Fascinating Writers, Alive and Dead: Danielle Geller, D. H. Lawrence & J. I. M. Stewart

I resolved to read more genres this year, and recently picked up Danielle Geller’s engrossing new memoir, Dog Flowers. This thoughtful, quiet, empathetic book deals with her acceptance of a deeply flawed family and problems of identity.

Raised in Pennsylvania by her white grandmother but a member of the Navajo nation, Geller grew up in a relatively stable home but took for granted the problems of her alcoholic, divorced, often homeless parents.

The impetus for the memoir is the death of her mother, Lee, who dies homeless in a hospital in Florida. Danielle flies from Boston to Florida to visit: Danielle’s sister Eileen has a drug problem, screams at her on the phone when she hears the news, and is in trouble with the law. So Danielle holds it all together: a nurse questions her presence, because she’d been told Lee had no family, and Danielle is upset by their assumptions about homelessness. And we readers learn about the challenges that kept Lee from living a normal life. She left the Reservation in Arizona at 19, and her sporadic heavy drinking made it impossible to keep a job.

After Lee’s death, Danielle finds scraps of her mother’s writing, diaries, and letters among her belongings. She cherishes these scraps, which show her mother’s love for her daughters and appreciation of their relationship . She visits her relatives on the Reservation, and they share memories of Lee. Later, Danielle is trained in library school as an archivist. And so she archives her mother’s writings, using them as footnotes to this narrative.

Geller’s writing is flawless, graceful, and moving. Her writing reminds me of Pam Houston’s. An excellent read.

AND NOW A CONNECTION BETWEEN D. H. LAWRENCE AND J. I. M. STEWART.

A few years ago I declared D. H. Lawrence my favorite writer. His writing is brilliant, hypnotic, and darkly irresistible–but sometimes he goes too far.

I love The Rainbow, which is one of the best English novels of the 20th century. But then, alas, I went on to The Plumed Serpent, which is positively risible. An Englishwoman, Kate, visits Mexico and marries Don Ramon, a wealthy general and landowner, who claims he is the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl:  one of his goals is to drive Christianity out of Mexico.  It’s not just Don Ramon’s ideas that are bad: it is an incredibly bad book.

So I must share a funny passage from from J. I. M. Stewart’s The Gaudy. The narrator, Duncan, literally runs into a girl at the library, and one of her books crashes to the ground.

It was The Plumed Serpent. Janet appeared to be on her way to return it to the desk.

“Did you like it?” I asked.

This was an eternal moment, for I had done something I couldn’t–until the words were spoken–have believed myself capable of. And it had never occurred to me that Janet Finley might read books.

“No, I didn’t!” Janet replied instantly, and with a vehemence apparently unconnected with any just outrage she might have felt at being addressed by me. “That woman Kate. She watches her husband murdering people, and their blood being sprinkled on a sacred fire. And it makes her ‘uneasy.’ Just that! Not mad with horror, or crazed with some daft religious ecstasy. ‘Uneasy’–and gloomy too. I’d be gloomy! But I supposed it’s all deeply true.’

“I don’t think anything of the sort.” Although my passion for Lawrence was at that time was fathomless, I felt it should be made known to Janet that a line has sometimes to be drawn in him.

This conversation goes on for another page–I loved The Gaudy, but it would be worth reading just for this.

Miscellaneous Notes:  D. H. Lawrence’s Essays and the Risks of an American Protest

WHAT I’M READING.  The Bad Side of Books: Selected Essays by D. H. Lawrence.  Last year I declared D. H. Lawrence my favorite writer on the basis of his masterpiece The Rainbow–though I admit his later novel The Plumed Serpent was trying, with excessive descriptions of drumming and dancing by Mexican rebels in an Aztec cult.

Fortunately, his nonfiction is fascinating.  In this brilliant collection of essays and criticism, my favorite piece is Memoir of Maurice Magnus, an account of Lawrence’s reluctant friendship with M–, a penniless German who became a professional sponger.  Lawrence first meets M__ at a cheap Italian hotel, where his friend D–  is staying; and M–  is so infatuated with D– that he runs the errands, ensures that the gourmet food is cooked properly, and is virtually a slave to him.  Later, Lawrence visits M–at  a monastery where he claims he wants to become a monk–until the police come after him for his debts. And from here all is downhill for M–.   Lawrence’s wife Frieda hated M–, who admittedly was a woman hater, and fumed at the top of the stairs when he came to beg Lawrence for money.  This sad, comic memoir reads like a novella.

