D.H. Lawrence famously proclaimed that his motto wasn’t “art for art’s sake, but art for my sake.” Even though his novels have fallen out of critical favor and general popularity, Lawrence’s nonfiction and criticism remain forceful, immediate and striking. “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.” That’s from his book-length “Studies in Classic American Literature,” but the same vividness runs through the “selected essays” of “The Bad Side of Books,” recently published by NYRB Classics. As Geoff Dyer stresses in his penetrating introduction, Lawrence ignores genre straitjackets as he blends travel writing, memoir, philosophical musings, storytelling and a novelist’s flair for portraiture and description.
In subject matter, Lawrence ranges from considerations of Thomas Mann, Thomas Hardy and Ernest Hemingway to reflections on religion, the novel, obscenity, New Mexico and our once close relationship to nature (“Pan in America”). No matter what he writes about, though, Lawrence generates — in language crackling with passion and conviction — an intensely reimagined experience. Jonathan Swift, when challenged, could produce a brilliant essay about a broomstick; Lawrence outdoes him in his tour-de-force “Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine.”
My own favorite piece of Lawrentiana, however, is the “Memoir of Maurice Magnus.” In it Lawrence visits Florence, Monte Cassino, Capri and other places in Italy just after the end of World War I. Through the writer Norman Douglas — a notorious celebrant of Mediterranean decadence — he meets Maurice Magnus, in some ways his shadow or doppelganger.
M--, as Lawrence refers to him, “was curious, always talking about his work, even always working, but never properly doing anything.” Given that Magnus is a sponger, a con man, Catholic convert and gay, he comes across as a second cousin to that comparably fascinating outcast, Frederick Rolfe, the self-styled Baron Corvo. “Memoir of Maurice Magnus” is a wonderfully evocative piece of writing that should be far better known.
Much of D.H. Lawrence’s fiction is almost innocently transgressive, whether depicting sexual ecstasy in “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” or reconceiving Christian dogma in “The Man Who Died.” As it happens, Emmanuel Carrère — arguably France’s greatest contemporary writer of nonfiction — is similarly daring in his choice of subjects for “97,196 Words” (from Farrar, Straus and Giroux). He is invariably drawn to figures with complex lives and even multiple identities.
For example, he writes about Jean-Claude Romand, who murders his wife, children and parents rather than allow them to learn that he’s only been pretending to be a doctor and medical researcher for 18 years. Carrère later expanded his initial reportage into a chilling and unputdownable book, “The Adversary,” which — we learn from another essay — he deliberately modeled after Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood.” Some of Carrère’s other 97,196 words examine the visionary writings of Philip K. Dick, the cosmic horror fiction of H.P. Lovecraft and the kaleidoscopic life of the Russian writer and nationalist Eduard Limonov. Dick and Limonov would also become the subjects of full-length books.
Of all these essays, my favorite is “In Search of the Dice Man.” In it Carrère describes his obsession with Luke Rhinehart and his cult classic, “The Dice Man,” the purportedly autobiographical account of a psychoanalyst who breaks free of all societal and moral constraints by allowing his life to be governed by the chance roll of a die.
Carrère’s likable style isn’t just conversational, it’s openly confessional. We learn that Edith Wharton’s “Ethan Frome” is one of his favorite novels, as well as one of the world’s saddest: It “makes ‘Wuthering Heights’ seem like ‘The Sound of Music.’ ” In various essays Carrère, without a hint of sensationalism, analyzes his erotic fantasies and sexual experiences. In his final piece, he probes the astonishing charisma of France’s president, Emmanuel Macron. “No matter what you think of him, whether you see his rise as a political miracle or a mirage destined to fade away, everyone agrees: he could seduce a chair.” Carrere’s own writing possesses a similar power.
Brooklyn writer Greg Gerke is far more bookish than either Lawrence or Carrère. “I read,” he declares, “to apprise myself of the distinguished enterprise of being.”
Such precise diction hints at the character of the essays in “See What I See” (published by Splice): Throughout Gerke strives to transform each of his sentences into a little work of art or, failing that, of gorgeous artifice. In Gerke’s view, writers too often settle for producing the ephemeral when they should be aiming to create the eternal. Not that this is easy: “There is no recipe for vivid prose — the kind that gets into the body, the kind that makes you forget you have to pee — except hard work.” He concludes, “A piece of magisterial art: this is ultimately what we are after.”
In such admirably high-minded sentiments, Gerke follows his mentor, William H. Gass, whom he refers to on his dedication page as “the Master.” The essays in “See What I See” also revisit many of Gass’s own touchstones — Rilke, Gertrude Stein, Samuel Beckett, Wallace Stevens, William Gaddis. Through his study of such distinctive stylists, Gerke has made himself into what he calls a “page-hugger” — “That is, I glorify each individual sentence for its words, and for the ‘world’ or ‘soul’ revealed in its architecture.” As Nabokov taught his students at Cornell, in reading one should always caress the details.
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.
THE BAD SIDE OF BOOKS
Selected Essays of D.H. Lawrence
Edited by Geoff Dyer
New York Review Books. 489 pp. Paperback, $19.95
97, 196 WORDS
Essays by Emmanuel Carrère
Translated from the French by John Lambert
Farrar Straus and Giroux. 294 pp. $28
SEE WHAT I SEE
By Greg Gerke
Splice. 320 pp. Paperback, $18.99