I have never had any problem sleeping, losing consciousness within minutes of laying my head on the pillow. Yet, paradoxically, I have always been a light sleeper, snapping awake at untoward sounds and disturbed by encroaching light. Any happy balance I had achieved between these contradictory poles was instantly shattered when, in late April, we brought home our new Cocker Spaniel puppy. Not only did I get less – much less – than my preferred allocation of sleep (being woken and expected to play chase around the garden at 5am), my light sleeper mode went into overdrive, instantly waking at the slightest movement or sound from the puppy’s crate at the foot of our bed. The pup would shift, then fall asleep, while I lay sleepless and alert until the grey light of dawn spilled through the curtains and our noisy, thoughtless neighbours began tootling their blasted chorus.Soon my days were spent in a devastated blur of listless weariness. At any given moment all I wanted to do was close my eyes and sleep, but at the same time there was an unavoidable need to remain alert, monitoring the pup’s every movement for potential disaster (books, furniture, shoe chewing disaster) or urgent bladder or bowel calls). Soon I was incapable of coherent thought or the ability to express myself in sentences, let alone paragraphs. The limits of my expression were barked one-syllable commands. Days became weeks of indolence and I lost interest in anything that demanded mental exercise.
Reading seemed out of the question until, browsing in a city-centre bookstore one day, looking for something feather light and undemanding, I chanced upon White Sands, a recently republished collection by Geoff Dyer. An unclassifiable, off the wall blend of travel writing, essay, lit-crit and fiction, it suited my mood perfectly. I had enjoyed Dyer’s quirky approach through earlier exposure to books like But Beautiful (on jazz), The Ongoing Moment (photography) and The Missing of the Somme (one of the best meditations on the First World War and memory) so I knew what I was getting into. Veering between laugh out loud funny and erudite, White Sands’ accounts of various ‘thwarted expectations and disappointed hopes’ proved to be a tonic; what I needed to hold my fractured attention.
Marooned myself in house and garden, supervising a vaccination-curfewed canine, I warmed to Dyer’s stories of journeys that proved to be pointless. On a midwinter trip to the Arctic to see the aurora borealis he sees nothing in the freezing, pitch-black ‘northern dark’. With the temperature ‘a thousand degrees below zero’, he asks, ‘Why have we come to this hellhole?’ Dispatched by the Observer to Polynesia to write about Gauguin, he loses his research notes while changing planes in Los Angeles and finds not paradise but a disappointing succession of half-built, mediocre tourist traps. Dyer went to Tahiti to seek a deeper truth in the place where Gauguin painted his portentously-titled, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? All he discovers is boredom and disappointment:
In a sense that is what we’re here for: to wait. We are here to be bored rigid and then wonder how it was possible to be so bored … to feel what we have felt before, albeit only fleetingly: that we are glad we came … We are here to go somewhere else.
But, he concludes, ‘When I am no longer capable of disappointment the romance will be gone: I may as well be dead.’
Wanting more of this sort of thing, I moved on to munch my way through Yoga For Those Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It, and then Out of Sheer Rage. It was there I found Dyer’s words for the condition to which (he states) he most aspires to, and which most perfectly described my own mood: ‘the floaty indifference of contentment.’
Out of Sheer Rage may, I think, be Dyer’s masterpiece. What is it about? Well, the book slowly reveals itself as a brilliant, insightful study of DH Lawrence, though it’s only at about page 100 that this realisation dawns. Because – not to put too fine a point upon it – it’s also about the mental and physical anguish Dyer experiences in getting down to write a book about Lawrence, as he makes clear from the first sentence:
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 DH 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.
Embarking on a study of Lawrence, it turns out, means charting a choppy passage through waves of neurosis, inertia, obsession, apathy, introversion, extroversion, incongruity and instability. In other words it’s typical Dyer, and it’s about the human condition:
Life is bearable even when it’s unbearable: that is what’s so terrible, that is the unbearable thing about it.
Much of the book feels as if it’s been written in a terrible rage. Dyer takes his title – and the animating spirit of his book – from a letter Lawrence wrote on 5 September 1914: ‘Out of sheer rage I’ve begun my book on Thomas Hardy. It will be about anything but Thomas Hardy I am afraid – queer stuff – but not bad.’
Dyer’s book is queer stuff, too. But, in spending most of it explaining why he can’t knuckle down to write his Lawrence book, he succeeds in writing a Lawrence book that miraculously and cleverly reveals much about the man that may come as a surprise to those (like me – and, indeed, Dyer) who would be happy never to read the novels again. As Out of Sheer Rage wanders towards its conclusion, drawing particularly on the nine volumes of Lawrence’s collected letters, his travel writing and poetry, Dyer eloquently champions Lawrence’s genius, revealing a man of passion, compassion and self-deprecating wit; as happy building things from wood as he was railing and grouching against any little thing that annoyed him.
As for Dyer: he decides at the outset that for a writer to get down to work he must find a suitable place to work. Much of the book is taken up with his quest to find this ideal place. A friend invites Dyer and his wife to stay on the beautiful Greek island of Alonissos. Surely this must be the perfect place? But no:
Except for looking at the brochure-blue sea and sky – which after a couple of days, we scarcely even noticed – there was nothing to do and for that reason it was impossible to get any work done. The best circumstances for writing, I realized within days of arriving on Alonissos, were those in which the world is constantly knocking at your door; in such circumstances the work you were engaged in generated a kind of pressure, a force to keep the world at bay. Whereas here, on Alonissos, there was nothing to keep at bay, there was no incentive to generate any pressure within the work, and so the surrounding emptiness invaded and dissipated, overwhelmed you with inertia.