THE RISKS OF AN AMERICAN PROTEST.  Like the majority of Americans, I am shocked by the racist police brutality that killed George Floyd. I wept over the video of his death.

But I cannot in good conscience support the continued protests.

Both blacks and whites are protesting, but we should remember that a disproportionate number of blacks have died of the virus.  According to the CDC, the highest death rates in  New York City have been among African Americans and blacks (92.3 deaths per 100,000 population) and Hispanics (74.3 per 100,000 population).  A study by APM Research Lab in May found that African Americans have died at a rate of 50.3 per 100,000 people, compared with 20.7 for whites, 22.9 for Latinos and 22.7 for Asian Americans.

The virus is still raging.  Isn’t it time to move on and get the vote out for November?

“The Plumed Serpent” by D. H. Lawrence

D. H. Lawrence is my favorite 20th-century English writer. Some of his books are masterpieces, others wildly uneven.  I loved them all in my teens, though some hold up better than others.   Recently I reread The Plumed Serpent, a lyrical but rather tedious novel, published in 1926, about the rise of a cult in Mexico (the cult is fictitious).  The cult centers on the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, who takes the form of a plumed serpent.  Don Ramon, a wealthy Mexican landowner, claims he is Quetzalcoatl:  one of his goals is to drive Christianity out of Mexico.  He also likes to be worshipped.

 Fortunately, we observe Mexican culture from the point-of-view of Kate Leslie, an Irish tourist who is the only fleshed-out character in the book, and perhaps the only one Lawrence understands. She is ambivalent about Mexico, and the politically correct should not venture into these pages.  

The Plumed Serpent begins promisingly enough at a bullfight in Mexico City.  Kate, her American cousin Owen, and their young friend Villiers sit in the broiling sun because they did not pay extra for seats in the shade.  The crowd  is rowdy, snatching straw hats off heads and throwing  them into the air, and when Owen takes off his hat they throw oranges at his bald spot. Poor Owen.  Why does he stay?  But it is the violence of the bullfights that repulses Kate.  She walks out.  

Kate is not politically correct. Readers today who do not know Lawrence’s work might consider this novel racist, sexist, anti-Mexican, anti-American, anti-European, but Kate and  Lawrence are concerned mostly about individualism.  In the 1920s, Kate hates most places and people:  she can’t stand the the U.S., finds Americans “mechanical,”  loathes England, isn’t crazy about Ireland, finds some Mexicans “reptilian,” and on and on. Obviously, Lawrence would have perceived things differently had he lived in our culture, but this was written in 1926.  Kate is well-traveled but she is having a bad time.  Lawrence writes,

She was more afraid of the repulsiveness than of anything.  She had been in many cities of the world, but Mexico had an underlying ugliness, a sort of squalid evil, which made Naples seem debonair in comparison.  She was afraid, she dreaded the thought that anything might really touch her in this town, and give her the contagion of its crawling kind of evil.

Despite her ambivalence, Kate stays in Mexico after Owen and Villiers go back to the U.S.  (She hates the U.S. more than Mexico.) She is attracted to Don Cipriano, an Indian general who has introduced her to Don Ramon.  But it’s not until she leaves Mexico City and rents a house on a beautiful lake near Don Ramon’s house that she sees the beauty of Mexico.  I empathize with Kate:  I, too, hated Mexico City on a trip   with a boyfriend who spoke Spanish but was culturally illiterate.  Alas, no Diego Rivera paintings or Aztec ruins for me!  All he wanted to do was drink. And then we spent 12 nonstop hours on a bus (without a restroom) to a supposedly Edenic seaside village, where there was donkey shit on the beach and I got a blistering sunburn.  He spent his days in the bar getting drunk and talking to the bartender while I drank Manzanita (apple pop) and read.  I huddled in the cockroach-infested hotel room reading One Hundred Years of Solitude,  Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and  part of George Eliot’s Romola.  I gazed with longing at the posh hotel where the Americans and Germans stayed.  I  yearned for good plumbing and a bug-free space.  (And it probably wasn’t even expensive.)

 Eventually we got out of that hellhole and went to Veracruz, which I loved.  It is one of the most gorgeous cities I’ve ever been. And that’s where I found The Plumed Serpent, the only English novel in the bookstore.   I adored the book back then.

I do enjoy Kate’s experiences, but the Quetzalcoatl cult, the dancing to drums, and the rants against Christianity  are endless.  There is also a horrifying military scene where the cult takes over the Catholic church in the village.  The narrative is interspersed with long hymns to Quetzalcoatl. If you like Lawrence’s poetry, you will enjoy some of the hymns perhaps.

