Book Review Travel

D. H. Lawrence and Italy

I review a Lawrentian travel writing collection containing Twilight in Italy, Sea and Sardinia and Sketches of Etruscan Places.

 Photo on 07-09-2016 at 20.36.jpg

What’s the best way to extend a holiday? Begin reading, as you breakfast on the day you leave for home, a travel book all about the place where you’re currently sat, sipping blood orange juice, peering over the empty bottles from the Aperol and chianti-fuelled revels of the night before. The way to extend the holiday even further is to drive back to England from Tuscany over four days – easily justifiable if you have a puppy you need to have on holiday with you1 – reading less than a chapter of said book every day, and then once you’re back home work almost constantly in physical labour than leaves you drained and exhausted and too tired to read for more than half an hour for pretty much two weeks solid. That way, by the time you near the end of the long travel book you’ve been gently swimming through for about three weeks, you’ve kinda spent about a month with at least some of your day spent in beautiful Europe, far away from real life, far away from the grey spiritual wasteland that is British city living. And this wasn’t some Bill Bryson travel writing crap2, this wasn’t Geoff Dyer (more on him later) revelling in lived personal experience, this was bloody D. H. Lawrence, author of my literary fave Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and this wasn’t one travel book, it was THREE, collated into one fat, unillustrated, volume. Oooh. Oooh, yes.

D. H. Lawrence and Italy includes all three of the travel books Lawrence wrote on Italy: Twilight in Italy (published 1916, but about a pre-war trip); Sea and Sardinia (1921); and Sketches of Etruscan Places (written between 1927 and Lawrence’s death, published posthumously in 1932). All three are different in tone, location (within Italy) and in philosophic view. The very biographic3 Introduction, written by Tim Parks, defines the three books as significant entries into Lawrence’s self-recorded life.

Twilight in Italy was written when D. H. was young, starting out; Sea and Sardinia when he was at the height of popularity, his marriage most happy and his expectations of the future most optimistic; Sketches of Etruscan Places, however, was written when he already knew he was dying, when his wife was absent with a lover in another city, when his books had been systematically banned by his home country, and he feared that his final masterpiece – name-checked in first paragraph – may never receive the recognition he knew it deserved. To slim this down, we have three travel books written by the same man, one where he was nervous, but cautiously optimistic; one where he was content and self-important; and one where he was faced with his mortality on a daily basis, as he trundled around tombs in Tuscany while his wife was off having the kind of real life adventures his frail body could no longer give her. Anthony Burgess, whose Introduction to the 1972 edition that first collated these three texts is included as an appendix, also anecdotalises Lawrence’s life, emphasising that an understanding of biographical context is key to the reading of the writing within. Parks and Burgess both pull out the same quotation from the text, “I am not Baedeker”, justifying their shared conclusion that these three books are more about Lawrence than they are about Italy. Is this the case, is the question I ask, and regardless of whether the answer is yes or no, does it make for a good read?

Tim Parks’ introduction is mesmerising. I skim-read both Etruscan Places and Twilight in Italy when I was a student, most of a decade ago, so I didn’t do my usual Penguin Classics routine of ignoring the Introduction until I’d read the book in full. I’m glad I didn’t, because there was nothing there to detract from the book and a lot of things to enjoy otherwise. It’s basically a 24 page mini-biography of Lawrence, with an emphasis on tragedy and disappointment and how his philosophy developed in direct opposition to the decline of his health. Parks writes about the terrible start to Lawrence’s marriage and the unexpected success of his early books (him, a working class boy from the Midlands!), before his allegations of spying (his wife was German), the war preventing him from leaving a country that rapidly began to reject him, his idyllic time travelling the world with his glamorous wife (a German aristocrat and the cousin of WW1’s Red Baron), before tuberculosis set in and he became less and less active, and the happiness slipped away and the banning and criticism of his books became more virulent until, eventually, he died as an exile with the greatest work of his career condemned to obscurity for thirty years due to its sexual content. The sexual content, though, is key to Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Lawrence’s other canonical novels, and his belief in the importance of sexuality to existence is an idea that rose as he lost control of his body, even more so once he accepted he could neither confine nor satiate his wife’s sexuality. Parks’ short rendering of Lawrence’s life made me cry several times – he, like all those tragic slebs – got everything he ever dreamed of, but inside the dream everything was dust.

