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A case for D.H. Lawrence as a father of modern travel writing

D.H. Lawrence’s “Sketches of Etruscan Places and Other Essays” imagines a long-ago vitality of life amid the remnants of Etruscan civilization in Italian towns such as Cerveteri, home to the Necropoli della Banditaccia, a UNESCO World Heritage site. (Gianni Dagli Orti/Shutterstock)

The sixth in an occasional series on the books that spurred our love of travel.

“I am not Baedeker,” D.H. Lawrence forewarns readers of his travel writing from Italy. Instead of train schedules, recommended hotels and museum hours, what Lawrence sought to capture was both less concrete and more profound than the 19th-century German publisher Baedeker, still synonymous with travel guides and tourism.

The result — in Lawrence’s “Sketches of Etruscan Places and Other Italian Essays” as well as two earlier collections focusing on Italy — created a template for the very best travel writing. It could be a hybrid literary genre, Lawrence demonstrated, one that seamlessly mixes closely observed, naturalistic details with the kind of inward reflections found in essays and memoirs. Adding spice to the mix, he never feared to offend with his sharp historical analysis sprinkled with cultural and social criticisms.

The son of an English coal miner, Lawrence spent much of his life in self-imposed exile traveling the world — not only Europe, but also Australia, Sri Lanka, Mexico and the United States. To discover new places was, for Lawrence, to be inspired to discover what truly matters. The more particular the place, the more universal the truth.

After only a few hours in a place, the energetic Lawrence would quickly scribble knowledgeable reports as though he’d lived there all his life. For contemporaneous author Rebecca West, this seemed “obviously a silly thing to do.” Only after his death in 1930 did she come to appreciate that his travel writing reflected “the state of his soul at that moment” — conveying an immediate response to a particular place. With this focus on personal experience to capture the spirit of a place, Lawrence can perhaps be said to be a founder of modern travel writing.

Great reads for the armchair traveler

Best known for his erotic novels, such as “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” (initially banned for obscenity in the United States and the United Kingdom), Lawrence is seldom thought of as a travel writer, however. In his short life (44 years), he was amazingly prolific: 12 novels, almost 800 poems, 12 short-story collections, a number of plays. He also was an accomplished painter and translator of books from Italian. Besides the three travel books devoted to Italy, he produced only one other travel book: “Mornings in Mexico and Other Essays.”

But to this travel writing, he brought the same intense vigor as he did to his novels’ most titillating love scenes. To be alive, passionately alert! To experience as much as humanly possible what the wondrous world has to offer! That’s the constant theme to be found in whatever he wrote, even when he embarked on normally staid literary criticism.

“What one wants is the actual vital touch,” he asserts in his Italian travel sketches, not “an illustrated lecture.”

When travelers go to Italy, they are typically drawn to the Romans and the remnants of their empire. But Etruscans, who came centuries before the Romans, were people, too, Lawrence reminds us — and thus worthy of our attention, too. Much as his novels liberated the subject of sex, so his travel writing transcended conventional thinking.

In the long-ago-vanquished Etruscans, Lawrence found a vitality missing in the early 20th century’s “mechanical age,” in which he was fated to live. What remains of their now-vanished civilization — especially the tombs carved out of living rock — reflects a “strange spirit of place.” This unique sense of time and place, Lawrence hopes, “will smash our mechanical oneness into smithereens.”

Located in the western flank of the Italian peninsula, facing the Tyrrhenian Sea, Etruscan settlements were concentrated north of Rome through Tuscany into the Po Valley. The earliest evidence of Etruscan civilization dates from roughly 900 B.C. (The exact timing is a matter of some debate.) The Roman-Etruscan wars, culminating during the 3rd century B.C., led to Rome’s total assimilation of Etruscan society.

