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Mr. Noon.

Nowadays admires of D.H. Lawrence have it hard. If they take him seriously, they must countenance a lifelong series of repellent statements about women, blacks, Jews and gays. But to be fair to Lawrence is to recognize that his oscillations and ambivalence on a number of matters reflect the edgiest sensibility of his time. To be fair to him also means acknowledging that the dreadful Lawrence can, in the space of a narrative clause, transform himself into someone quite different; as a literary quick-change artist, he can make grammar seem downright therapeutic. One would have to admit that ht took women seriously, had Jewish friends, was no more racist than his contemporaries and gave ample evidence of his own homoerotic temperament, swooning before humpy soldiers through he loathed militarism. All this makes him endlessly provocative, but it also makes his defenders an uneasy crew.

So the appearance of Mr. Noon, a 1921 Lawrence novel that nobody knew existed, evokes a certain alarm: Will he embarrass us again" Happily not, at least not if we're willing to meet him halfway. There's a lot of familiar stuff here; the excesses in Lawrence usually signify his urge to repeat something until he gets it right. This is a cooler--and less inspired--D.H. than the author of Women in Love, but it's invigorating to see him simplify and even kid the themes that previously drove him nuts. Because it's more accessible, Mr. Noon displays two appealing sides of the author: his role as a working-class intellectual, alienated from his class but defensive outside it, and his obsessively literary bent. Whether or not this is a great novel, it's as sharp a work of English letters as you'll read this season.

Lawrence did not work very hard to come up with a story here, but this is no defect; plots generally bring out his turgid side, his itch to construct systems--re-imagine politics, rethink science--out of his latest cockamamie notions. Instead he gives us two sections. In the first, Gilber Noon, a small-town math teacher, plays around with his colleague Emmie, maybe gets her in trouble, and skips out. (More accurately, Lawrence himself abandons both Gilbert and Emmie by saying, "Let them go to hell.") In the second, longer section, a transparent roman a clef, Noon becomes D.H. Lawrence courting Frieda Weekley, here named Johanna. So far critics have liked the second section and missed its important connection with the first. They don't see that the young Noon's life provides a text that the other Noon must then rewrite. Because he lived it himself, Lawrence knows about young intellectuals newly emerged from a hidebound but vivid working class, and because he's a writer, he can verbalize their internal conflicts. As if they are bilingual, these people understand their parents' folksy speech ("I say to him, she's your daughter, I didn't whistle her our o'th' moon") while their own language is crammed with literary snippets, the tokens of professional rectitude. Lawrence situates his people in their institutions; a self-confessed lover of hymns, he portrays evangelical churches as both alluring and destructive. It's all here, the beautifyl music (a church choir "grittily" moans a hymn which black Americans know as "The Day is Past and Gone," their archetypal "moan") and the thwarted sensuality (since the church can't provide adequate "climax," the youngsters go from praying to spooning). When Gilbert doesn't marry Emmie, she picks a more conventional fellow for the comforts of a semi-detached home and an allotment garden. It's a life "safe as houses" that both Noon I and Noon II turn down; the class matrix unites them in their recoil.

It's surprising to see how old-fashioned Lawrence seems here in his obsession with literature, his conviction that everything new must be worked out in speech, or at least given a literary gloss. Like some character out of Joyce, Noon possesses a mind filled with the detritus of cultures high and low--popular songs, hymns, epic poems. Just as Lawrence will take on other writers, regardless of their time or place, Noon battles with Goethe and Tennyson, Tolstoy and Baudelaire. In this novel, more clearly than elsewhere, Lawrence makes such literary hubris the basis of class warfare. Gilber is defiantly not a "European professor," and he gets a special kick out of Johanna's father calling him a "common lout" because it sounds so good in German.

Lawrence the litterateur spends much of the book addressing the "gentle reader." In keeping with this eighteenth-century affectation, he displays a fieldingseque coyness, taking up narrative space with chitchat so that the lovers can screw in private; hits out at Swift, with whom his "wind-filled" critics have invidiously compared him; and, finally, demolishes Samule Richardson's moral posture. Yes, he assumes his gentle reader is a woman, but like a literary Phil Donahue, he becomes her advocate by seeking to change her nature. Rather than gentle, he wants her rambunctious, surly, brooding. This is Lawrence's style of feminism--indivisible from his comment that Mary Magdalene's only fall occurred when she started washing feet.