Tuberculosis didn’t stop Lawrence from continuing to write as if all were well, though, and it didn’t stop him from evoking on paper the sex-positive philosophy he’d developed in his mind, if it did stop him from practicing what he preached. Here’s a summary of the Laurentian ideology:

D. H. Lawrence was someone who regarded sex and sexuality as important, nay, central, to existence, with the body as the site of all pleasure and pain, all experience of import. The soul (and this is the kind of wanky thing Lawrence would say though I’m not sure he did in this exact wording) exists in the loins; “desire is holy” (that sounds familiar); life’s importance rests in the pleasurable propagation of the human species; the one thing all animals have in common is the [capitalised] Fuck, and this means that the natural world, whatever its origin, deifies the act of love not as something base, but as something central, essential, good.

Got it?

Patronisingly, Lawrence felt that the Italians were closer, spiritually, to the Earth, to the body, to sexuality. That was why he found them compelling and why he returned to them, over and over again, seeking an evidence of the existence he felt was correct. He felt he’d finally found a society who truly lived the way he believed all humanity should when he learnt of the Etruscans, a race of people wiped out by the mechanised and rational Romans. The Etruscans, whose tombs are decorated with vivid depictions of gluttonous, lustful, musical, abandon, worshipped the essence of life, and were not corrupted by such things as ribald morality or shame of sexuality. The Etruscans, the dying Lawrence coughed into his notebook as he shuffled through their dusty tombs, lived while they were alive.4

But before he got there, there was a lot more of Italy to explore…

Twilight in Italy is about the Winter Lawrence spent in his fresh, new, marriage on Lake Garda in the Winter of 1912-13. I’ll be honest, I read most of this almost a month ago now, so my recollection is a tad hazy, but what I remember is glorious passages about stunning mountain scenery and being charmed by local peasants who’d lived lives denying the advancement of time. Lawrence befriends farmers and aristocrats, and becomes gently known in the village as the English writer who everyone hopes is impressed by the local Am-dram group’s production of Hamlet. The text of this book is youthful and aggressive, innocent in many ways and presumptive in others. His wife, though implied, is never properly present, and all of the exploration that happens (including a hike across Switzerland that focuses on the Italians he meets whilst there) is very first person singular. And also very young, in a way that surprised me. Lawrence, despite dying at 44, never feels like a young writer in his texts – he has a self-assuredness coupled with gentle imperfection that implies staunch middle age and a resistance to change. This is as true of his late works as (in my previous experience) his early stuff. Here, although he’s learnt fluent Italian in a few months (apparently), he is naive. He looks for things that he wants to see (i.e. societal decline, the hunger for change of the general populace, the breakdown of traditional roles and the obsession with emigrating to America across all classes), but he also comments on things most other writers of his time would have ignored, i.e. Italian toiletry habits.

I’ve spent enough time in Italy to know that there hasn’t been much improvement in this regard since Lawrence’s travels5, but the human excrement he regularly encountered in Twilight in Italy is not mentioned anywhere near as much in the later books. Is his a deification of the human body that removes an acceptance of bodily filth? Is Lawrence’s intellectual elevation of the flesh one in denial of poo? Or was it merely that as his interest in sexuality increased it eclipsed scatological intrigue? I don’t know, but this first volume is shit-smothered, and the second two – especially the last – are not.

