“This is a subject on which I know absolutely nothing: I should write a book on it.”
—Prince de Ligne
“Poor Richard Lovat wearied himself to death struggling with the problem of himself, and calling it Australia.”
—D.H. Lawrence, Kangaroo
Often our imagination cannot fully absorb the truth of a city or of a land, unless a poet first invents it for us. Peking seen by Segalen, or Ecuador by Michaux, or Australia by D.H. Lawrence are good cases in point. Let us consider here the latter example.
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 (Lawrence and his …