Is this book ‘dated‘ or merely peculiar? I certainly spent some time wondering how most modern-day publishers would react if sent a manuscript as rambling and self-indulgent as this one, and its discussions of race and gender definitely reflect common prejudices of the time. On the other hand, there are plenty of books first published in the 1920s that are an easy, enjoyable read, despite containing dated viewpoints. This is not one of them. Here are my thoughts on Kangaroo by D. H. Lawrence, but first, have a look at the splendid edition I read, courtesy of City of Sydney Libraries:
It says “AUSTRALIA’S GREAT BOOKS” on the cover, by the way. It’s actually not as old as it looks – this edition was published in 1992 – but it does seem to have reproduced the original typeset pages:
I’d wanted to read this for a while because I’d heard that it was inspired by D. H. Lawrence’s visit to Australia in the early 1920s and included descriptions of the early Fascist movement in Australia. In these respects, the book lived up to my expectations. The central character, Richard Lovat Somers, does seem to be a portrait of the author himself. Both were writers from working-class English backgrounds who married German women and suffered persecution in Britain during the First World War due to their anti-war stance, and who then travelled the world in a self-imposed exile. Unfortunately, Richard Lovat Somers turns out to be egomaniacal, bombastic and self-pitying, which makes spending four hundred pages in his company a fairly unpleasant experience. He pontificates at length about souls, dark gods, civilisation, sex, women, democracy, socialism, the Australian character and many other subjects in which he is a self-proclaimed expert. He records each passing thought at least five times, in much the same way, on the same page, then says the exact opposite in the next chapter, then changes his mind yet again. He is convinced of his own specialness – he is one of the few men with a soul, you see, so is uniquely qualified to determine what is best for Australia, and the working classes, and humankind.
The plot, such as it is, involves Richard arriving in Sydney and being introduced to ‘Kangaroo’, an aspiring politician who wants to impose his own benevolent brand of dictatorship on Australia. Richard is at first drawn to, then repulsed by, Kangaroo, after which he briefly flirts with a Communist leader whose ideas seem more “logical”. Mostly, though, Richard ponders whether he should devote his amazing intellectual gifts to politics at all, or simply let humankind go to pieces by itself. There is a brief flurry of action when the Fascists clash with the Communists, but this occurs very late in the book. The author does provide this warning to readers:
“Chapter follows chapter, and nothing doing . . .We can’t be at a stretch of tension all the time, like the E string on a fiddle. If you don’t like the novel, don’t read it.”
Unfortunately, this warning doesn’t appear until page 319, which is a bit late for most readers. This is pretty typical of the author’s contempt for the reader, though. Apart from subjecting us to pages and pages of Richard’s preaching and screeds of implausible dialogue between Richard and Kangaroo, Lawrence can’t even be bothered keeping track of character names (Richard, for example, is variously referred to as “Richard”, “Richard Lovat”, “Lovat”, “Lovat Somers” and “Somers”). The author makes other odd naming choices – for example, the town on the south coast of New South Wales where Richard and his wife rent a house is clearly Thirroul, but in this book it’s called ‘Mullumbimby‘. I can understand the author wanting to avoid using the real name of Thirroul, but why choose a name that belongs to a real, well-known and very different inland town in the far north of the state? It’s unnecessarily confusing.
I did love a lot of the beautiful descriptions of the Australian bush and the sea, but there were some puzzling mistakes. For example, he accurately describes a line of bluebottles on the beach, then confidently asserts they are “some sort of little octopus”. No, they’re not. And he describes a “kukooburra” as “a bird like a bunch of old rag, with a small rag of a dark tail, and a fluffy pale top like an owl, and a sort of frill round his neck”. Kookaburras have beautiful blue-edged wings, with tails striped in white, black and chestnut! They don’t look anything like old rags! I feel offended on behalf of the kookaburras of Australia.
It was interesting to read a European perspective of the early days of the Australian Federation and occasionally, Richard’s observations are really funny – for example, when he’s baffled by the way Australians use suit-cases instead of shopping baskets:
“A little girl goes to the dairy for six eggs and half a pound of butter with a small, elegant suit-case. Nay, a child of three toddled with a little six-inch suit-case, containing, as Harriet had occasion to see, two buns, because the suit-case flew open and the two buns rolled out. Australian suit-cases were always flying open, and discharging groceries or a skinned rabbit or three bottles of beer.”
Unfortunately, these sorts of observations are rare. Mostly, Richard is busy having this sort of conversation with Kangaroo:
‘Why,’ [Richard] said, ‘it means an end of us and what we are, in the first place. And then a re-entry into us of the great God, who enters us from below, not from above . . . Not through the spirit. Enters us from the lower self, the dark self, the phallic self, if you like.’
‘Enters us from the phallic self?’ snapped Kangaroo sharply.
‘Sacredly. The god you can never see or visualise, who stands dark on the threshold of the phallic me.’
‘The phallic you, my dear young friend, what is that but love?’
Richard shook his head in silence.
‘No,’ he said, in a slow, remote voice. ‘I know your love, Kangaroo. Working everything from the spirit, from the head. You work the lower self as an instrument of the spirit. Now it is time for the spirit to leave us again; it is time for the Son of Man to depart, and leave us dark, in front of the unspoken God: who is just beyond the dark threshold of the lower self, my lower self. There is a great God on the threshold of my lower self, whom I fear while he is my glory. And the spirit goes out like a spent candle.’
Kangaroo watched with a heavy face like a mask.
‘It is time for the spirit to leave us,’ he murmured in a somnambulist voice. ‘Time for the spirit to leave us.’
As for the dated aspects of this book – well, there are Richard’s 1920s prejudices about “Chinks” and “Japs” and “niggers”. He also declares that women are too emotional and irrational to be able to play any useful part in public life or even participate in serious conversations (which is pretty funny, given Richard’s wild mood swings and vacillating opinions). As offensive and ridiculous as these sections are, I don’t think they’re the main reason modern readers will be put off this novel. They’re more likely to be defeated by the almost non-existent narrative, the rambling, pretentious prose and the irritating main character. I’m quite proud of my self-discipline in finishing this book. Not recommended, except for D. H. Lawrence fans.
More ‘dated’ books:
1. Wigs on the Green by Nancy Mitford
2. The Charioteer by Mary Renault
3. The Friendly Young Ladies by Mary Renault
4. Police at the Funeral by Margery Allingham
5. Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner
6. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
7. Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome