Modern Library Revue: #48 The Rainbow

November 23, 2010 | 1 book mentioned 5 3 min read

I have not historically cared for D. H. Lawrence.  His books are not, on the surface, about anything, and they are full of poetic flights, everyone alternately feeling a deadness inside and flinging himself down to rub his parts on the grass.  It is the very essence of abandoned, high-flown prose about feelings.

coverMy disinclination to read his books was such that I had to make myself a captive audience to get through this one.  Realizing that my job affords me a weekly fifteen hours during which I might listen to something, I put a recording of The Rainbow on the iPod, and erased everything else.

It took me a little while to get my bearings, since I’m unused to reading with my ears.  I wandered off during the first poetic flights, thinking about groceries, and marveling at D.H. Lawrence’s ability to communicate so graphically the idea of sex without using any of the words employed in the 21st century to discuss the subject.  

In spite of my initial wool-gathering, I found that listening made all the difference. The reader of my version had a weathered, spittle-rich voice with a very good sense of pace.  Previously, I might have read something like this and decamped for greener pastures:

Their life and interrelations were such; feeling the pulse and body of the soil, that opened to their furrow for the grain, and became smooth and supple after their ploughing, and clung to their feet with a weight that pulled like desire, lying hard and unresponsive when the crops were to be shorn away. 

Trapped as I was, I started to really listen, lulled by her interesting voice and her knowledge of how the sentence should be read.

After several hours, I started to think that D.H. Lawrence had his hand in a lot of things.  Obviously, feelings.  I’ve never read a novelist so willing to go for broke, to agonizingly hash out people’s feelings, especially with regard to their traditional loci (sex, babies, sex, romantic discord, sex).  

Lawrence the novelist might have been a good person with whom to talk over a breakup ad nauseum, or a surprising same-sex interlude.  He might have made a good family therapist, although with perhaps a somewhat limited repertoire of solutions: “Your husband is jealous of the baby, madam. I suggest a babysitter for the evening.”

As I listened, I found he had things to say on a whole wealth of subjects.  Housing developments and coal towns, the countryside, modern education, smart house parties, and the virtues of staying in bed for the entire day with one’s lover.  He writes all these things in the context of how they make us feel.  I had written him off because I was put off by his poetic flights.  Thinking it over, I wondered how else one could write about all those feelings without a flight of some kind.  It is a puzzle.  

The relative marvel of Lawrence’s depiction of interior life was driven home when I watched Kate Winslet and Leonardo Di Caprio thrash around in Revolutionary Road, expressing with volume what they couldn’t express with anything else.  I felt embarrassed for them, and I was suddenly deeply aware of the poverty of film (and especially that film) when it comes to showing our interior lives.  Leonardo shouts “I don’t feel special” and does it with the typist, and Kate likewise shouts and embraces the neighbor.  

These people don’t have a chance against D.H. Lawrence (or Virginia Woolf), who has pages and pages to spend talking about the inside.  Lawrence is sometimes boring because hearing about other peoples’ feelings is sometimes boring, like hearing about their dreams.  And Lawrence seems too repetitive because people tend to have the same storms of feeling over and over, even if we should all know better.

It’s not all abandoned prose about womb-pangs and electric lights in the soul, either; sometimes Lawrence comes out with something snappy, like Anna thinking that  society is a “ridiculous armada of tubs jostling in futility.”

Still, though, I’m only a frail convert to Lawrence’s charms.  Back at home, I switched back to print for the last chapters and was confronted with the hard truth that I find some of his prose pretty painful:

He was a screen for her fears. He served her. She took him, she clasped him, clenched him close, but her eyes were open looking at the stars, it was as if the stars were lying with her and entering the unfathomable darkness of her womb, fathoming her at last. It was not him.

It’s just not my style.  But I’ve come to appreciate what he can do.  I am ready to go back to him; maybe I will fathom him at last.

is a contributing editor at The Millions and the author of The Golden State. You can read more of her writing at


  1. Read Sons and Lovers, and Women in Love — if that doesn’t do it, nothing will. And the movies aren’t all bad either, if you’re an Alan Bates kind of girl…

  2. Great to hear from someone else who has mixed feelings about Lawrence’s style. (And I agree with John that Sons & Lovers and Women in Love are both very much worth reading.) Lawrence is constantly pushing for more, and sometimes getting there, sometimes not. I always enjoy how your reviews stick so tightly to your first reactions, without denying the contradictory emotions that I think most of us experience with the books we read. As a side note, the novel Revolutionary Road (in contrast to the movie) is a terrific example of how a writer can enter the minds and feelings of characters with great penetration and grace. Yates is a very lucid writer — I hadn’t thought about it before this review, but his prose is clean and straightforward dealing with many of the same subjects that Lawrence treats in a much more convoluted style. Still, Lawrence seems to me the better writer, which raises the interesting question of how one author can be the stronger stylist (or at least the less problematic stylist) while the other author is the stronger novelist overall.

  3. I wonder how many people read Lawrence just for the sex. One can appear intellectual while at the same time reading about intercourse on the floor of a forest.

  4. I agree with the mixed feelings. I’m perfectly willing to admit he’s a master, but to me his books are somehow a little airless.

    I need to breathe.

  5. Years and years since I tried to read any Lawrence, and those quotes remind me vividly of why I gave up in the first place. I believe his book about Mexico is pretty good though: might give that a look sometime.

    Give me Richard Yates any hour of any day of any week instead.

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