Out of Sheer Rage
Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence
By Geoff Dyer
Picador Copyright © 1997 Geoff Dyer
All rights reserved.
Looking back it seems, on the one hand, hard to believe that I could have wasted so much time, could have exhausted myself so utterly, wondering when I was going to begin my study of D. H. Lawrence; on the other, it seems equally hard to believe that I ever started it, for the prospect of embarking on this study of Lawrence accelerated and intensified the psychological disarray it was meant to delay and alleviate. Conceived as a distraction, it immediately took on the distracted character of that from which it was intended to be a distraction, namely myself. If, I said to myself, if I can apply myself to a sober – I can remember saying that word 'sober' to myself, over and over, until it acquired a hysterical, near-demented, ring – if I can apply myself to a sober, academic study of D. H. Lawrence then that will force me to pull myself together. I succeeded in applying myself but what I applied myself to – or so it seems to me now, now that I am lost in the middle of what is already a far cry from the sober academic study I had envisaged – was to pulling apart the thing, the book, that was intended to make me pull myself together.
I had decided years earlier that I would one day write a book about D. H. Lawrence, a homage to the writer who had made me want to become a writer. It was a cherished ambition and as part of my preparation for realising this cherished ambition I had avoided reading anything by Lawrence so that at some point in the future I could go back to him if not afresh then at least not rock-stale. I didn't want to go back to him passively, didn't want to pick up a copy of Sons and Lovers aimlessly, to pass the time. I wanted to read him with a purpose. Then, after years of avoiding Lawrence, I moved into the phase of what might be termed pre-preparation. I visited Eastwood, his birthplace, I read biographies, I amassed a hoard of photographs which I kept in a once-new document wallet, blue, on which I had written 'D.H.L.: Photos' in determined black ink. I even built up an impressive stack of notes with Lawrence vaguely in mind but these notes, it is obvious to me now, actually served not to prepare for and facilitate the writing of a book about Lawrence but to defer and postpone doing so. There is nothing unusual about this. All over the world people are taking notes as a way of postponing, putting off and standing in for. My case was more extreme for not only was taking notes about Lawrence a way of putting off writing a study of – and homage to – the writer who had made me want to become a writer, but this study I was putting off writing was itself a way of putting off and postponing another book.
Although I had made up my mind to write a book about Lawrence I had also made up my mind to write a novel, and while the decision to write the book about Lawrence was made later it had not entirely superseded that earlier decision. At first I'd had an overwhelming urge to write both books but these two desires had worn each other down to the point where I had no urge to write either. Writing them both at the same time was inconceivable and so these two equally overwhelming ambitions first wore each other down and then wiped each other out. As soon as I thought about working on the novel I fell to thinking that it would be much more enjoyable to write my study of Lawrence. As soon as I started making notes on Lawrence I realised I was probably sabotaging forever any chance of writing my novel which, more than any other book I had written, had to be written immediately, before another protracted bout of labour came between me and the idea for what I perceived as a rambling, sub-Bernhardian rant of a novel. It was now or never. So I went from making notes on Lawrence to making notes for my novel, by which I mean I went from not working on my book about Lawrence to not working on the novel because all of this to-ing and fro-ing and note-taking actually meant that I never did any work on either book. All I did was switch between two – empty – files on my computer, one conveniently called C: \DHL, the other C: \NOVEL, and sent myself ping-ponging back and forth between them until, after an hour and a half of this, I would turn off the computer because the worst thing of all, I knew, was to wear myself out in this way. The best thing was to do nothing, to sit calmly, but there was no calm, of course: instead, I felt totally desolate because I realised that I was going to write neither my study of D. H. Lawrence nor my novel.
Eventually, when I could bear it no longer, I threw myself wholeheartedly into my study of Lawrence because, whereas my novel was going to take me further into myself, the Lawrence book – a sober academic study of Lawrence – would have the opposite effect, of taking me out of myself.
I felt happy because I had made up my mind. Now that I had made up my mind to throw myself wholeheartedly into one of the possible books I had been thinking about writing I saw that it didn't actually matter which book I wrote because books, if they need to be written, will always find their moment. The important thing was to avoid awful paralysing uncertainty and indecision. Anything was better than that. In practice, however, 'throwing myself wholeheartedly' into my study of Lawrence meant making notes, meant throwing myself half-heartedly into the Lawrence book. In any case, 'throwing myself wholeheartedly into my study of Lawrence' – another phrase which became drained of meaning as it spun round my head – was actually impossible because, in addition to deciding whether or not I was going to write my study of Lawrence, I had to decide where I was going to write it – if I was going to write it. 'If' not when because once my initial euphoric resolve had collapsed the possibility of writing the novel made itself felt again as an attractive option. And even if I didn't decide to write my study of Lawrence I still had to decide where I was going to live because, irrespective of whether or not I was going to write my study of Lawrence, I still had to live somewhere – but if I was going to write a book about Lawrence then that brought in a whole range of variables which I would need to weigh up when considering where to live, even though deciding where to live was already complicated by a massive number of variables.
