Henry Shukman on the travel writing of DH Lawrence

DH Lawrence was an incomparable observer and his travel writings are among his finest prose. Henry Shukman visits the New Mexico desert where his ashes rest along with his paintings

"In a cold like this, the stars snap like distant coyotes, beyond the moon. And you'll see the shadows of actual coyotes, going across the alfalfa field. And the pine trees make little noises, sudden and stealthy, as if they were walking about. And the place heaves with ghosts ..."
DH Lawrence, reminiscing about his little ranch in New Mexico, the only home he ever owned

In a perceptive article in the Guardian in 2003 Jonathan Jones said of Lawrence that "[he] followed the principle advocated by Saul Bellow's Augie March that 'everybody knows there is no fineness or accuracy of suppression; if you hold down one thing you hold down the adjoining'. He doesn't seem to edit himself, believing that every word is sacred. It leads to some fantastic wild swells of intellectual energy ... but that doesn't stop it tasting sometimes of soupe des longueurs."

Poets are supposed to write the best prose. Of the 20th-century prose-writers who were also poets (Hardy, Graves, Lowry, for example) Lawrence is one who, in spite of his prodigious output of prose, might really have been a poet at heart, and just happened to turn habitually to prose. When he set about learning to write novels he noted from George Eliot that what one did was follow two couples in parallel. Which is exactly what he does in The Rainbow and Women in Love (and the first draft of Sons and Lovers

His X-ray insight may have seen straight through to the skeleton of some of the best English novels, but there's never- theless something a bit journeyman-like about his approach, as if he wanted to master the basics of the medium so he could set about filling it with the message. (This is after all the man for whom books were "vibrations on the ether".) His novels can feel not only awfully long, but a bit slapdash too at times - very different from George Eliot's, for example, or the Russians, where form itself, beautifully rendered, raises the fiction to ever greater significance, where (in Nietzschean terms that Lawrence might have appreciated) the Apollonian and Dionysian work together, form and content inspiring and exalting one another.

However, Lawrence was a great prose writer, and his best subject was arguably place. Sons and Lovers, for example, has marvellous descriptions of semi-rural, semi-industrial countryside, and they more than anything else may draw the reader in from the start. After slogging through Women in Love for A level, what really turned me on to Lawrence was the brief Mornings in Mexico. Eighty pages, the whole book. That alone was encouraging. Its admirably constrained compass allowed one to appreciate the attentiveness of the poet practising prose. Lawrence could write astonishingly supple, responsive prose, exhilaratingly intimate with its subject-matter, as well as with the workings of thought. And the alien cultures with their ancient rites, such as the Hopi Snake Dance, provided just the right pretext for those exhilarating swells of intellectual energy. He could warm to the theme of man's place in nature, his relationship with the universal, elemental forces, with complete aesthetic legitimacy.

There were surprises too. For example, he could use bathos to good effect. Mornings in Mexico consists of one deflation after another. "We talk so grandly, in capital letters, about Morning in Mexico. All it amounts to is one little individual looking at a bit of sky and trees, then looking down at the page of his exercise book." It's really himself that he's deflating here. Or: "They say: in vino veritas. Bah! They say so much!" It's as if, released from formal demands, in shirt sleeves as it were, the writer is relaxed, informal, and spontaneously engages the reader.

He can also do humour, sort of, which is a big surprise. Here, for example, two parrots imitate the Mexican peasant housekeeper's whistle: "The pair whistle now like Rosalino, who is sweeping the patio with a twig broom; and yet it is so unlike him, to be whistling full vent, when any of us is around, that one looks at him to see. And the moment one sees him, with his black head bent rather drooping and hidden as he sweeps, one laughs." (Well, it may not be a great joke, but the situation is inherently comic - although the humour isn't helped either by Lawrence's going on to pronounce how "extremely sardonically funny".)

Lawrence was an incomparable observer. The best of his prose has in it what is best in his poetry too: superhuman attentiveness, and a determination to run the elusive quarry to ground. Like some of his best poems, that follow the moment by moment unfolding of relatively small domestic events, his travel writing also settles happily on the mundane: the long wait to buy ferry tickets; the poor food in a ship's canteen; a traffic jam of Fords crawling across the American desert. (You could even read some of his most famous poems - "Bat" and "Snake", for example - as episodes from the life of a travelling man.) Nothing is beneath the dignity of his traveller's pen. (In spite of the deracination and lack of a family, he was after all a domestic kind of man. After his morning with the exercise book, he would do the cooking and housework.) This kind of openness is a real virtue - and perhaps akin to the "openness" which caused Leavis to exalt Lawrence to his supreme canon, an elevation that must have done at least as much for Lawrence's mid-century reputation as the Lady Chatterley trial.

Lawrence declared that the only place that ever changed him from the outside was New Mexico. Standing at 9,000 feet, the pines on his Kiowa Ranch never stop whistling. The view over blue folds of hill and plain to northern Arizona is heart-stopping. Crows and hawks like it up here. The scent of pine is always on the clear, high air. There are several tumbledown, ramshackle western cabins strewn around the property, like the set from a mountain scene in a cowboy film, all dark patched-up woodwork and log-stove chimneys.

