The Prussian Officer and other stories by DH Lawrence (1914)

Someone asked me about DH Lawrence and I said he was a writer in limbo, in no man’s land between his time and ours: his vivid depiction of the animal life of humans scandalised the Georgians and drove him into exile – yet in the era of 50 Shades of Grey, his sex writings seem old-fashioned and puritan; in our cynical ‘whatevz’ days he seems embarrassingly earnest: so he finds himself neither flesh nor fowl. Explains why it’s hard to get so many of his books now. But I’d completely forgotten how rivetingly intense his writing is…

The Prussian Officer and other stories was published in 1914. 12 stories in all. Lawrence had already published three novels, The White Peacock (1911), The Trespasser (1912), Sons & Lovers (1913). Why the Prussian Officer? In 1912 Lawrence had eloped with Frieda, the wife of his German tutor at University College, Nottingham, travelling to her home town of Metz on the German/French border. This becomes the setting for the first two stories in the collection.

A wind was running, so that occasionally the poplars whitened as if a flame flew up them. The sky was broken and blue among moving clouds. Patches of sunshine lay on the level fields, and shadows on the rye and the vineyards. In the distance, very blue, the cathedral bristled against the sky, and the houses of the city of Metz clustered vaguely below, like a hill. (The Thorn in the Flesh)

Must have been a confusing book to address on its publication because:

a) all the other stories take place in the coalmining Nottinghamshire of his novels and background and are, up to a point, reassuringly English and rural. The two opening stories are exceptions not only in their setting of Germany, but by both being about German soldiers, and exceptionally harsh and unforgiving in tone. Why?

b) The book was published in November 1914. Britain had been at war with Germany since August and was still in the first flood of fierce anti-German propaganda. Were Lawrence’s two brutal German soldiers stories caught up in that? What did his first readers make of an English author writing sympathetically about German soldiers? Did these stories contribute to the later persecution Lawrence suffered in the War?

Worldview – Events of a sort do take place in the stories but their real point is repeatedly to convey Lawrence’s troubled, angular, deeply introspective view of human nature. In the first few stories the male characters are overcome with anxiety, dread, self doubt, humiliation. Nothing could be further from the English traditions of stiff-upper-lippery, of upper class Oxbridge irony, Oscar Wilde’s fin-de-siecle witticisms – or the broad tradition of jovial good humour from Dickens to Three Men In A Boat.

His turn came. He knew intuitively that nobody knew his condition. The officer just saw him as a mechanical thing. He tried to keep it up, to carry it through on the face of things. His inside gripped tight, as yet under control, he took the ladder and went along under the wall. He placed his ladder with quick success, and wild, quivering hope possessed him. Then blindly he began to climb. But the ladder was not very firm, and at every hitch a great, sick, melting feeling took hold of him. He clung on fast. If only he could keep that grip on himself, he would get through. He knew this, in agony. What he could not understand was the blind gush of white-hot fear, that came with great force whenever the ladder swerved, and which almost melted his belly and all his joints, and left him powerless. If once it melted all his joints and his belly, he was done. He clung desperately to himself. He knew the fear, he knew what it did when it came, he knew he had only to keep a firm hold. He knew all this. Yet, when the ladder swerved, and his foot missed, there was the great blast of fear blowing on his heart and bowels, and he was melting weaker and weaker, in a horror of fear and lack of control, melting to fall.

There is almost no humour in Lawrence. Just different shades of blistering intensity.

Style – psychological And so a lot of the prose is dedicated to conveying the abrupt, intense emotions of the characters. There is no mannerliness, no English deprecation separating the characters from the overwhelming power of their feelings and perceptions. Each moment they are shaken by new revelations and insights and perceptions.

Within his own flesh burned and smouldered the restless shame. He could not gather himself together. There was a gap in his soul. The shame within him seemed to displace his strength and his manhood. He sat down on his chair. The shame, the roused feeling of exposure acted on his brain, made him heavy, unutterably heavy.

Couldn’t be further from the social games of etiquette and good manners in Georgian England, the humour of HG Wells’ social novels (Tono-Bungay, 1909, Ann Veronica, 1909, The History of Mr Polly, 1910) or EM Foster (A Room with a View, 1908, Howards End, 1910) or Galsworthy. Instead his characters are raw helpless animals, trammeled by successions of violent feelings.

The moment she entered the room where the man sat alone, waiting intensely, the thrill passed through her, she died in terror, and after the death, a great flame gushed up, obliterating her.

Style – prose Lawrence’s characters are more like the stricken solitaries of Conrad’s fictions, Almayer or Willems. But Lawrence’s prose is completely different from Conrad’s. Whereas Conrad writes like a Frenchman with long lugubrious sentences festooning the page like tropical creepers, Lawrence’s sentences are often short, blunt, flamingly intense. Where Conrad is opulent and repetitive, lulling you with multiple clauses, piled high with drowsy fin-de-siecle sonorities, Lawrence’s prose is more harsh, abrupt, stabby:

It was difficult for her to endure his presence, for he would interfere with her. She could not recover her life. She rose stiffly and went down. She could neither eat nor talk during the meal. She sat absent, torn, without any being of her own. He tried to go on as if nothing were the matter. But at last he became silent with fury. As soon as it was possible, she went upstairs again, and locked the bedroom door. She must be alone. He went with his pipe into the garden. All his suppressed anger against her who held herself superior to him filled and blackened his heart. Though he had not know it, yet he had never really won her, she had never loved him. She had taken him on sufference. This had foiled him. He was only a labouring electrician in the mine, she was superior to him. He had always given way to her. But all the while, the injury and ignominy had been working in his soul because she did not hold him seriously. And now all his rage came up against her. (The Shadow in the Rose Garden)

She he, she he, bang bang, the sentences like angry lines scored into a canvas, not seeking to convey an external scene but to express discordant inner emotions. When Lawrence is painting a scene it becomes even more obvious that the comparison shouldn’t be with other English prose writers so much as with the angular, abrupt transitions of contemporary European painters, Cezanne in France or Die Brucke expressionists in Germany. Bright and vivid and abrupt.

