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Flame into Being: The Life and Work of D.H.…

Flame into Being: The Life and Work of D.H. Lawrence (1985)

by Anthony Burgess

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Flame into Being: The Life and Work of D H Lawrence
At just over 200 pages this is not an in-depth study of either Lawrence’s works or his life but it does serve as an introduction to both, although perhaps rather an idiosyncratic one. Burgess admires Lawrence’s ability to let the writing pour out of him; much of what he wrote he saw little need to edit or re-vamp. I think Burgess has attempted a similar approach with this book; it has the feel of being written down just as the thoughts come to him. This is not to say that Burgess has written a poor book, far from it, as it is clear he knows his subject well, is himself a writer of the first order and would have carried out plenty of research beforehand.

Burgess races through Lawrence’s life chronologically devoting time along the way to review his novels and other works as they occurred. Part of Lawrence’s genius was his intense observation of people and the natural world around him and his ability to express those observations in prose that captures the life of his subjects. Life flowed through him and onto his writing paper, wherever he happened to be and sparked his thinking and the creative process. While it is not essential or even desirable to have knowledge of the life of an author to appreciate his/her work, it is useful in Lawrence’s case because of the immediacy of his writing. Burgess reminds us of the trouble that Lawrence found himself in, because friends and acquaintances recognised themselves as characters in his novels. He drew down from life in a way that was at times quite reckless.

Burgess is an admirer of Lawrence and it is quite clear to him that “Women in Love” is one of the top ten novels of the 20th century, however this does not lead him to write a panegyric about this or any other of his novels. Burgess uses his critical facilities to point out the issues that the novels raise and there are always issues with Lawrence. Of Women in Love he reminds us that Lawrence was deep into the psychology of his characters without being impressed with psychoanalytical theory which was burgeoning at the time. Burgess says of Lawrence:

“The artist is alone with his intuitions and, as always with this artist, takes terrible chances.”

Surely that is the essence of why Lawrence is still such an exciting read today. We do not need to agree with his conclusions but we can admire the powers of his observations and the poetry in nearly everything he wrote.

Burgess cannot help but be emotionally involved with his subject. When writing about Lawrence’s poetry he says after copying out some lines; “I have had difficulty in copying out those lines, because of the tears” and again at the end of the chapter when Burgess must deal with the Lawrence’s privations during the first world war “What comes next is very painful to write”. These interjections while provoking an emotional response also help the reader to feel that they are ‘in the moment’ with Burgess as he writes his book.

The reader is never in any doubt that this is first and foremost a celebrated author’s view on one of the greats of English Literature. We are always aware that this is Anthony Burgess writing the book and that his views come from a wide experience of reading and writing. My impressions are that Burgess does not have anything startlingly original to say, but some of his ruminations hit the target and provoke some thought. Burgess makes a plea to rank “Kangaroo” (the Australian novel Lawrence wrote in little over 5 weeks) high in the canon, while dismissing novels like Aaron’s Rod as mere pot boilers. These are views that may raise eyebrows, but are not going to provoke heated discussions. A fine closing chapter looks back on the oeuvre as a whole and asks the question “What would Lawrence have gone on to write had he not succumbed to tuberculosis at 44 years old? .

I enjoyed this book which is written with verve and panache. Lawrence and his work come alive, both for the experienced Lawrence observer and I think for those people who want a fairly quick introduction to the world of D H Lawrence. There is no index and a very short Bibliography. ( )
11 vote baswood | Jul 1, 2012 |
What a thumping, whizz-bang biography-cum-literary-critique this is! Never having read anything by Burgess, only having seen the unfortunate film version of A Clockwork Orange at an unfortunately young age, I came to this book with little in the form of expectations. I had read his introduction to Mervyn Peake’s ‘Titus novels’, which I enjoyed, but I was not really prepared for how entertaining and erudite Burgess can be. He writes exceptionally well, turning what could be either a damned dry exercise in hagiography, or a vituperative denunciation, into something life-affirming and quite interesting indeed.

