Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrenceby Geoff Dyer
FINALIST FOR THE NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD"In the spirit of Julian Barnes's Flaubert's Parrot and Alain de Botton's How Proust Can Change Your Life, Mr. Dyer's Out of Sheer Rage keeps circling its subject in widening loops and then darting at it when you least expect it . . . a wild book."--Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, The New York/b>… See more details below
FINALIST FOR THE NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD"In the spirit of Julian Barnes's Flaubert's Parrot and Alain de Botton's How Proust Can Change Your Life, Mr. Dyer's Out of Sheer Rage keeps circling its subject in widening loops and then darting at it when you least expect it . . . a wild book."--Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, The New York Times
Geoff Dyer was a talented young writer, full of energy and reverence for the craft, and determined to write a study of D. H. Lawrence. But he was also thinking about a novel, and about leaving Paris, and maybe moving in with his girlfriend in Rome, or perhaps traveling around for a while. Out of Sheer Rage is Dyer's account of his struggle to write the Lawrence book--a portrait of a man tormented, exhilerated, and exhausted. Dyer travels all over the world, grappling not only with his fascinating subject but with all the glorious distractions and needling anxieties that define the life of a writer.
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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, Herve 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.
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