But give Lawrence any room and his tone will eventuallly turn coy and smarmy. Give himi still more room and his irony and humor will bring him to his senses. In fact, his narrative's great strength is the juxtaposition of essayistic discourse and tightly constructed dramatic scenes. In the space of a few pages, he'll show the lovers to be obsessives on the verge of solipsism, then he'll cut the claustrophobic mood by some irreverent wordplay and remind you that his Gilbert is pompous and his Johanna a chatterbox. A typical transition occurs after a scene in which Gilbert repeals the old Lawrence line that modern women think too much: "I should leave of thinking, if I were you." Anticipating every woman who's detected lechery in those words, Johanna replies, "Yes, you're just like all men. You'd like me to." Outside of an almost blashemous allusion to The Rainbow in Mr. Noon, this is Lawrence's most astonishing act of self-criticism.

A similar narrative turbulence characterizes Gilbert and Johanna's evolving emotions. For a prophet of marital union, Lawrence is terrific at detailing the stuff that keeps lovers apart. In Women in Love, Gudrun and Gerald are constantly battling for thge top spot; Lawrence shows her triumphing by a perverse display of pity, an emotion henceforth revealed as infused with hatred. Gilbert and johanna are a happier couple, but they too shuffle and do-si-do to avoid commitment.

Although Lawrence insists that Gilbert is representative, it's hard to see any lover duplicating his tricks. Many men might appreciate Johanna's dilemma on leaving husband and children. But how many of them would empathize to the point of taking men more seriously--and sensually--than she does? Gilbert admits that Johanna's husband was better in bed than he; that her German lover mertis a positively Rilkean lament over his untimelly death; that he's attracted to the young American with whom she sleeps; that he was so smitten with a peasant who courted her that he resents having to finish what the peasant started. Not that Johanna can't see through him. When he blithely forgives her infidelity, she discovers a "convulsion of selfishness by means of which he soared above a fact." Since Lawrence is a genius at rendering the grammar and logic of emotion, he's always alert to a denial of logic arising out of jumbled emotions--witness his condemnation of Gerald Crich in Women in Love: "Without bothering to think to a conclusion, Gerald jumped to a conclusion."

A Lawrence reader knows that whenever heterosexual romance is most intense, a homoerotic alternative is in the wings. Where he used to be obsessed with the "blind mindless thighs" of English miners, European laborers now enthrall him with their "fierce naked knees." But while admitting that he adores the German soldiers, he deplores their militarism, much as in Women in Love when Birkin decided, after wrestling with Gerald, that he was even further from the man he loved than from the woman. Lawrence tries to cure Gilbert Noon by insisting on an opposition of souls, but this sounds less like emtional confidence than Esthetic Realism. More intriguing for being enlivened by gesture and image is his distinction between Johanna, a sea gull, and Gilbert, a land hawk. This becomes particularly resonant when you recall that Birkin denied Gerald precisely because the industrialist couldn't "fly away from himself in real indifferent gaiety." Johanna is a fluid if buxom nymph; she loves to dance and swim. Gilbert is awkward and aloof, too "sharp and intensely local" to fly.

Because Gilbert is so, the novel achieves great poignance when it situates him on a strange continent, somewhere between Italy and Russia, ripped from his origins, both "un-Englished" and suspicious of all things foreign, men and women, nature and culture (although he's totally won over by German food; outside of Brecht, it's hard to find another writer so smitten with black bread). He's attuned to signs of political corruption, finding them where nobody else looks. Thus from his own lusting for the soldiers he derives an indictment of "militaristic insolence ... parvenu imperialism." Like a bisexual Musil, he tweaks Austrian naievete--and forecasts the empire's collapse--by focusing on usiforms that fit the plump imperial soldiers an inch too snugly. As a perspective on politics, this is undeniably special, a kind of oom-pah-pah Marxism.

Is all this enough for a novel? It's certainly enough for a book. If the story's unfinished, the Lawrencian curve is nonetheless evident, for in his novels, the intimations of life lived afterward are always more compelling than any artificial full stop. His ideal marriage is a permanent revolution, an endless apprenticeship, a cycle of deaths and rebirths. When Lawrence is convincing, he's eminently practical but not irrational: the lad from Nottingham won't sacrifice his mother wit to the socialites and professors. That's why after seeming to offer a literary manifesto for free love--in the beginning was the word, so why not a love as free as speech?--he withdraws his homemade jargo and declares that in the beginning was not the word but something more materially useful; he'd guessed that our prehistoric hands developed before our brains. Lawrence concludes by recalling the English Noon. Gilbert couldn't have achieved his new knowledge, his "sensual soul," with Emmie. He needed the fight with Johanna as Lawrence needs to fight with you, "gentle reader"; it's the fight that clears up his muddle.
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Author:Heilbut, Anthony
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Feb 9, 1985
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