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Sea and Sardinia (1921) is one of the most entertaining and witty travel narratives one can read. A remarkable travel book dominated by robust motion, it includes rugged movement by boat, bus, and train and is filled with colorful descriptions of the vital people and beautiful places of Italy. Sea and Sardinia grows from D. H. Lawrence’s desire to be free physically and intellectually, to achieve health, and to find leadership in a world virtually destroyed by World War I. What makes the book interesting today is twofold. First, there is a bit of history in how it captures the mood after the Great War. Second, it is a work steeped in the turbulent and impulsive personality of one of the most important modern writers. Add to the mix Lawrence’s wife, Frieda, cousin to Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron flying ace of World War I, a connection that caused the Lawrences grief in England—they were scrutinized and harassed as spies. While Lawrence and Frieda found solace in travel after the war, even their new home, Sicily, could not completely appease inevitable boredom, so they looked curiously across the blue sea to mountainous Sardinia, eager for wonders there. Another twist is the tempestuous marriage of Frieda and Lawrence—Frieda is rumored to have once thrown a frying pan at Lawrence. Stress and strain combust violently and comically in the book. Sea and Sardinia encourages today’s reader to enter curiously into another time and place, to embrace emotionally its people, and to apprehend vigorously elemental life—a journey to discover self as well as to chart land and sea.
D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930) was born at Eastwood, Nottinghamshire, England. He was a scholarship student at Nottingham High School and later placed in the first division of the King’s Scholarship exam. After study at Nottingham University College for a teaching certificate, he worked near London at the Davidson Road School, Croydon. Lawrence was ill much of his life, and serious illness in 1911 (neither the first nor last) forced him out of the rigors of teaching. He decided to focus on writing as a career. His parents, who had a stormy marriage themselves, could not understand such a decision. His single-minded father (and most of the family) worked in coal mines, so it was assumed the sons would too. His practical mother, with genteel aspirations, preferred an established career and steady income. Lawrence, an intellectual and emotional maverick, had to forge his own way. The aspiring author had several romances and affairs up to the time in Croydon, and these are treated in his early works, The White Peacock, The Trespasser, and famously, Sons and Lovers. In May 1912, Lawrence visited a former professor to seek advice about tutoring in Germany, but Lawrence got more than he anticipated—he found sex. Lawrence met and ran off with the professor’s wife, Frieda, thus beginning their lifelong trek through Europe, the East, Australia, Mexico, and the American Southwest. Frieda, a personality in her own right, had lived in sexual freedom with her sister and Sigmund Freud’s pupil, Otto Gross, in Germany. Frieda is credited with introducing Lawrence to Freudian ideas, and one can trace aspects of her in some of the captivating female characters in his great works. In spite of his failing health and battle with tuberculosis (to which he succumbed, dying in Vence, southern France), D. H. Lawrence was a prolific writer of extraordinary originality and talent, redefining human consciousness and sexuality for generations of readers up to the present day.
Not only is Lawrence a great novelist, but he is an enduring poet, an important short-story writer, and his many nonfiction prose works, such as his travel writings, stand magnificently on their own. Human themes—still relevant today—that Lawrence addresses in Sea and Sardinia and in other works include the search for self-identity; the quest for an ideal community; the pursuit of living in contact with real people as distinct individuals; and the desire for liberty under a strong, heroic leader. Lawrence is regarded as one of the most important modern English writers from a time that includes such giants as Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, E. M. Forster, Katherine Mansfield, and Aldous Huxley. Typically, modernist works elicit new forms of expression (in rebellion to nineteenth-century realism and moral codes) and grapple with a world fraught with rampant instability and anxiety. Although Lawrence was familiar with notables from the famous Bloomsbury circle (such as the philosopher Bertrand Russell), he was not among their group. His controversial book The Rainbow, which was laden with sexuality and anti-war sentiment, was published in 1915. The novel was censured, banned, and destroyed. During the war (1916) Lawrence wrote another great work, Women in Love, critical of modern sensibility to such a degree that the book was not published until 1920 in New York and a year later in London.
