"Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home."
- Anna Quindlen
I think that Lady Chatterley's Lover is a book a lot of people have heard about, but perhaps not so many have read - at least, not since its heyday in the 60's as a bohemian cult novel, free-love manifesto, and object lesson in the sordid appeal of banned books.
And to this day, it has a certain reputation. At least it did for me, something along the lines of, "Oh, that one that got banned for saying 'cunt' so many times". I had this vague notion it was about a steamy affair between a fancy countess or whatever, and some virile, uncouth manly man. All smut and no plot and plenty of descriptive four-letter words. You know -- literature!
But while it definitely is all of that, it's also really not. Instead of wallowing in the allure of tawdry, meaningless fucking, the book is a passionate argument for the power of genuine, meaningful fucking. Not even fucking - lovemaking. Connecting. The book is really kind of disgustingly sentimental. Sort of.
It follows Connie Reid, an artist's daughter who marries into the gentry as personified by Clifford Chatterley, who's insipid and impotent even before a WWI injury leaves him completely paralyzed below the waist. Clifford loves Connie for her mind, but without any physical component, for her the relationship is stifling and sterile. Enter Oliver Mellors, the gamekeeper on the estate, with his crude accent and his big broad shoulders and his proudly-brandished "cod atween my legs". Bow chicka wow wow, etc.
For all that, the book has definitely lost its power to shock. Especially in these days of the internet, where the most graphic hard-core pornography is only a seemingly-innocuous google search away, this book is relatively tame. And all the 1930's hullabaloo over "unprintable" words is pretty quaint, too, in this age where my sister and I regularly, endearingly tell each other "don't be such a cunt". The sex scenes in Chatterley are profane, sure, but they're also pretty vague and bland (the famous sodomy scene, for instance, is so floridly euphemistic you hardly know what the fuck is going on. "Burning out the shames, the deepest, oldest shames, in the most secret places." Huh.)
And here's the thing: Connie & Mellors's relationship, though explicitly described, is in fact being held up as this sacred ideal. Their vigorous, bodily carnality is the only true, meaningful connection in this whole damn book. All these prosperous, intellectual, impotent milquetoasts connecting solely on a cerebral level fall flat and stale. Empty! Confining! Repulsive! And all this meaninglessness of art and literature, fancy houses and jazz music, money, money, money, and every other offering to the "bitch-goddess Success" -- all in the service of pushing away the horrors of the recent war, the industrialized destruction of nature, the cavernous class divide. "Ours is essentially a tragic age," the novel begins, "so we refuse to take it tragically."
And, as the introduction to my edition points out, it's not even really about a cross-class love affair. Connie's not really a Lady, and Mellors is an educated army officer - hardly the illiterate boor he seems to be. They're both just playing the roles they were forced into, and when they are together (physically and every other way), all of that falls away. It's a book about naked humanity - in every sense of that phrase - and it's a book about what matters, or what should matter anyway, in Lawrence's view. Sex is a part of it. But it's really authenticity, seeing the world as it really is and our fellow men as they truly are.
I read this as part of my "50 Cult Novels" project, and one thing many cult books have in common (besides being iconoclastic and often censored) is their very specific idealism. This is the way to fix society. This one thing. Which is, I think, why book cults tend to be made up of teenagers and young adults - people for whom simple, categorical, and ostensibly radical ideas have massive, mind-blowing appeal.
So it's no surprise that Lady Chatterley's Lover was so popular in the 60's, despite being a somewhat boring, overwritten book. Any book that had been banned for 30 years, which made the tendentious claim that sex is the answer to all our problems, was basically destined for cult appeal. Nowadays, that appeal has somewhat lessened - though maybe had I read it in my early 20's I'd feel differently (cult novels are often not just of their time, but of the time in your life when you first read them). Still, I was surprised at how much I kind of liked the book. The characters are complex, the social commentary still relevant, the sex scenes quaintly steamy. It's worth a read.