Dyer is very good at dissecting the tricky business of getting down to work:
I am always on the edge of what I am doing. I do everything badly, sloppily, to get it over with so that I can get on to the next thing that I will do badly and sloppily so that I can then do nothing – which I do anxiously, distractedly, wondering all the time if there isn’t something else I should be getting on with.
When I’m working I’m wishing I was doing nothing and when I’m doing nothing I’m wondering if I should be working. I hurry through what I’ve got to do and then, when I’ve got nothing to do, I keep glancing at the clock, wishing it was time to go out. Then, when I’m out, I’m wondering how long it will be before I’m back home.
‘What’s more’, he writes, ‘I’ve got no intention of changing. This is my idea of contentment.’
On Alonissos, instead of concentrating on Lawrence, Dyer turns idly to a volume of Rilke’s letters that he has with him. ‘Il faut travailler, rien que travailler,’ Rilke writes in one letter. ‘It takes work, just work’. Dyer likes this:
I found myself repeating it the way Rilke did, trying it out, enjoying the simplicity and faithfulness of the formula, luxuriating in it like a hot bath.Dwelling on it like this, however, was an evasion of work, just as my reading of a hefty volume of Rilke’s letters was an indulgence. I should have been working on my study of DH Lawrence … I should be writing my book about DH Lawrence, I said to myself, everything should be subordinate to that – but who can tell where theat task begins and ends? Some huge benefit may yet accrue from reading Rilke’s letters. The more I read, in fact, the more convinced I became that a better understanding of Rilke was crucial to my understanding of Lawrence.
Dyer finds much comfort in another of Rilke’s letters in which he wondered whether work and idleness could be so easily counterposed:
I have often asked myself whether those days on which we are forced to be indolent are not just the ones we pass in profoundest activity? Whether all our doing, when it comes later, is not only the last reverberation of a great movement which takes place in us on those days of inaction…
Playing toss the ball or tug of war with my pup, or dozing as he slumbered alongside me with all four paws in the air, I, too, thought these the most profound words imaginable.
Something found in most of Dyer’s books is a laconic acceptance of the disappointments of travel. There is plenty of it here in this volume. There’s a particularly desperate experience on a trip to Oaxaca that mirrors Lawrence’s own terrible time there. Or take this account of the moment, at the end of a long search, when Dyer arrives outside the house Lawrence lived in at Taormina on Sicily:
You look and try to summon up feelings which don’t exist. You try saying to yourself, ‘DH Lawrence lived here’. You say, ‘I am standing in the place he stood, seeing the things he saw … ‘ but nothing changes, everything remains exactly the same: a road, a house with sky above it and the sea glinting in the distance.
Make no mistake, Dyer is very funny. I laughed out loud, for instance, at this rant about the academic study of literature in universities. ‘None of them has anything to do with literature,’ he rages, bewailing how ‘theory’ promoted by academics such as Terry Eagleton has gained a position of dominance in English departments throughout Britain with their focus on ‘discourse’.
One Christmas when I was about ten my parents gave me a Beryl the Peril annual which included some of Beryl’s answers to difficult exam questions. Asked to
construct a sentence using the word ‘discourse’ she wrote ‘Discourse is too hard for me,’ said the golfer.’
Hearing that he was ‘working on Lawrence’, an acquaintance lent Dyer a book he thought I might find interesting: a Critical Reader on Lawrence, edited by Peter
I glanced at the contents page: old Eagleton was there, of course, together with some other state-of-the-fart theorists: Lydia Blanchard on ‘Lawrence, Foucault and the Language of Sexuality’ (in the section on ‘Gender, Sexuality, Feminism’), Daniel J. Schneider on ‘Alternatives to Logocentrism in D. H. Lawrence’ (in the section featuring ‘Post-Structuralist Turns’). I could feel myself getting angry
and then I flicked through the introductory essay on ‘Radical Indeterminacy: a post-modern Lawrence’ and became angrier still. How could it have happened? How could these people with no feeling for literature have ended up teaching it, writing about it? I should have stopped there, should have avoided looking at any more, but I didn’t because telling myself to stop always has the effect of urging me on. Instead, I kept looking at this group of wankers huddled in a circle, backs turned to the world so that no one would see them pulling each other off. Oh, it was too much, it was too stupid. I threw the book across the room and then I tried to tear it up but it was too resilient. By now I was blazing mad. I thought about
getting Widdowson’s phone number and making threatening calls. Then I looked around for the means to destroy his vile, filthy book. In the end it took a whole box of matches and some risk of personal injury before I succeeded in deconstructing it.
I suggested earlier that Dyer has written a book that is not just about Lawrence, or the process of writing a book about Lawrence, but actually also about the human condition. This is the book’s final sentence:
And there you have it. One way or another we all have to write our studies of DH Lawrence. Even if they will never be published, even if we will never complete them, even if all we are left with after years and years of effort is an unfinished, unfinishable record of how we failed to live up to our own earlier ambitions, still we all have to try to make some progress with our books about D. H. Lawrence. The world over, from Taos to Taormina, from the places we have visited to countries we will never set foot in, the best we can do is to try to make some progress with our studies of DH Lawrence.
After a month or more away from the keyboard I finally returned to my computer, the pup miraculously asleep at my feet. And I began to write.