Sea and Sardinia is the second of three travel books Lawrence wrote related to Italy, the others being Twilight in Italy (1916) and Sketches of Etruscan Places (posthumously 1932). Lawrence also wrote Mornings in Mexico (1927) in his continuing search for primal connection to indigenous people in nature. In the miasma of post-war fatigue, travel stimulates in Lawrence a search for new meanings and identity. Unlike other travel writers, Lawrence does not record and report, he participates in the spirit of the place. In the early 1920s, Lawrence was working on Aaron’s Rod (1922), the first of his so-called leadership novels and a book that examines sexual roles in marriage. The other leadership books are his Australian novel Kangaroo (1923) and his Mexican novel The Plumed Serpent (1926). Lawrence’s interest in what he calls “maleness” is, therefore, strongly felt in Sea and Sardinia. He regrets the passing of singularity and how the modern world eliminates the individual in its mandate to equalize and mediocritize. This enduring theme continues in Lawrence’s most daring and sexually explicit work, his compelling last novel written after life-threatening tubercular hemorrhages, Lady Chatterley’s Lover (privately printed in Italy, 1927).
Sea and Sardinia takes the reader from Palermo, through Sardinia, back to Sicily, where Lawrence and Frieda had made their home at the time (in Taormina). Lawrence scholar Howard Mills says that Sea and Sardinia is the single effective representation of all of Lawrence’s output. Author Richard Aldington, who personally knew Lawrence, says that the narrative is “accessible” to initiates of Lawrence’s work. As late as 1971, novelist Anthony Burgess characterizes the book as “charming.” When Sea was published, the initial reviews were mixed and apparently ignorant to Lawrence’s gifts of descriptive realism. Early critics failed to see the astute perceptions about the rising tide of fascism. Sea and Sardinia questions the banal inclusiveness of democracy and looks for the exceptional person who is different and heroic.
The book opens with a meditation on Mount Etna as a centering device for Lawrence’s psyche. Contemplating the magnitude of feminine nature in Mount Etna, Lawrence decides to go to Sardinia because he feels a need to escape what is European, desires a place remote from a world ravished by World War and mechanization. We are aware of Lawrence as a speaker, with his unmistakably incisive voice: angry but not without humor, a Romantic tendency to glorify one’s experience. Lawrence the author is also narrator-husband-character, conversing with himself about the wonders he encounters, creating a poetic prose of “unsymmetrical beauty.” It is more gratifying if the reader simply accepts that the narrator is self-consciously D. H. Lawrence. Jill Franks rightly describes the book as having an “appealingly hyperbolic style”—caricaturing Lawrence himself, Frieda, the Italians, men and women, and social ranks. While this book is not an imaginative work, it is not journalism, since there is a strong narrative voice that characteristically displays Lawrence’s particular “wider than ordinary scale of values.”
For the Italians conversazione is primary—not just conversation but the ability to touch one another verbally. Sea and Sardinia is delightfully sprinkled with Lawrence attempting this sensation of touch, and he does so by invigorating certain Italian words. For example, Ecco! (Behold), Lawrence honestly reveals his opened palms to render forth symbolically the still-archaic Italian way of life. Quintessentially, Simpatico! (Engage) an untapped human tendency enabling one to be sympathetic and congenial. While Lawrence clearly stands apart from many people, his penetrating observations invite him to partake of and somehow to participate in the life he observes. Consequently, emotions are sometimes raw, and frequently Lawrence (and even Frieda) is enraged because of an incident, a person, or an ideological position. Often, Lawrence not only becomes angry but assumes that the reader knows his volatile temperament—perhaps his subtle way of drawing the reader into a book of incredible emotional vigor. Lawrence has a need to belong (to converse) while yet stand apart (to listen).
Approaching Sardinia, there is a cosmic sensibility and sensual sound to the poetic prose. Lawrence’s discourse on the wonders of sea travel (consider his poignant poem, “The Ship of Death”) reminds one of his life-quest for Rananim, an imagined utopia of exceptional individuals (somewhat realized at the Kiowa ranch in New Mexico). From the boat, Lawrence sees Cagliari as a remote place without limits, as a sustained primitive past exuding an enticingly strange essence. Elsewhere in the narrative, parts of rocky and remote Sardinia pleasantly remind Lawrence of Celtic Cornwall. At this point Lawrence says he is not a standard travel writer. He does not follow a formula prescribed by the publisher of a guidebook or compose a script readers would expect (found in the popular Baedeker travel guides of the time). Lawrence approaches a place through its people and asks readers to partake of a conversation at the feast of life. We find in Sea and Sardinia, similar to his Italian novel The Lost Girl (1920), an intriguing mystery, surprise, and wonder about the needs and desires of real people. Lawrence reforms travel writing as a genre, moving it beyond a task that reports to a medium that engages. In the aromatic Cagliari market Lawrence generates a catalog of poultry and meats, cheeses, breads and vegetables, served in radiant colors and delicious shapes.
