“…the most truthful and disturbing image one can find of Australia in literature.”–Simon Leys

Not one to use words lightly is Simon Leys, but that is what he wrote of D H Lawrence’s Kangaroo in The New York Review of Books in 1994.

Lawrence arrived in Australia almost by chance; his stay lasted merely three months; he barely got to know half a dozen Australians and only examined a few acres of a continent as big as Europe. Most of his visit was spent in a nondescript little town stuck between an empty ocean on the one side and the emptiness of the bush on the other. There he locked himself in a small suburban bungalow where he kept writing day after day, seeing nothing and meeting with no one. One might truly say that he was so busy imagining Australia that he never found the time to look at it.

Of course, such an attitude is by no means unique: the traveling writer who shuts himself in his ship’s cabin or in his hotel room, and tosses off the description of a country he does not even bother to visit, is a type probably less original than he himself fancies. In Lawrence’s case, however, what is more intriguing is that, when he eventually put a final full stop to the thick manuscript of Kangaroo, he had in fact just completed what still remains, three quarters of a century later, the most penetrating portrait, the most truthful and disturbing image one can find of Australia in literature.

Although most connoisseurs readily agree to place Kangaroo among Lawrence’s major works, it is not one of his most widely read novels. In the eyes of many readers, it suffers perhaps from its makeshift structure and from the heteroclite and ill-fitting nature of its various elements—not to mention the fact that some of its political views reeked of fascism. The book is supposed to be a novel, but in fact, it is a hybrid creature that escapes all classification. Lawrence stitched together some autobiographical reminiscences (there is a long and harrowing narrative of the time he spent with his wife in a Cornwall village during the Great War, surrounded by the moronic and watchful hatred of the local population, who could not forgive him for being a pacifist and for having a German wife), lengthy mystico-political considerations, sometimes muddled, sometimes sinister, reflecting the ascent of fascism in the early Twenties (a phenomenon which Lawrence had just observed in Italy with ambiguous fascination, and which he encountered again in Australia in circumstances that were to remain a riddle till quite recently), an amazing and vivid portrait of his married life…

As Lawrence himself says again and again in the novel – even at one point inviting the reader to leave if they don’t like it! – the work is a “thought adventure”. Unfortunately I find Lawrence/Somers on the “dark god” rather hard to take – the idea really does strike me now in 2012 as total piffle. But I would still urge you to read this not quite forgotten classic. So easy to do now as all you need is the eBook, which is free!

It came on to rain, streaming down the carriage windows. Jack lit a cigarette, and offered one to Harriet. She, though she knew Somers disliked it intensely when she smoked, particularly in a public place like this long, open railway carriage, accepted, and sat by the closed window smoking.

The train ran for a long time through Sydney, or the endless outsides of Sydney. The town took almost as much leaving as London does. But it was different. Instead of solid rows of houses, solid streets like London, it was mostly innumerable detached bungalows and cottages, spreading for great distances, scattering over hills, low hills and shallow inclines. And then waste marshy places, and old iron, and abortive corrugated iron “works”— all like the Last Day of creation, instead of a new country. Away to the left they saw the shallow waters of the big opening where Botany Bay is: the sandy shores, the factory chimneys, the lonely places where it is still Bush. And the weary half established straggling of more suburb.

“Como”, said the station sign. And they ran on bridges over two arms of water from the sea, and they saw what looked like a long lake with wooded shores and bungalows: a bit like Lake Como, but oh, so unlike. That curious sombreness of Australia, the sense of oldness, with the forms all worn down low and blunt, squat. The squat-seeming earth. And then they ran at last into real country, rather rocky, dark old rocks, and sombre bush with its different pale-stemmed dull-leaved gumtrees standing graceful, and various healthy-looking undergrowth, and great spiky things like zuccas. As they turned south they saw tree-ferns standing on one knobbly leg among the gums, and among the rocks ordinary ferns and small bushes spreading in glades and up sharp hill-slopes….

Como 2010

Lawrence in Thirroul

D H Lawrence in Thirroul

There has been no end of interest in the novel, especially perhaps down here in the Illawarra. An old friend, Raymond Southall, edited in the the late 1980s, for example. A very attractive illustrated edition with the Garry Shead paintings appeared in 1995.

Back fifty years when as a 19-year-old I first read the then 40-year-old book with some appreciation of the descriptive bits but little else in the way of comprehension, the general view was that this was an extraordinarily messy novel in which Lawrence worked out hang-ups about having his anus examined during WW1 and otherwise imported into Australia ruminations about Italian politics under Mussolini. Today Lawrence’s observations about what was going on in Sydney in the early 1920s are treated with more respect. See Bruce Steele’s Cambridge Edition (2001) – pdf file opening in new window.

More: In the Footsteps of Lawrence; Place, colour and sedition: D. H. Lawrence’s Kangaroo, a study in environmental values; ‘Kangaroo’ D.H. Lawrence.

Richard Lovat Somers, described by Lawrence as “a smallish man, pale faced with a dark beard”, who is only a lightly fictionalised version of Lawrence himself, arrives in Australia with his wife Harriet bearing the scars of a war in which he never fought. Ironically he soon begins to mix with a group of belligerent ex-servicemen who feel let down by the arrival of peace and hanker after the sense of belonging and camaraderie that they enjoyed while fighting in France. Following the leadership of Ben Cooley, whose nickname is Kangaroo, they have formed clubs and societies of old soldiers who, under the pretence of meeting for social or sporting activities, are actually preparing to take over the government by coup d’etat. Somers is attracted to them and their political ideas as well to their rugged individualism but eventually, in his vanity, he decides that he himself is both too rugged and too individualistic himself to join any one side, and leaves Australia after only a brief stay. In Somers Lawrence has drawn a hugely flattering self portrait, or at least what he probably believed to be one!

Much of the novel is devoted to conversations between Somers and his ‘mates’  Jack Calcott, Jaz Trewhella and Ben Cooley in which they debate the nature of democracy and government. Somers’ reputation has preceded him and Kangaroo is keen to recruit him to their cause. That these discussions of ideas dominate the novel was sensed by Lawrence as a weakness and one which he tries to defend within  its own pages writing towards the end “now a novel is supposed to be a mere record of emotion-adventures, flounderings in feelings. We insist that a novel is, or should be, also a thought adventure if it is to be anything at all”. Indeed if ‘Kangaroo’ is anything at all it is precisely that, although thought and thinking do not, on their own, necessarily make for a good novel.

Last year there was a play down here in The Gong which I missed.