Thursday, April 7, 2016

Kangaroo by D. H. Lawrence

He had come to this new country, the youngest country on the globe, to start a new life and flutter with a new hope.  And he started with a rabid desire not to see anything and not to speak one single word to any single body--except Harriet, whom he snapped at hard enough.  To be sure, the mornings sometimes won him over.  They were so blue and pure: the blue harbour like a lake among the land, so pale blue and heavenly, with its hidden and half-hidden lobes intruding among the low, dark-brown cliffs, and among the dark-looking tree-covered shores, and up the bright red suburbs.  But htel nad, the ever-dark brush that was allowed to come to the shores of the harbour!

Richard Somers and his wife Harriet are taking an extended holiday in Australia.  To Somers, recently hounded out of England on suspicion of being a German spy--much like Lawrence himself--Australia represents a new beginning, not just for himself, but as a "new country" that exists as something of a blank slate.

But as the saying goes, wherever you go, there you are, and Somers cannot quite escape his own moody self-isolation and aloofness.  When he falls in with a secret organization of fascist paramilitary groups called the Diggers and their leader, a Sydney lawyer who goes by the name "Kangaroo," he flirts with the idea of contributing his skills as a writer to their cause but cannot commit.

The Diggers are certainly dangerous.  Kangaroo talks to Somers a lot about his deep love for the people of Australia, which comes off as creepily paternalistic, if not something darker and more heinous.  (Somers thinks of Kangaroo "keeping the nation in his pouch.")  But it's not at all clear whether Lawrence himself, who was known to flirt with racist and fascist ideals, thinks that the Diggers' philosophy is all that bad.  Like all Lawrence books, the mushy mysticism tends to be hard to pin down, and open to frequent reversals; it seems as likely that we are meant to be suspicious of Kangaroo as it is that we are meant to see Somers' inability to participate in the Diggers' mission as a kind of tragedy.  You might expect a book about a well-meaning man who falls in with a charismatic, but insidious figure, yet I think you might legitimately ask who here is well-meaning and who is insidious.

It leads to, however, one of the more powerful scenes I've ever read in Lawrence's books: the dying Kangaroo, shot in the gut after an otherwise successful raid on a labor organizing rally, demanding Somers' love while wasting away in a hospital bed.  Somers cannot bring himself to do it; rather than presenting a blank slate, the strange and empty Australia has made him recede farther into himself, in a kind of emulation of the land's blankness.

Kangaro  has all of Lawrence's flaws: It goes on too long, it's something of a mess, its philosophical meanderings go from incomprehensible to reprehensible and back again.  The best thing about Kangaroo, as it always is with Lawrence, is the prose, and it's worth reading just for the vivid and skillful depictions of the Australian landscape:
But he was looking mostly straight below him, at the massed foliage of the cliff-slope.  Down into the centre of the great, dull-green whorls of the tree-ferns, and on to the shaggy mops of the cabbage-palms.  In one place a long fall of creeper was yellowish with damp flowers.  Gum-trees came up in tufts.  The previous world! -- the world of the coal age.  The lonely, lonely world that had waited, it seemed, since the coal age.  These ancient flat-topped tree-ferns, these tousled palms like mops.  What was the good of trying to be an alert conscious man here?  You couldn't.  Drift, drift into a sort of obscurity, backwards into a nameless past, hoary as the country is hoary.  Strange, old feelings wake in the soul: old, non-human feelings.
It's these "old, non-human feelings" that drive Somers away from the company of other people, and make him unable to return the love of Kangaroo.  Lawrence talks a lot about a "dark god" whose identity is warped whenever he is named--as Christ, or Thor, or whatever--and you can see the way that Lawrence, fleeing from the sour gentility of Europe, embraced Australia as a kind of place where that mysticism might be recovered.  Like Lawrence, Somers eventually leaves Australia, and heads to the United States.  Lawrence never wrote a book about the U.S.; the one book he wrote while living in New Mexico was about (old) Mexico.  That's a shame; I'd like to have seen America through Lawrence's eyes.

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