It's remarkable that any English writer wound up here, in this all but deserted rural country, let alone the boy from Eastwood. But Lawrence's world tour, his "savage pilgrimage", took in high or dry lands (or both) - Australia, Mexico, the Alps, the hills of Provence - that would have offered climates good for a consumptive. Never mind the "elemental civilisation" he longed to find, that must surely have been part of the motivation for his travels: he was a sick man trying to take care of himself. Though there is another physical affliction that local rumours suggest may have brought him to Taos: there was a kind of clandestine Comintern of syphilitics worldwide, and Lawrence and Frieda may have been sufferers, along with Mabel Dodge Lujan, who invited them here.

Taos had its little outpost of artists, and Mabel Dodge Lujan was the local patroness. She was a mining heiress from Kansas who married Tony Lujan, a Native American from the Taos Pueblo (the pueblo being the 1,000 year-old adobe edifice on the reservation, possibly the oldest inhabited structure still in use in America). She built herself a fantastic adobe castle on the edge of the village (later owned by Dennis Hopper, and scene of equally fantastic counter-cultural festivities in the 60s), and wrote very well about the desert. It was she who gave the Lawrences the ranch.

While their devotee Lady Dorothy Brett settled in a diminutive hut next door, the Lawrences lived in the main, three-room cabin, which Lawrence himself repaired, with the help of three local Native Americans. (He climbed on the roof with a wet handkerchief over his mouth to clear out a rat's nest.) He would write each morning under a big pine tree in front, made locally famous by Georgia O'Keeffe in one of her best paintings, The Lawrence Tree. It is a formidable thing, 80 foot or more of fat pine rising into a gorgon's head of twisted boughs.

As he wrote, there would be the view before him over the natural amphitheatre of Taos, and the snowy Sangre de Cristo peaks looking Himalayan beyond. And behind, the great body of Taos Mountain, sacred to the Indians, rising to 14,000 feet, on the side of which the little houses are pitched. It would be a dreamy place to come and work on your manuscripts, as today a plaque says Lawrence did. (Actually, more likely it was his willing secretaries, competing to do his typing for him, who did the manuscript work, while he wrote on in his notebooks.)

The three women, Mabel Dodge, Dorothy Brett and Frieda, all vied for influence over him, even after he died. When Frieda shipped his ashes to New Mexico from France, the first two wanted to scatter him around the ranch, but Frieda, determined to install his remains in the memorial she had planned, tipped the urn into the wet cement while the others weren't looking. Today the memorial, a sort of shrine where Frieda herself is also buried, stands at the top of a zigzagging path among the pines.

Lawrence's infamous paintings have been in a local hotel, the Fonda de Taos, for decades. After a brief spell in a gallery following the death of its owner, Saki Karavas, the pictures have now been reinstated in his old office behind reception. The paintings came to Taos in 1929, when they were condemned to be destroyed, on grounds of obscenity, on the day their exhibition opened in Piccadilly. To save them, Lawrence promised to remove them from British soil, and shipped them here. Saki, a Greek by birth, was convinced they could represent significant leverage in realising one of his nation's cherished dreams, and every time a new prime minister came to power in Westminster, he'd send off a letter offering Britain the "Lawrence Oils" in exchange for the return of the Elgin Marbles. Under the glass top of his huge messy desk he used to keep the tight-lipped replies ("The PM has asked me to thank you ... but does not feel the quid pro quo you suggest is appropriate ... etc.")

There's a Flight Back into Paradise from 1927, which depicts a couple fleeing a hell of industrial-Midlands factory chimneys - a piece of emphatic autobiographical anglophobia. In a Rape of the Sabine Women from 1928, strangely perhaps, there's hardly a woman to be seen. It looks like an all-male orgy. He can't do eyes, he can't really do faces - certainly not lips - and he can't do bodies so they look like they're doing what they're supposed to be - running, wrestling, dancing. And since the canvases are 80-90 percent human body, there's a problem.

On the other hand, perhaps they should be taken as simply another aspect of Lawrence's vision. After all, they're a lot better than many a non-painter could manage. Some are even quite good, in their sense of space and volume. Lawrence said of painting (his own): "It gave me a form of pleasure that words can never give." From a certain, Lawrentian, point of view, it doesn't matter much whether that applies to the rest of us. Like Blake perhaps, he is more (or some might say less) than an artist. The message does matter. He is indeed something of a preacher, a would-be visionary for the human race. In his strange inverted way, he is a kind of moralist.

There's a small piece of cinematic footage of Tolstoy taken near the end of his life by an intrepid early film-maker. Tolstoy wouldn't let him in the house, but bounced up and down on his doorstep crying: "Just live right!" You can hear the Tolstoyan imperative in Lawrence too, even if they had more or less inverted ideas about what "right" meant, at least by that point in Tolstoy's life.

In fact, Lawrence spent less than a year in New Mexico in all. Soon after he left for the last time, in 1929, he went to Vence, where he would die the following year.

Up at the ranch, the breeze picks up, and the pines whistle once more, and make their stealthy moves, and the shadows on what's left of the snow start to twitch again, a little like ghosts.

· Henry Shukman's latest book is Sandstorm, published by Jonathan Cape.

Henry Shukman

The GuardianTramp

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