D.H. Lawrence and Kangaroo

Was any other writer as tormented by the Great War as D.H.Lawrence was? Considered as a novel, his Kangaroo is a broken-backed unsatisfactory thing, but as a human document it is engrossing, revealing the pain of a man whom the war has excluded from the community to which he feels he rightfully belongs.

The first half of the book is a none-too-convincing State-of-Australia novel, by someone who had seen very little of the country. He arrived there by boat on May 4th,1922, spent a few weeks in Western Australia, where he met literary types that he didn’t care for much, then headed East to Sydney, where he seems to have had minimal contact with Australians, speaking with very few of them, but immediately started writing a novel that is set in Sydney and full of conversations. He wrote furiously for two months, and finished before he left Australia on August 11th, having maintained an astonishing rate of over 3000 words a day.

These imaginary conversations tend towards the wish-fulfilling. Richard Lovat Somers ( DHL’s alter-ego, and like him a “ a smallish man, pale-faced, with a dark beard”) meets up with manly Australian types who grip his biceps and tell him things like:

“You’re a stranger here. You’re from the old country. You’re different from us. But you’re a man we want, and you’re a man we’ve got to keep. I know it.”

and

“Mr. Somers. You are the man I have been waiting for…”

Typically, the men that Somers talks with and impresses are ex-soldiers; they have intense political projects, in which they want to involve Somers, because they sense his energy and manliness. Mostly the conversation is conducted in big generalities, about the need for change and revolution; Somers rarely comes to specifics of policy, and when he does it is saloon-bar philosophy on the level of:

if I could I’d just leave the Irish to themselves, as they want, and let them wipe each other out or kiss and make friends as they please.”

More often, though, the talk is about Democracy. In Australia, Somers “for the first time felt himself immersed in real democracy—in spite of all disparity in wealth.” On the whole he approves of this, though there is a feeling that he came to Australia looking for wilderness, and instead found suburbia – miles and miles of bungalows with names like “Wyewurk” and “Torestin”. Somers is “of the common people”, we are often reminded, but he can’t help a snobbery about such things. Finally, though, he does not really believe in Democracy, because of the disparity between humans. He believes in leadership and the exercise of power, and this is why he is attracted to the fascist-style leader, Kangaroo, who says things like:

“I want to keep ORDER. I want to remove physical misery as far as possible. That I am sure of. And that you can only do by exerting strong, just POWER from above. There I agree with you.”

“You don’t believe in education?”

“Not much. That is to say, in ninety per cent of the people it is useless. But I do want those ninety per cent none the less to have full, substantial lives: as even slaves had under certain masters and as our people hardly have at all.”

Most of us are only fit to be slaves, apparently, and the book is in two minds about whether we have souls. While Lawrence often reiterates that every human has a precious unique soul – it seems that “your man in the street” somehow has not – “he’s only got a minute share of the collective soul. Soul of his own he has none: and never will have. Just a share in the collective soul, no more.” The contradiction generally boils down to people of whom Lawrence/ Somers approves having souls, and the rest of us not.

Possession of a soul is usually indicated by a willingness to be aggressive, and the book’s imagery is very often violent and warlike: “Because I feel I MUST fight out something with mankind yet. I haven’t finished with my fellow-men. I’ve got a struggle with them yet.” The language always veers towards melodramatic excess (England and Europe are “moribund and stale and finished”, of course.) It constantly reveals an underlying desire for violence (and in this respect it reminds me of Warwick Deeping, who was writing equally disturbed novels at this time, for a different audience, but with a remarkably similar political agenda.)

As a novel the book is lacking, but as a document from a psychological case study, it is absorbing.

When I was a teacher, I sometimes had to deal with a little girl reduced to helpless trembling tears because of another girl. When asked what the other had done, the child would reply with intense feeling, “She looked at me.” Possibly the offending other had deliberately tried to convey hostility and scorn in a look, and perhaps not. Perhaps the poor girl was imagining it, projecting her own insecurities and self-contempt into the gaze of another.

I was reminded of this by the one truly electrifying chapter in Kangaroo, the one called “A Nightmare”, which is a flashback to Lawrence’s experiences in England during the War. In July 1914 he had married Frieda Weekley (nee Emma Maria Frieda Johanna Baroness (Freiin) von Richthofen ), a cousin of the Red Baron. In August, war was declared, and he found himself in an awkward position. Loyalty to his new wife forbade him to support a war with his wife’s nation, yet he was not a pacifist of any kind, and could not honestly retreat into the excuse of conscientious objection. In the first years of the War he tried to keep out of the conflict, though it wouldn’t leave him alone. His contrarian views and his penchant for sexual daring led to the prosecution of The Rainbow; would this have happened had he not had a German wife? It’s hard to say. England by and large was enthused by the project of the War, and made life difficult for dissenters. Lawrence must have felt his shunning particularly harshly because he was someone whose personal myth depended on a complex ideal of manliness, and now he was in a country where the word “man” was increasingly equated with the word “soldier”.

The Lawrences got away to Cornwall, but “A Nightmare” shows them constantly suffering under the gaze of others. The locals do not trust them, and eavesdrop (Or do they? Or is this just imagination?) Police and officials check up on them (Surely not unreasonably, considering Frieda’s origins.) They have reason to believe their house has been searched, Every indignity is bitterly resented, sometimes disproportionately.

After 1916 Lawrence/Somers is called up to see if he is fit to be conscripted. He has to undergo unmanning medical examinations:

“Put your feet apart.”