Where Twilight in Italy excels is when it speaks of landscapes, and it also has a lot of sympathy for individual people, though Lawrence does tend to romanticise everyone. This is a young man away from home for the first time, seeing magic and noble savagery wherever he sets his eye. This tendency seems to split as the texts go on – honouring the past of Italy more and its present less, but both for the same reason. They are physical and they are present, they are unashamed of lust. Yet Lawrence believes these attitudes are slipping away, this is the titular twilight.

In Sea and Sardinia, Lawrence’s marriage is clearly in a much better place. Here, his wife – referred to always as “the q-b”, short for “the queen bee” – is with him every step of the way. They sometimes fall out over minor things, find different strangers interesting, etc, but always agree on where to sleep and what to eat (at least in Lawrence’s literary retelling). The journey from their home in Sicily to Sardinia and back took only about a week, but Lawrence retells it in great detail – it is by quite some way the longest text in this collection. They meet farmers and postmen and hostelry owners and poor people and rich people and people who work the railways and people who want to leave not just Sardinia but Italy as a whole. There is less hope here – fascism is already on the subtle rise, and American immigration policy has changed to no longer be an “if you can get here, you’re welcome” free-for-all. The war took a big toll on the economy, and Lawrence is constantly irked by Italians ranting at him for his ability to live a higher quality of life in their country due to the postwar exchange rates. This text is full of petty anecdotes about Lawrence getting annoyed by bureaucracy, by repeated conversations, by the state of hotel beds and the state of food in shitty roadside inns, which surely one should enter prepared for shitty roadside food. However, Sea and Sardinia is full of love and affection and companionship towards his wife, which is sweet to see. This is a man who is confident in himself, in his worldview and who thinks that life is for living, and that’s goddamn absolutely what’s he’s going to do with his.

Which brings us to Sketches of Etruscan Places.

The Etruscans were the tribe that lived in Tuscany (shout out to Volterra, an old Etruscan town I drove thru on my homebound road trip with the dog last month!!!) before the Romans conquered the whole of Italy. They had been wiped out or subsumed by (roughly) 200BCE, and their language was lost and not rediscovered by the time Lawrence was writing. All the words and phrases that appeared in tempura and engraving in the tombs Lawrence visited were untranslated as he saw them, which added to the mystery. This was a lost civilisation that had been trampled under the uniform boots of a society with strict social rules, a love of order and a rigid Hegelian sense of what comes after being intrinsically better than what came before.

Lawrence clambers through tombs, recording the intricate pictures on their walls, lamenting how many had their frescos stolen and either disappeared or interred in museums. He also writes about the deliberate destruction of large amounts of Etruscan pottery that happened when the tombs were first rediscovered in the early 19th century. This was a simple action that inflated the financial value of the pottery that remained intact, because by this point in time commerce was already king.

What is perhaps most interesting in this text is Lawrence’s thanophilia: he speaks at great length of ideas of “life”, whilst wandering through places of death. The Etruscans always buried their dead on hills next to their cities, so these settlements of death are intrinsically morbid, other, mirror reflections of the world of life, the Upside Down6. The remains of most Etruscan cities are located close to the malarial swamps that continued to be a big public health problem in central Italy until the second half of the 20th century, and Lawrence – as a diseased man – constantly seeks the evidence of illness in the faces of people he meets. He knows enough about malaria to recognise its effects and its sufferers (fatalities were only about 5%), but almost every person he invasively asks about their health denies ever having been touched by the mosquito bite. Lawrence writes about how the denial of malarial sickness despite clear evidence to the contrary seems to be an act of masculinity here: lads don’t get malaria. It’s ironic that he teases his subjects in prose about this, because he is guilty of the same thing. We know he is weaker than he was before because he can’t walk as far, he has to rest more often and his comfort is far more of a concern. Physically, he has aged far more than six years between Sea and Sardinia and Etruscan Places, he is evidentially sick, yet makes no mention of it in the text at all. Lawrence is failing in his attempt to hide his illness in this, an autobiographical text, as much as the malarial tomb guides are failing when they try to convince him that they are healthy.