One of the reasons, in fact, that it was impossible to get started on either the Lawrence book or the novel was because I was so preoccupied with where to live. I could live anywhere, all I had to do was choose – but it was impossible to choose because I could live anywhere. There were no constraints on me and because of this it was impossible to choose. It's easy to make choices when you have things hampering you – a job, kids' schools – but when all you have to go on is your own desires, then life becomes considerably more difficult, not to say intolerable.
Even money wasn't an issue since at this stage I was living in Paris and nowhere could have been more expensive than Paris. The exchange rate got worse by the month and Paris became more expensive by the month. Money was an issue insofar as it made me think I would rather be anywhere than Paris but in terms of where to go next, where to move to, it was almost irrelevant. What the money situation – more exactly, the exchange rate situation – in Paris did was to emphasise that although I thought I had settled in Paris, really I had just been passing through, extremely slowly. That is all anyone English or American can do in Paris: pass through. You may spend ten years passing through but essentially you are still a sightseer, a tourist. You come and go, the waiters remain. The longer I stayed the more powerful it became, this feeling that I was just passing through. I had thought about subscribing to Canal Plus as a way of making myself feel more settled but what was the point in subscribing to Canal Plus when, in all probability, I would be moving on in a few months? Obviously the way to make myself more settled was to acquire some of the trappings of permanence but there never seemed any point acquiring the aptly named trappings of permanence when in a couple of months I might be moving on, might well be moving on, would almost certainly be moving on, because there was nothing to keep me where I was. Had I acquired some of the trappings of permanence I might have stayed put but I never acquired any of the trappings of permanence because I knew that the moment these trappings had been acquired I would be seized with a desire to leave, to move on, and I would then have to free myself from these trappings. And so, lacking any of the trappings of permanence, I was perpetually on the brink of potential departure. That was the only way I could remain anywhere: to be constantly on the brink not of actual but of potential departure. If I felt settled I would want to leave, but if I was on the brink of leaving then I could stay, indefinitely, even though staying would fill me with still further anxiety because, since I appeared to be staying, what was the point in living as though I were not staying but merely passing through?
These were all issues I intended to address, in different ways, either in mediated form in my study of Lawrence or, directly, in my novel, or vice versa, but there was an additional practical complication too. Since I was obliged to spend a certain amount of time away from wherever I lived, and since the rent on my Paris apartment was so high (and, because of the exchange rate, was becoming higher every month) I was frequently obliged to sub-let it (strictly speaking to sub-sub-let it since I was sub-letting it myself) and since, if you are sub-letting your apartment, you do not want to acquire too many valuable or personal items which might get destroyed, it then comes about that you yourself are living in conditions arranged primarily for those sub-letting from you: effectively, you are sub-letting from yourself. That's what I was doing: sub-letting from myself (strictly speaking, sub-sub-letting), living in an apartment devoid of anything that might have made it my apartment in the sense of my home. I had conspired to arrange for myself the worst of all possible worlds and my days were spent in this unbreakable circle of anxiety, always going over the same ground, again and again, always with some new variable, but never with any change. I had to do something to break this circle and so, when Marie Merisnil from whom I was sub-letting my apartment said that she wanted to give up the apartment because she was marrying the awful Jean-Louis whom I loathed even though he had once lent me a pair of elegant, pale blue pyjamas when I was in hospital for a few days, I decided to sign a contract that would make me the official tenant (as opposed to the illegal sub-tenant). I wasn't even sure that I wanted to stay in an apartment where I had actually been extremely unhappy for ninety per cent of my stay, where ninety per cent of my stay had been dominated by anxiety about (a) whether I was going to stay and (b) whether I was going to start a novel or start my study of Lawrence, but as soon as the managing agents said that they were unwilling to let the place to me – a foreigner with no job and no steady income, I was a poor prospect in anyone's eyes, even my own – I became convinced that I had to stay in this apartment where I had been sublimely happy, that there was, in fact, nowhere else on earth where I could hope to be as content. Eventually my rich friend, Hervé Landry ('Money Landry', as I liked to call him), owner of several houses, including one on the Greek island of Alonissos, agreed to stand as guarantor. The managing agents relented, and I signed the lease that made me the official locataire.