Lawrence laments the forgotten Etruscan consciousness, as expressed in their tombs’ carvings and statuary. Lawrence being Lawrence, he finds special resonance in the stone symbols of the phallus and the womb. At times, this lamentation turns polemical in equating “mechanistic, militaristic” Rome’s powerful ambitions with imperial Britain and fascist Italy. The Romans, according to Lawrence, “hated the phallus and the ark [womb], because they wanted empire and domination and, above all, riches.”

Formatted as chapters devoted to specific places, Lawrence’s “Sketches of Etruscan Places” collection focuses on the towns of Cerveteri, Tarquinia, Vulci and Volterra. Tarquinia and its painted tombs command three chapters. A final chapter covers the Etruscan antiquities at a Florence museum.

While everyone else is decluttering, I’m keeping the books that made me a traveler

When it comes to museum-going, Lawrence seems to confess to a kind of weary inattention, which I often share. And he has absolutely no patience for the National Archaeological Museum of Florence, which features Etruscan and other antiquities dislocated from their place of origin. Although he acknowledges that the museum is “vastly instructive if you want object-lessons about Etruscans,” he then rhetorically asks: “But who wants object-lessons about vanished races? What one wants is a contact. The Etruscans aren’t a theory or a thesis. If they are anything, they are an experience.”

Experience! That was what I sought when, as a callow and hormonal high school student, I first discovered Lawrence. His passionate poems and racy fiction spoke to me — imparting a wise worldliness I could foolishly pretend to possess.

Many years later, it is his book of Etruscan places that resonates. I am now much older (but certainly no wiser) than the author when he wrote them. For he was still young, yet dying of tuberculosis. Though never explicitly mentioned in these essays, he surely knew that he was dying, according to biographer Frances Wilson, because his weight had dropped to “only seven stones,” or 98 pounds.

What he does mention — indeed, dwell upon — is the notion of death itself. “As if expecting Lazarus risen.” These are the words Lawrence chooses to describe a Volterra resident’s “bright inquiry.” Translucent alabaster sarcophagi, the author describes as “curiously alive and attractive.”

Both the death of Etruscan civilization and the death of individual Etruscans are the focus of Lawrence’s attention. How they prepared for death showed that they saw it as a continuation of life, not its end. The afterlife would be not much different from their earthly existence in this beautiful place in the heart of Italy.

Noting that the Etruscans “built everything of wood — houses, temples,” Lawrence remarks that their “cities vanished as completely as flowers. Only the tombs, like bulbs, were underground.”

Spacious burial chambers, often carved out of bedrock to resemble living quarters, thus remain the only Etruscan architectural constructions to survive. Laid out as if on city streets, these tombs and their furnishings fascinated Lawrence. Preparing himself for his own imminent death? Readers might naturally wonder.

In these Etruscan travel essays, pages and pages of descriptions and interpretations are devoted to what he finds inside the tombs, including porches, columns, household items made out of stone and tufa beds. Elaborate decorations on the limestone walls depict the details of Etruscan life; for Lawrence, this clearly shows that these ancient people saw death not as something to fear but simply as a natural extension of life.

This life is in natural harmony with the local countryside, whose rolling hills Lawrence lovingly conveys to readers as similar to waves on water: “like looking at the choppy sea from the prow of a tall ship.” As for some of the artwork found inside the tombs, it seems “well-cooked like spaghetti.”

Almost a century later, his words have not yet died and doubtlessly never will. On March 2, 1930, at age 44, Lawrence the man died just across the Italian border in the south of France. His “Sketches of Etruscan Places” was published posthumously in 1932.

Today’s readers can find “Sketches of Etruscan Places” in a collection titled “D.H. Lawrence and Italy,” published by Penguin in both print and digital editions. It includes his earlier “Twilight in Italy and Other Essays” (1916) and “Sea and Sardinia” (1921), as well as an appendix of appreciation written by novelist and critic Anthony Burgess in 1972.

Nicklin is a writer based in Virginia and Maine. Find him on Twitter: @RoadTripRedux.

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