Bad Side of Books: Selected Essays of D.H. Lawrence.” As with any great author, Lawrence is perhaps best understood through his own words.
Troy Jollimore’s new book of poetry, “Earthly Delights,” will be published in September.
The Trials of D.H. Lawrence
By Frances Wilson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 512 pp. $25.49