He put his feet apart.

“Bend forward–further–further–.”

Somers bent forward, lower, and realised that the puppy was standing aloof behind him to look into his anus.

The gaze of the other respects no privacy. When the medics reject him as unfit, that is partly a relief, but he is keenly aware of the gaze of the men who have not been rejected:

“What are you?” they asked him.

“Rejected,” he said.

And they looked at him grudgingly, thinking it was because he was not a working man he had got special favour. He knew what they thought…

They looked at Somers, and grinned rather jeeringly at him. They envied him–no wonder. And already he was a stranger, in another walk of life.

When Lawrence/Somers lashes back at his tormentors, it is in language that impugns their manliness. The insensitive medic is a “puppy”; the police who bother him at home are “weeds”. He has fantasies of revenge, but his only weapon is his pen, and its effects are inconclusive:

…there in his remoteness, writing occasionally an essay that only bothered them, he was a thorn in their flesh. And men and women with sons, brothers, husbands away fighting, it was small pleasure for them to read Mr. Somers and his denunciation. “This trench and machine warfare is a blasphemy against life itself, a blasphemy which we are all committing.” All very well, they said, but we are in for a war, and what are we to do? We hate it as much as he does. But we can’t all sit safely in Cornwall.

Lawrence clearly wanted to demonstrate his manliness in other ways. A trivial example – at the start of the War he grew a beard, a traditionally manly thing to do, but he did so at a time when other men were shaving; no more than a moustache was allowed in the Army. The beard was a statement of alternative manliness (and maybe something to hide behind).

Lawrence/Somers is treated as an alien in his own country, though his Englishness is important to him, and he wants to be classed with “ Englishmen, his own people.” He starts looking for scapegoats:

Whereas Lloyd George! Somers knew nothing about Lloyd George. A little Welsh lawyer, not an Englishman at all. He had no real significance in Richard Lovat’s soul. Only, Somers gradually came to believe that all Jews, and all Celts, even whilst they espoused the cause of England, subtly lived to bring about the last humiliation of the great old England.

In Somers, Lawrence draws a hugely flattering self-portrait, and he can only achieve this by heaping the blame onto stereotyped others:

Richard Lovat [Somers] was one of those utterly unsatisfactory creatures who just would not. He had no conscientious objections. He knew that men MUST fight, some time in some way or other. He was no Quaker, to believe in perpetual peace. He had been in Germany times enough to know HOW much he detested the German military creatures: mechanical bullies they were. They had once threatened to arrest him as a spy, and had insulted him more than once. Oh, he would never forgive THEM, in his inward soul. But then the industrialism and commercialism of England, with which patriotism and democracy became identified: did not these insult a man and hit him pleasantly across the mouth? How much humiliation had Richard suffered, trying to earn his living! How had they tried, with their beastly industrial self-righteousness, to humiliate him as a separate, single man? They wanted to bring him to heel even more than the German militarist did. And if a man is to be brought to any heel, better a spurred heel than the heel of a Jewish financier. So Richard decided later, when the years let him think things over, and see where he was.

This resort to the stereotype of the scheming Jewish financier, manipulating the English to make money out of the War can sometimes be found in the work of popular novelists like Dornford Yates or Warwick Deeping, but rarely so blatantly. (interestingly, later in the novel, when writing in a less heated mood, Lawrence gives a sardonically objective picture of this kind of stereotyping at work, when he shows the Australian press preferring to blame the attack on Kangaroo on “an unknown anarchist, probably a new immigrant from Europe.”)

In the later stages of the novel, Lawrence/Somers grows in his own estimation, until he is laying down the law on how England should have won the war sooner if only Englishmen had been manly enough:

If men had kept their souls firm and integral through the years, the war would never have come on. If, in the beginning, there had been enough strong, proud souls in England to concentrate the English feeling into stern, fierce, honourable fighting,, the war would never have gone as it went. But England slopped and wobbled, and the tide of horror accumulated.

What does this mean? That the B.E.F. should not have retreated at Mons? It has much more to do with macho fantasy than with any military reality.

The fantasy Australians of the novel all want Lawrence/Somers on their side because he is so rugged and individualistic, but eventually he decides that he is actually too rugged and individualistic to join any side whatsoever. Kangaroo is shot, and Somers/Lawrence goes away, having, it is implied, got a lot of nasty stuff out of his system. It probably worked better as therapy than as a novel.

2 Comments

  1. Posted October 24, 2011 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the review. I just finished reading Kangaroo. It had a lot of problems. but I still enjoyed it.

    You’ve put forward some opinions that are interesting – especially the idea of Somers overcompensating for his perceived lack of manliness.

    It reminds me of my father, who was a thinking person born in coal mining Yorkshire (where Lawrence originates).

  2. bishnu charan nayak
    Posted October 15, 2013 at 5:14 am | Permalink

    This piece of criticism is largely concerned with a psychological treatment of Somer’s character as an Englishman who has had the experience of passing through difficult times for having eloped with a German married lady who abandoned her prof. husband and three children to live instinctively with an idiosyncratic man and controversially difficult and challenging writer and an original thinker. It is helpful for a close reading of the novel, Kangaroo.


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  1. […] of Tocqueville and the like. And somebody should tell George Simmers that his examination of D. H. Lawrence’s opinions of Australians ‘is an entirely pointless exercise, and a stunning waste of your time and mine’, since […]

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