Thursday, June 16, 2016

Archimedes in the Bathtub

Your first encounter with D.H.Lawrence's memorable novel, Sons and Lovers came as the result of an intervention by one of the two individuals who were the secular versions of your most memorable university-days instructors, and a splendid cadre of other civilians who have to this day left valuable impressions on you.

Each of these two secular mentors was an owner of a used book store, one at the confluence of Hollywood Boulevard and La Brea Avenue in that splash of Los Angeles known as Hollywood, the other, smaller, a bit below Hollywood on Santa Monice Boulevard, between La Brea and Fairfax Avenues, on occasion redolent of a smell that may have been cat urine or, as you discovered in another context, years later, Southern Comfort whiskey.

It is of the Santa Monica store and Sons and Lovers you write.  You have no memory of the name of the bookstore or even if it had a name other than the sign rendered on the front window glass, Used Books Bought and Sold. You recall one time when, standing at the check-out counter and the telephone rang, he answered it with the gruff-but-emphatic, "Used books."

The owner bore a resemblance to a man you would come to know and hang out with some twenty years later, after you'd left Los Angeles for Santa Barbara. His head seemed chisled rather than formed, his mouse-gray hair erupted in ambitious cowlicks, which he accommodated by allowing to grow without regard for a neat effect.

The first few times you met the poet, Kenneth Rexroth, in Santa Barbara, he described your way of looking at him as of a man recognizing someone from his past who owes him money. It took a few more meetings with Rexroth to make the connection between his craggy face and that of the bookstore owner on Santa Monice Boulevard.

"For someone who wants to be a writer not to have read this at your age--" he shoved a serviceable if not fresh hardcover of Sons and Lovers across the counter, into your stack of John O'Hara and Dashiell Hammett, shaking his head to complete the drifting clause of disdain and disbelief.  "Here. You can pay me after you've read it."

You were eighteen; the price, penciled on the upper right corner of the title page, was seventy-five cents.

"You'll want to reread this over the years."

He was correct; each time you reread the novel, you became Archimedes in the bathtub over some new awareness. The first of these was Lawrence, himself, twenty-eight when this was published, giving you about ten years to catch up in technique and that glimmering awareness you had of story being about something more than an arrangement of events.

The second thing was how far he was ahead of me; ten years seemed light years away. Third, he switched point-of-view characters from Gertrude Morel to her son, Paul. Then, in no particular order, the Gertrude segment had become backstory, but the first two times through, you had no idea what backstory was, much less how to deal with it.

By your third reading, the weight and direction of the story made a beautiful sense, in particular since learning Lawrence had at first thought to call the novel Paul Morel before an editor showed him how effective Sons and Lovers was, not only as a title but as a theme.

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