Af­ter how can a nov­el­ist re­fresh the lan­guage of love? Gem­mell took up the chal­lenge by up­dat­ing DH Lawrence’s Nikki

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

HOW even to be­gin to take on that depth charge of a novel, Lady Chat­ter­ley’s Lover, es­pe­cially now, in this post- Fifty Shades of Grey world? How to freight the writ­ing of sex with fresh­ness and re­newal and au­dac­ity — with sur­prise?

Aren’t we meant to have seen it all by now, done it all, thought it all? How to up­date the novel’s set­ting from the for­bid­ding en­vi­rons of Not­ting­hamshire’s Wragby Hall, with its necklace of grubby coalmines en­croach­ing on it?

DH Lawrence de­spaired that his world of 1920s Eng­land was be­ing leached of all ten­der­ness. Ten­der­ness was, in fact, the orig­i­nal ti­tle of his novel, and the pur­suit of that most gen­tle and gen­er­ous of words is at its core. Lady Chat­ter­ley (Con­nie) ex­plains to her gamekeeper lover, Mel­lors, what is so ex­tra­or­di­nary about him: ‘‘ It’s the courage of your own ten­der­ness, that’s what it is.’’

Her hus­band, Clif­ford, is de­void of it. Noth­ing in his static in­te­rior world of men­who-talk, end­lessly talk, of philosophis­ing and writ­ing and books, is in­stinc­tive, warm, spon­ta­neous; noth­ing is deeply felt.

Lawrence’s novel is about two peo­ple awak­en­ing to a new way of liv­ing through mu­tual ten­der­ness in an ex­te­rior world that’s un­crack­ing af­ter the long win­ter hi­ber­na­tion. It’s about two peo­ple un­curl­ing from pre­vi­ous sex­ual ex­pe­ri­ences that have dead­ened them. There’s the shock in the novel of a man who loves women: loves their bod­ies, cher­ishes them, is not afraid of them.

Men like that are still hard to find and, when we do, don’t we women know it. Lawrence cham­pi­ons a way of be­ing that’s in­stinc­tive, loving, un­afraid and deeply at­tuned to na­ture. Men of that ilk are so rare, still. Th­ese is­sues are just as rel­e­vant to­day and I gal­loped with the up­dat­ing, Lawrence’s sin­cer­ity my tun­ing fork. It’s a gen­uine­ness that’s com­pelling even now, 85 years later. He didn’t set out to shock but merely to be deeply hon­est.

With my novel I Take You, the truth, in all its raw­ness and au­dac­ity, is where I be­gan, even if it pushed me into ar­eas that re­quired a lot of courage to name. A scrib­bled mantra of nov­el­ist Mi­lan Kun­dera’s was above the writ­ing desk: ‘‘ In anguish I imag­ine a time when art shall cease to seek out the nev­er­said.’’ An­other text of brazen eroti­cism, The Story of O, in­formed the nar­ra­tive. My book be­gins with a sce­nario not dis­sim­i­lar to poor, de­luded O’s, but my pro­tag­o­nist’s jour­ney is about climb­ing away from that world. That had to be the arc of the story. My Con­nie finds a con­nec­tion sanc­ti­fied by ten­der­ness and is re­paired by it.

In this Fifty Shades era, we’re flooded with a brazen new open­ness, but is there any em­pha­sis on ten­der­ness? Ev­ery­one’s seem­ingly do­ing it in in­creas­ingly bold ways. Where does it go from here? Ex­per­i­men­ta­tion in­creas­ingly per­me­ates the pub­lic sphere and there’s raw talk at school gates. The vo­ra­cious de­vour­ing of erotic texts feels rev­o­lu­tion­ary in terms of women’s read­ing; the dawn of a new age ... of what? Could it be this new deca­dence rep­re­sents a tip­ping point of some sort? What fol­lows? A flinch into ex­treme

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