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Criticism — From the November 2017 issue

Flesh and Blood

Three close encounters with Sons and Lovers

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A formative experience of my life occurred the day — I was then twenty years old and a student at the City College of New York — that an English teacher put into my hands D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers. I was a working-class kid, there were few female protagonists in the books I read, and until then I’d never heard the term “coming-of-age novel.” But I knew one when I saw one, and Paul Morel’s emotional struggle to leave home put the matter so starkly and so dramatically that, even at that tender age, I felt myself communing with the primitive conflict at the heart of the tale. I read the book in one gulp, came back to class entranced, and from that day forward, Sons and Lovers was biblical text. It was as though I had undergone a conversion experience. From here on in, I knew, literature with a capital L was to be my Book of Wisdom: it was to literature that I would turn to understand what I was living through, and what I was to make of it.

“Three Loves,” by Lauren Semivan. Courtesy the artist and Benrubi Gallery, New York City

I read Sons and Lovers three more times within the next fifteen years, and with each reading, I identified with another of the characters. The first time, it was Miriam, the farmer’s daughter with whom Paul loses his virginity. I got her immediately. She sleeps with him not because she wants to but because she fears losing him. During intercourse, her terror is such that instead of yielding to the experience, she lies beneath Paul and thinks, Does he know it’s me, does he know it’s me? Miriam’s primary need is to know that she is desired, and for herself alone. The dilemma was devastating: I felt the heat, the fear, the anxiety engulfing each of these two, but most especially, I felt it as though I were Miriam herself. I was twenty years old. I needed what she needed.

The next time I read the book, I was Clara, the working-class woman who is sexually passionate, wants to engage with erotic life, but is still alive to the potential for humiliation hidden in her need to feel that it is she who is being desired for herself alone. The third time I read the book, I was in my early thirties — twice married, twice divorced, newly “liberated” — and I identified with Paul. Now preoccupied with desiring rather than being desired, I gloried in giving myself up to the shocking pleasure of sexual experience: rich, full, transporting. At long last, I was the hero of my own life.

Only, of course, I wasn’t.

My point here is that for me, this particular rite of passage — the fraught discovery of the joy, the misery, the awe of making oneself vulnerable to passion — was permanently sealed into the continued rereading of a great novel that repeatedly seemed to mirror my own gathering development, at the same time that its influence as a work of art broadened and deepened, filling me with wonder again and again at the intimate connection between life and literature.

The illusion of self-mastery that comes with ecstatic sex is just that, an illusion. But for however long sex outside of marriage was prohibited by Western civilization, that illusion retained power of an almost mythical order. When I was a girl, in the Fifties, the culture was still joined at the hip to the restraints of bourgeois life, which only fed the dream of transcendence interwoven with the promise of self-discovery wrapped around the astonishment of sexual passion. Except for one vital difference between then and now: then we didn’t call it sex, we called it love; and the whole world believed in love. My mother, a communist and a romantic, said to me, “You’re smart, make something of yourself, but always remember, love is the most important thing in a woman’s life.” Across the street, Grace Levine’s mother, a woman who lit candles on Friday night and was afraid of everything that moved, whispered to her daughter, “Don’t do like I did. Marry a man you love.” Around the corner, Elaine Goldberg’s mother slipped her arms into a Persian lamb coat and shrugged. “It’s just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor man,” she said, but her voice was bitter precisely because she, too, believed in love.

It was a working-class, immigrant neighborhood in the Bronx. Our lives might be small and frightened, but in the ideal life — the educated life, the brave life, the life out in the larger world — we imagined that love would not only be pursued, it would be achieved; and once achieved, it would transform existence; create a rich, deep, textured prose out of the inarticulate reports of inner life we daily passed on to one another. The promise of love alone gave us the courage to dream of leaving those caution-ridden precincts and turn our faces outward toward genuine experience. In fact, it was only if we gave ourselves over to romantic passion — that is, to love — without stint and without contractual assurance, that we would have experience.

We knew this because we had been reading Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary and The Age of Innocence all our lives, as well as the ten thousand middlebrow versions of those books, and the dime-store novels coming just behind them. In literature, good and great writers as well as mediocre popularizers had made readers feel the life within themselves in the presence of words written to celebrate the powers of love.

There might, of course, be a price to pay. One might be risking the shelter of respectability, even in the Fifties, if one fell in love with the wrong person — and don’t forget, Anna and Emma did end up suicides — but no matter. The only truth for us was the depth of emotion these heroic figures generated through their courage to risk all for passion. It’s interesting to realize now that while we thought we were contemplating passion as an instrument of some higher plane of achieved life, we were really seeking it as a goal in itself. No one ever had a word to say about what happened afterward. That’s why, when the movie ended with the lovers riding off into the sunset, we walked out of the theater feeling vindicated.

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is the author of many books, most recently The Odd Woman and the City (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

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