Might not the psyche of writer and reader mesh powerfully in quarrel?
Like Hardy, Lawrence’s writing is extremely sensitive to issues of fear and courage. In Sons and Lovers the moral veto that Miriam places on sex before marriage is “unmasked” by her boyfriend Paul as merely fear finding an alibi in moral convention. In an extremely bold move Paul declares fear to be the evil, not sex. Victorian morality is turned on its head; for those in love, Paul insists, making love is a moral imperative. Fear is a betrayal of life. While writing this novel, we recall, the author ran off with a married woman, encouraging her to abandon her husband and three young children.
Reading Lawrence’s strange Study of Thomas Hardy, we can see that he was intensely locked into Hardy’s imaginative world; the two of them shared the same need to find a position over issues of fear (one thinks of a poem like “Snake”). But what Lawrence hated in Hardy was that his characters so often choose not to be courageous, or when they are bold and defy convention the gesture is presented as merely reckless and they are destroyed by it. He must always “stand with the average against the exception,” Lawrence complains. It is as if Hardy were constantly reminding himself through his writing of all the reasons why he had stayed so long in an unhappy marriage and why he always made a point of being seen in church even if he didn’t believe in God.
It’s interesting that in his time Hardy’s novels were severely criticized for being immoral, because he suggested that society’s crushing of sinners and above all adulterers was cruel. Today there is no such criticism and we all (excluding, perhaps, evangelicals like my parents) side gladly with Tess, Jude, and Hardy’s many other victims of Victorian severity. We have a different take on life because we grew up in different systems. Lawrence, on the other hand, has enjoyed no such turn around in reader response. He is so forthright as a storyteller, so determined to have his way, and so blithely unconcerned when a pusillanimous character is brushed aside by anyone who has the courage to live life to the full; one thinks of poor Banford in The Fox, dispatched without pity because she stands in the way of Henry and March’s marriage, or indeed of Professor Weekley himself, whom Lawrence deprived of an extraordinary wife.
What I’m suggesting then is that much of our response to novels may have to do with the kind of “system” or “conversation” we grew up in and within which we had to find a position and establish an identity. Dostoevsky is always and immediately enthralling for me. The question of whether and how far to side with good or evil, with renunciation or indulgence, grabs me at once and takes me straight back to my adolescence. And how I loathe the end of his books where the sinner repents and gets on his knees and sees the error of his ways in an ecstasy of self-abasement. I love Dostoevsky, but I argue furiously with him. Same with an author like Coetzee in Disgrace. I feel locked into the same conversation. Beyond any question of “liking” these books are important to me.
On the other hand, when I read, say, the Norwegian writer, Per Petterson, who again is chiefly concerned with fear, vulnerability to the elements and the terror of being abandoned by those we have most trusted, I immensely admire his writing, but find it hard to care. When asked on two occasions to review Petterson I read every word carefully and with pleasure and gave the novels the praise they very much deserve, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to read another book of his. His world, the disturbing imagery he draws on, the rhythm and pacing of his sentences, are far removed from my concerns. Affinities, as Goethe tells us, are important. Few works of art can have universal appeal.