Suddenly, Lawrence and Frieda encounter an unexpected sight, a carnival crowd of dancing men in costume. The experience of carnival is an important means for integrating oneself with the people—at a premium considering a moribund post-war Europe. Lawrence sees a peasant in costume and marvels at the subtle and confident exhibition of vital, not physical, manliness. The peasant man represents a remnant from the primal past, and Lawrence recognizes in him a passing of the strong individual. At present, Lawrence sees instead a mob mentality where individual identity is merged into the mass as a symptom of democracy. Peasant women, too, are bold and self-assured. The women are not held aloft, as they are in Sicily and Italy. Lawrence discovers in this costumed man a responsive archetypal image, an aspect of himself. In a similar manner, the reader is treated to the velvety, shadowy eyes of the Sardinians and the sense that there is something about them that precedes emergence from Plato’s cave, an instinctual rather than a rational knowing. As Anthony Burgess says, for Lawrence instinct predominates over reason.
Lawrence has an uncanny ability to be observer-traveler and yet writer-participant. Such a complex posture occurs on the train to Sorgono when working men board and Lawrence is aware that they are separate and isolated. Here are men animalistic and primitive in their insistent free spirit. They possess a self-center, literally and figuratively, that gives them a balance lost to the modern European. These nearly medieval men, self-determined and not concerned with uniformity, possess and exude a fierce individualism. Men like these have not lost any distinct personal identity in the blended unity of modern political movements. Lawrence admires this type of courageous person, but it is not clear whether or not he advocates such rock-solid singularity to the exclusion of others. There is a salubrious singleness to the Sardinian which permits him or her to work alone and gives the reader something other than—a nature that is physical and yet transfiguring.
At a dirty hotel in Sorgono, Frieda and Lawrence encounter a representative primal man roasting a kid-goat. His quiet presence acts as a salve to Lawrence’s psychic discomfort. In spite of his isolation the old man embodies the archetypal image of self-contentment in place. Then there appears another representative type, a peripatetic hawker of goods, who tries to displace the sedentary roaster. Lawrence admires this second man since he wants nothing. The connection is understood in the moniker Lawrence attaches to the itinerant man, girovago—wanderer, much as Lawrence is in a literal (physical) and figurative (intellectual) sense. Never could Lawrence become part of the mass herd. Instead he stands on the perimeter and participates vicariously in observation. For instance, Frieda and Lawrence witness another carnival (in Nuoro), where young men dress as women and wear masks, a simple cloth covering the upper portion of the face. In their ritualistic, life-affirming game there is gentleness between the men and the women.
Homeward bound in a train from Rome to Naples, there is chatter of money and pensions (and defeat of the heroic Italian poet-nationalist Gabriele D’Annunzio). Then someone discovers Lawrence is English and complains about the dreaded topic, the exchange rate (cambio) that allows the English to enjoy the benefits of Italy for practically nothing. Lawrence explodes, asserting that all he does is pay. For example, a tiny boy who carried luggage refused with ingratitude Lawrence’s tip and demanded more. Lawrence is infuriated that he is equated with a nation and its responsibility (or irresponsibility). While the author argues for individualism, in Naples, purchasing boat tickets to Sicily, he pushes himself to the front of the crowd, and in the thick of people he nevertheless feels sympathy with them. Symbolically, the book concludes with a puppet show in Palermo and Lawrence’s meditation on identity and leadership. In the theatre (with a playful undercutting of the individualism theme) Lawrence feels a warm contact with the others, a male camaraderie he is reluctant to relinquish.
Finally, as Lawrence would urge, Pronto! Get ready to begin your journey! Imagine a world without globalization, a Europe devoid of unification, a rudimentary place unsullied by tourists. So was Sardinia in 1921, a world struggling to overcome the baneful influences of World War I and grappling with modern machines and ideologies. Lawrence’s response to such strife and uncertainty can be felt among us today, and so we have in this book a reflection of what we are and the answer to who we should become.
Gregory F. Tague, Ph.D., teaches writing and literature at St. Francis College, New York. In addition to his published scholarly studies, reference articles, and literary essays, he is the author of Character and Consciousness (Academica Press, 2005).
Posted January 3, 2010
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Posted January 9, 2010
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Posted August 8, 2014
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