She went across the lawn towards the garden, through an arch of crimson ramblers, a gate of colour. There beyond lay the soft blue sea with the bay, misty with morning, and the farthest headland of black rock jutting dimly out between blue and blue of the sky and water. Her face began to shine, transfigured with pain and joy. At her feet the garden fell steeply, all a confusion of flowers, and away below was the darkness of tree-tops covering the beck. (The Shadow in the Rose Garden)

There was silence. The common, with its sere, blonde-headed thistles, its heaps of silent bramble, its brown-husked gorse in the glare of sunshine, seemed visionary. Across the brook began the immense pattern of agriculture, white chequering of barley stubble, brown squares of wheat, khaki patches of pasture, red stripes of fallow, with the woodland and the tiny village dark like ornaments, leading away to the distance, right to the hills, where the check-pattern grew smaller and smaller, till, in the blackish haze of heat, far off, only the tiny white squares of barley stubble showed distinct. (Second Best)

Expressionism The more I read the more the vividness of the word descriptions and the abrupt intensity of the emotions reminds me of European expressionism in art and music: for example, Schoenberg’s strident Erwartung (1909), ‘…a single second of maximum spiritual excitement…’, or Mahler’s songs combining excesses of joy with hysterias of death; in art the French movement of Les Fauves (1904-08) and especially the German Expressionist movements, Die Brucke (1905-13) and Der Blaue Reiter (1911-14):

Die Brücke is sometimes compared to the Fauves. Both movements shared interests in primitivist art. Both shared an interest in the expressing of extreme emotion through high-keyed color that was very often non-naturalistic. Both movements employed a drawing technique that was crude, and both groups shared an antipathy to complete abstraction. The Die Brücke artists’ [portrayed] emotionally agitated paintings of city streets and sexually charged events…’ (Wikipedia article)

Sounds like Lawrence’s prose, no?

  • Fascinated by the primitive human beneath all the superficial trappings of ‘society’, ‘civilisation’.
  • Depiction of extreme emotion.
  • High-keyed colour ie phraseology, that is often non-naturalistic
  • Deliberately crude technique ie Lawrence’s rejection of smooth cadences in favour of short, clipped, abrupt, often repetitive. Instead of spending time finding the melliflous Latinate word he was happy to put down the blunter Anglo-Saxon word and then repeat it, and repeat it again, scoring it into the canvas, so to speak.
  • Antipathy to complete abstraction – Lawrence never went as far as Joyce or Woolf in depicting pure internal monologue and psychological states. There is always an external reference point; no matter how extreme the emotions they are always anchored in real situations with other people.
  • ‘Agitated and sexually charged’. Yes, Lawrence.
Die Brucke poster by Otto Muller

Die Brucke poster by Otto Muller

The Prussian Officer A sadistic and sexually repressed German officer goads his valet beyond endurance until he murders him in a dark forest, before wandering deranged and himself dying of exposure
The Thorn in the Flesh A German soldier overcome by fear at an exercise to climb a siege ladder, accidentally knocks his sergeant off the wall, goes into hiding with his girlfriend in a farmhouse hoping to escape to France but soldiers come to arrest him.
Daughters of the Vicar A long story in which we are introduced to the two daughters of the down-at-heel vicar of Aldecross, Miss Mary and Miss Louisa: Miss Mary out of financial necessity marries a dwarfish vicar but Louisa rebels and marries a fine handsome miner.
A Fragment of Stained Glass An odd short one in which the narrator visits a friend who’s an antiquary who’s written a fragment purporting to describe a man and woman in medieval England who flee their homes and stumble into an isolated monastery.
The Shades of Spring Syson returns to the countryside of his birth stumbling into the new gamekeeper who, it turns out, is now dating his old sweetheart Hilda Millership; after the male confrontation he talks to Hilda who tells him she was married ie had sex, the same day he was.
Second Best Two sisters out in the country, Anne and Francis, discussing boys: Anne lets slip that Jimmy who Frances has admired for years, is engaged to a servant girl; walking back to the village they encounter Tom the farm worker and Francis reflects she’ll have to settle for him, second best.
The Shadow in the Rose Garden A married couple holiday in the west country. He discovers that she has slipped out to meet an old lover. But the lover has gone mad.
Goose Fair A bourgeois young woman, Lois, awaits her man, Jack a collier, but there is tension, a rumour the hands will set fire to the factory and, indeed the factory is fired, and jack comes home late with other louts. but they have been drunkenly tormenting a goose girl at the fair.
The White Stocking A married couple, he realises she has been receiving gifts from her old employer at the factory, Sam Adams, who once danced with her all night at a ball where he husband sat impotent with rage. She goads him in his jealousy to hit her in the face.
A Sick Collier A short sliver of prose, a woman marries beneath her, a decent miner. One day he is brought home having ruptured himself, moaning with pain and goes out of his mind with pain threatening to kill her.
The Christening A scrawny vicar is called to perform a christening of an illegitimate baby in the cramped house of an ill old miner whose daughter shamed them all. In the middle her brother, a miner, returns and undermines the ceremony.
Odour of Chrysanthemums A miner’s wife waits at home for her husband to return from work, complaining to her children and to neighbours; then news comes that he has died in a freak accident in the mine and she and his mother have to strip, wash and dress the corpse in a room smelling of the chrysanthemums she picked earlier that day.

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