BEAUTY AND TERROR
Every author who has put the Australian landscape in their work owes a debt to an Englishman, writes Nicolas Rothwell
DH Lawrence disembarked at Fremantle, together with his German-born wife, Frieda, on May 4, 1922, after a 10-day voyage across the Indian Ocean from Ceylon. He was just 36 and his most enduring works were already behind him: he had only eight years left to live.
The pair were nomads once more, in exile from England, without a home. A long period of torrential creativity, in which Lawrence was able to write several novels and a set of short stories as well as poetry and travel sketches, had just come to an end. Fierce controversy had greeted the publication of a book he set great store by, Women in Love. He had tried repeatedly to start work on a new novel, and stalled. He needed a retreat, a place to write in silence.
Accordingly, he had accepted an invitation to Taos, New Mexico, where the heiress Mabel Dodge Sterne had offered him a house on her estate. Australia was a way-stage for the Lawrences on their long round-the-world journey, nothing more: the destination of the first ship they could find leaving Colombo port.
Things went smoothly on arrival. A woman who had befriended the couple aboard the ship found them lodgings at a guesthouse high up in the Perth Hills. It was a quiet, lonely landscape. Lawrence was struck. He had never seen such country. His reactions are described in his most incantatory prose early in the first chapter of Kangaroo: The vast, uninhabited land frightened him. It seemed so hoary and lost, so unapproachable. The sky was pure, crystal pure and blue, of a lovely pale blue colour: the air was wonderful, new and unbreathed: and there were great distances. But the bush, the grey, charred bush. It scared him … It was so phantom-like, so ghostly, with its tall pale trees and many dead trees, like corpses, partly charred by bush fires: and then the foliage so dark, like grey-green iron. And then it was so deathly still. Even the few birds seemed to be swamped in silence. Waiting, waiting — the bush seemed to be hoarily waiting. And he could not penetrate into its secret.
He resolves to plunge in, and walk out alone by the light of the full moon. How still the landscape seemed. No life, not a single sign of life: Yet something. Something big and aware and hidden! He walked on, had walked a mile or so into the bush, and had just come to a clump of tall, nude, dead trees shining almost phosphorescent with the moon, when the terror of the bush overcame him. He had looked so long at the vivid moon, without thinking. And now, there was something among the trees, and his hair began to stir with terror, on his head. There was a presence. It must be the spirit of the place, he decides, a watching spirit that could have reached out ‘‘a long black arm and gripped him’’ — but it was waiting, ‘‘biding its time with a terrible ageless watchfulness, waiting for a far-off end, watching the myriad intruding white men’’.
This is one of the more extraordinary passages in Australian literature, and one that repays close attention. A mere week after his arrival, Lawrence had not only seen and felt the bush in all its potency, he had tuned himself to its inner wavelengths, he had caught something of its essence, and had also caught what lay beyond him: the timeless, Aboriginal element in the country — something very few mainstream Australians of a literary bent dared appreciate or confront in those days, nearly a century ago.
There are several passages of this kind spread through Kangaroo — great resonant chords that punctuate and shape the narrative. What, though, is the nature of that narrative, a book of hundreds of pages thrown off at white heat in just over a month of writing while Lawrence was immured with Frieda in their eastcoast hideaway at Thirroul, south of Sydney?
What is Kangaroo, exactly? A conventional novel, as it was badged on publication? An ill- disguised piece of memoir? A study of political ideas and charisma? An outsider’s investigation of a strange new country?
All these things, in varying degrees, of course, and all run together — but above everything it is a work of grand, heroic cast, among the most marvellous and most infuriating of all Australian ‘‘classics’’, a tale that peers deep into the continent’s heart.
The plot is quickly summarised: indeed, it is often only lightly, glancingly sketched in, and routinely interrupted by long, digressive musings, vast islands of free association, with grammar and syntax fraying away.
Lawrence’s central character and fictive alter ego, Richard Lovatt Somers, is a writer: a man of philosophical inclinations who has given up on old, decayed Europe, ravaged and destroyed as it is in the wake of the Great War, and seeks inspiration in a new country. Somers makes his way; he forms friendships. Soon he finds himself enmeshed in the debates and contentions of Australian politics. His neighbour introduces him to a new movement backed by war veterans disenchanted with the condition of Australia.
This movement, from today’s vantage point, appears to have distinctly fascistic accents — the mass of ordinary men require strong leadership; a crisis and challenge from the ‘‘red’’ left impends — but Lawrence was in fact writing before Mussolini’s March on Rome, and in