I was looking forward to this reread, but, alas, this book is no longer for me. I prefer his realism in The Rainbow (which I wrote about here) and Women in Love to the symbolism of his later work.

A Rebel’s Masterpiece: D. H. Lawrence’s “The Rainbow”

If you need to escape the icy darkness of Winter 2019, read D. H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow.  His poetic prose can get a little manic, but he yanks you out of your dark world into a mystical possibility of symbolic nature and real relationships.

The Rainbow is a masterpiece. In an intense Lawrence phase in my teens, I devoured Women in Love, Sons and Lovers, The Fox, The Virgin and the Gypsy, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover (the latter not without laughter).  But I did not find a copy of The Rainbow till my mid-twenties, when a battered Modern Library edition  turned up at a (now defunct) used bookstore.  And this book was life-changing during a restless period when I was trying to decide whether to live happily underemployed in a small town or  become “a professional” in a city.

Did you know The Rainbow and  Women in Love are a duology?   The former tells the story of three generations of the Brangwen family, spanning sixtysome years from the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth century.   The longest section focuses on Ursula Brangwen, a New Woman  at the turn of the century who longs to escape the confines of family  but who despises the mechanical world of higher education and teaching. In the sequel, Women in Love, two couples battle to find balance in sexuality, Ursula and Rupert Birkin, who philosophizes about what that relationship should be, and artistic Gudrun, Ursula’s younger sister, and the wealthy Gerald Crich, whose father owns the colliery.

Like most of Lawrence’s novels, The Rainbow concentrates on sexual relationships.   Who will dominate?  Men or women?  (Women here.)  In the first section of the novel, Lawrence’s lead male and female characters are not only polarized by sex but belong to different cultures. Tom Brangwen, who is born in 1840, inherits the family farm and decides to marry Lydia Lensky, a Polish widow  who is a clergyman’s housekeeper. Tom and Lydia live in different worlds.  They can barely communicate.  He is inarticulate and rustic; she is a well-educated Polish landowner’s daughter who became a nurse and followed her  doctor husband to England.  And she has a young daughter, Anna.

But with Lawrence, any attempt to retell the plot is irrelevant: it is really the poetic language that counts. Lydia understands English but not English culture. Lawrence writes, “But she knew nothing of the English, nor of English life. Indeed, these did not exist for her. She was like one walking in the Underworld, where the shades throng intelligibly but have no connection with one. She felt the English people as a potent, cold, slightly hostile host amongst whom she walked isolated.”

The marriage breaks their isolation. It brings Lydia out of the underworld, and Tom into the world of human communication and sexual partnership.

In the next generation, Anna, Lydia’s daughter and Tom’s stepdaughter, becomes the matriarch. She marries her cousin, Will Brangwen, an aspiring artist and talented wood-carver who has a passionate interest in church architecture.  But Anna and Will, after their first happy weeks of marriage,  battle for dominance.  She likes the open sky, he likes cathedral ceilings.  She is happy to spend days in bed having sex, he is more Puritanical and feels he must work.  Then when she is pregnant, she does a weird Anna Victrix (Anna Conqueror) dance, which temporarily beaks her husband.  All right, Lawrence goes too far, and it’s ridiculous, and possibly misogynist, but it works in the context of the book.  Anna is always pregnant, and expresses herself through pregnancy and motherhood.  She has a special power!

Her oldest daughter Ursula has more opportunities than did the previous generations of women. A brilliant student of Latin, French, math, and botany, she seems to have a bright future.  But when it comes down to it, what can women do?  Teach.

And at seventeen, she finds herself teaching a class of 50 children at a school in an impoverished district.  There is a mechanical atmosphere, she cannot teach the children as individuals because they react as one large group,  and she does not know how to discipline them.   She has to use corporal punishment, which goes against everything she stands for.

At the end of the year, she leaves her hated job to go to college to earn a B.A.  At first she loves her classes, especially botany, but she becomes disillusioned by the view of learning as a path to earning money.   And so she neglects her work and embarks on an intense sexual relationship with  Srkebensky, a former boyfriend who fought in the Boer War and plans to go to India soon. They have great sex.  But does Ursula want to marry?

Any attempt to retell the plot is irrelevant:  Lawrence’s books depend on  poetic prose and convoluted ideas about the mysticism of sexual relationships and resistance to the mechanical society of work.

Naturally, his books appeal to rebels.  And even if we are  broken by winter (and the mechanical society, of course), we at core remain subversive.

The Rainbow was banned when it was published in 1915.  Poor Lawrence!  His books were always getting banned.