What Lawrence tells us about the Etruscans is far more detailed and, potentially, accurate, than what he tells us about contemporary Italians elsewhere. But everything he tells is coloured by his worldview, and I perhaps only buy his rendering of the Etruscans more than I do his rendering of early 20th century Italians because I’ve read or experienced nothing to contradict them.

So: is this book more about Lawrence than it is about Italy?

He would deny this, I am sure, he would claim that his writing is a personal evocation of a universal truth, that of the Italian psyche. I disagree, this is Lawrence painting a philosophy within his mind onto the inhabitants of a real country, and onto their history, too. He is blinded by a strong ideology and influenced by his failing health and the ups and downs of his troublesome marriage. We see young Lawrence, happy Lawrence, morbid Lawrence. We see a man who elevates the idea of phallic and yonic worship in the world around him and rails against the rigidity and staid nature of 20th century religiosity. I often think it’s sad that Lawrence didn’t live to see the free love movements of the 1960s, which he’d have enjoyed the idea of, even if he’d been too naturally frail to really get into them. But it is his death by TB, the most Victorian of all diseases, that reminds us that he wasn’t quite a modern writer. Lawrence wrote about the concerns of the 20th century, but he wrote about them with a 19th century air, and he wrote about them with a mind somewhat stultified in that one glorious year where he got to shag his university lecturer’s wife then run away with her forever. Lawrence may have briefly found the happiness he was looking for in the years of travel after the First World War before consumption set in, and these three books chart his rise and physical fall. The writing gets better as it goes on, crisper, tighter, more descriptive. Throughout, though, we get repetition and factual errors (I only know the latter due to the notes), because an inherent central point within Lawrence’s work is the fallibility and the centrality of humanity, of existence.

As giant three chapters of an unwritten, giant, memoir, D. H. Lawrence and Italy serves its purpose very well. But this is a book for the fan of Lawrence and his writing, not for the casual Italian tourist. If I’d read it before my holiday last month, I’d’ve dragged myself and my dog to several Etruscan sites, but only because of an interest in following Lawrence’s footsteps and philosophy rather than in a belief that he wrote about them with total accuracy.

I enjoyed this book, but it is dense and self-important and often evidencing a lack of engagement with the world as witnessed, rather than the world as already defined. Lawrence is a great writer, but I think he’s at his best when he writes about a world he actually knows, rather than a world he presumes to know. And Lawrence knows about the world of the Body, the Fuck, the ache for Spirituality in a non-Pagan world. What he doesn’t know about is Italy, though he does know a bit about its people and some of its landscapes.

A great read, if you’re into Lawrence. Probably rather a bore if you’re not.


NB: Just realised I didn’t get to my planned paragraph about Geoff Dyer. Quickly:

I’d never really understood where the love of Lawrence that Dyer has came from. Their work is very different, in my opinion, in several key ways, and I’d never quite been able to see why Dyer rated this writer over so many others, especially given his own arrogance that would naturally lead me to expect his favourite writers to be writers who write like him. With Sea and Sardinia this became clear. Lawrence’s travel writing, there, is very similar to Dyer’s. The same focuses, the same interests, the same prurience and presumptiveness and writing about the imagined sex lives of strangers. Sea and Sardinia, with maybe pagers or whatever thrown in, could easily have been a long essay from Yoga for people who can’t be bothered to do it (review here). I finally got the connection, and the revelation made me smile.

1. Look at him relaxing in Tuscany. How could I have left him behind!?


2. I’m presuming Bill Bryson is crap. I don’t know, I’ve neither read him nor intend to.

3. Just as we like it here at Triumph of the Now

4. Like that Bon Jovi lyric, explored in detail in an early post, link here.

5. Here I am reacting to an Italian public toilet on my recent trip:

6. Who hasn’t been watching Stranger Things, ammaright? 

11 comments on “D. H. Lawrence and Italy

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