Many people strongly dislike D.H. Lawrence. They have their reasons, some more reasonable than others. I like him, or rather, I like his work. Admittedly, I have not read that much of his oeuvre – most of the poetry, some of the short stories, none of the novels, I am ashamed to admit. I will rectify this soon. Whatever you think of Lawrence as a person, or as a writer, you have to admit he was an original. I would say that he was a genius – maybe a cracked genius, depending on one’s views of him, but still brilliantly unique. Burgess obviously agrees with this view, but he does not flinch from criticising Lawrence’s failures. Burgess contends that Lawrence’s works must be approached as a totality. One cannot really come to a conclusion about Lawrence only on the basis of one of his works. Especially if that work is, ahem, Lady Chatterley’s Lover. In his quest to elucidate Lawrence’s peculiar brilliance, Burgess follows his biography, while lavishing most of his attention on Lawrence’s artistic output. The son of a barely literate coal-miner, Lawrence never went to Oxbridge, never became acceptable during his life, was buried in New Mexico, not Westminster Abbey, and still elicits jeers from certain cognoscenti of the written word. Lawrence has been yoked to many causes, from prophet of sexual revolution in the 60’s to writer of the proletariat in modern times. He would probably have detested these appropriations of his ‘meaning’. Or maybe not. Lawrence was a contradiction as much as anything else. He believed many things, then repudiated them later. What matters is that ‘he stands for that fighting element in the practice of literature without which books are a mere décor or a confirmation of the beliefs and prejudices of the ruling class.’

Lawrence was versatile, prolific, and modern, while retaining the great eye for detail of a Thomas Hardy (that other poet-novelist) or a George Eliot. Burgess maintains at the end, after looking at all of Lawrence’s works, even the ephemera, that Lawrence was, in the end, a ‘professional writer’. He wrote to earn money, without ever bowing to Mammon or popular taste. He was also ‘professional’ in that he ‘professed’ to writing as a vocation. Apparently, he could write in any circumstances, interrupting his work mid-sentence to pay attention to domestic chores, which his wife, Frieda, apparently left to him. In many ways, as an aspiring writer, I am jealous of Lawrence’s abilities, of his genius. Anyone would be. But I would not have liked to be Lawrence. He seems to have been a volatile, often dislikeable person, and his circumstances were never the most amenable to sanity or health (he was tubercular all his life, and died from this in a sanatorium in Vence, Switzerland). He was, however, also a generous, loving person at times. What matters to us is what he has left us. It is quite a large bequest from someone who only lived to be 44 years old. I am with Burgess in praising Lawrence’s attitude to art, with Lawrence always being ‘on the side of life’. As Burgess says at the end, ‘We need his perpetual reminder that all literature is subversive. And, whatever life is, we need the eloquence of his allegiance to it.’

I look forward to reading more of D.H. Lawrence and, not incidentally, Anthony Burgess, in the future. This is an inspiring book for those who want to learn something about Lawrence, and are willing to look behind their preconceived notions about him. It is also entertaining and funny. What more can you ask from a literary biography? ( )
13 vote dmsteyn | Mar 26, 2012 |
Burgess, a confirmed Joycean, is temperamentally and artistically at odds with Lawrence. But Burgess admires Lawrence's ``intransigence,'' sympathises with his ``sufferings on behalf of free expression,'' and strongly identifies with him as a professional writer, engaged ``in the daily struggle to make words behave.'' Burgess is most interesting when he is offering idiosyncratic literary judgments (he argues on behalf of Kangaroo ) or recording the history of his own attitudes toward Lawrence. The book has an engaging personal flavour throughout, and could serve as a readable though somewhat eccentric introduction to Lawrence. Burgess regards Lawrence with detached interest.
  antimuzak | May 9, 2007 |
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D.H. Lawrence died in March 1930, when I was just thirteen years old and too unliterary to notice.
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