I was ecstatic. For about five minutes. Then I realised I had taken on an awesome, not to say crippling responsibility. And far from solving the problem of where to live I had actually put a lid on it so that now my uncertainty was boiling away under pressure, threatening to blow me apart. The one thing I could be sure of was that I had to leave this apartment, where I had never known a moment's peace of mind, as soon as possible. If I stayed here, I saw now, I would fail to write both my novel and my study of Lawrence. That much was obvious. The trouble, the rub, was that I had to give three months' notice and therefore had to predict how I would be feeling three months hence which was very difficult. It was all very well deciding today that I wanted to leave but what counted was how I was going to be feeling three months from now. You could be perfectly happy today, I would say to myself, and three months from now you could be suicidal, precisely because you will see the enormity of the mistake you made by not renouncing the lease three months earlier. On the other hand, I would say to myself, you could be in utter despair today, convinced that another day in this apartment would kill you, convinced that it would be impossible to make any progress with your novel or your study of Lawrence and in three months' time you could see that it was only by remaining here that you survived the depression which will undoubtedly engulf you the moment you quit the apartment, as the rash act of renunciation committed three months previously will oblige you to do. Round and round I went, making no progress, resolving one thing one moment and another the next. 'I can't bear it any longer,' I would say to myself in the way that people always say 'I can't bear it any longer' to themselves, as a way, that is, of enabling them to go on bearing the unbearable. Eventually I really could bear it no longer, not for another second, and so I wrote to the agents and officially renounced the flat, claiming that 'professional' reasons had obliged me to return to England. The agents wrote back acknowledging my decision to leave the apartment. I wrote back saying that professional reasons now obliged me to remain in Paris. Could I therefore un-renounce my apartment? Relieved to be free of the trouble of re-letting it, the agents agreed to let me remain in the apartment which I had just renounced. And so it went on: I wrote again to renounce the apartment 'definitively'. They sent a somewhat curt acknowledgement of my decision. I wrote back changing my definitive decision to leave to a definitive decision to stay but it was too late, I had to leave.
Now that I did have to leave I was faced with the terrible prospect of having nowhere to live, of having to decide where to live without delay, and only then did I realise how much this apartment meant to me, how it had actually become my home. Although I'd believed that I had hardly any of my things in this apartment there were actually many of my own things that I now had to find a place for. Over the years I had actually acquired quite a few of the trappings of permanence. I even owned a surprising amount of furniture, some of it rather nice. Where was I going to store it? And what about me? Where was I going to store myself? Rome was a possibility. Laura, my almost-wife, had a lovely apartment in Rome and was always arguing in favour of our settling there but though Rome was an excellent place to spend time, I knew how depressed I always became there after a couple of months, especially during the winter. And even before I became depressed I knew how irritating I always found Rome, essentially because of the irrational closing times of shops, and the way films are dubbed into Italian. Still, Rome was a possibility – or would have been had Laura not sub-let her apartment. She had come to work in Paris for six months, partly to be with me, partly because this nice offer of work had come her way, but now she was back in Rome, sub-letting an apartment from someone else because her own apartment was sub-let. This is the true condition of western society on the brink of the millennium: everyone sub-letting from everyone else, no one quite sure whether they are leaving or staying, torn between being settlers and nomads, ending up as sub-letters. In the next few weeks she had to decide whether to continue to sub-let her flat or to move back in – and that depended in part on what I wanted to do because although we were used to spending a good deal of time apart we both felt that the moment had come when we should spend more time together, should even think about 'making our lives together' on a daily as well as an emotional basis. We already had our shared motto, almost shared, more accurately, because whereas Laura's version was 'Together Forever' mine was 'Together Whenever'. Laura liked the idea of us sticking together 'through thick and thin' whereas I opted for the more pessimistic 'through thin and thinner'. I was more than ready to put these semantic differences aside since if I was ever going to make any progress with my book about Lawrence – and get a reasonable shot at happiness into the bargain – I knew I would have to 'throw in my lot' with a woman as Lawrence had done with Frieda. Besides, I had already spent far too much time on my own. If I spent much more time on my own I would end up spending the rest of my life on my own. Even my crippling indecisiveness was primarily a symptom of having spent so much time on my own. In a couple decisions are argued and debated; when you are alone there is no one to argue and debate with. To render my solitude bearable, therefore, I had internalised the dynamic of a couple who spent their time bickering ceaselessly about where to live and what to do. The problem was that the woman with whom I going to throw in my lot was also chronically indecisive and it was only my still greater indecisiveness that led her to believe that she was the kind of woman who knew her own mind and stuck to her guns. Although she often argued in favour of living in Rome, for example, she was always thinking about settling in Paris, her favourite city, and frequently pined for America where she had grown up. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Out of Sheer Rage by Geoff Dyer. Copyright © 1997 Geoff Dyer. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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