“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 formidable Frieda formed a couple that was as impossible as it was indestructible), last and most importantly, an evocation of Australia, its people and its landscape—which, to this day, has not been equaled in literature.

To summarize the bizarre plot of Kangaroo is to run the risk not only of discouraging readers, but also of misleading them, for the book should be read as a poem, and no poem can be retold in other words. Nevertheless, it may be best to dispose first of the anecdotal aspect of the book—after all, it is this aspect which has long monopolized the attention of most commentators, thus preventing access to the true riches of this strange work.

Richard Lovat Somers, an English poet and essayist (a barely disguised self-portrait of the author), having tired of Europe and wishing to live in a new country, arrives in Australia with his wife, Harriet. In Sydney, the couple becomes acquainted with a neighbor, Jack Callcott. Somers and Callcott exchange cynical remarks on the subject of democracy, a system for which they feel common contempt. Callcott explains that these views are largely shared by the veterans who returned three years earlier from the Great War. These men experienced disappointment and frustration in face of the social stagnation they found back home, and they began to regroup in various veterans associations and clubs.

These organizations, however, constitute a facade behind which a clandestine movement is developing. Callcott progressively discloses to Somers the true nature of the Movement: its aim is to train and equip a secret army that will stand ready, awaiting for the day when a political crisis—which now appears inevitable—will eventually provide it with an opportunity to smash “the Reds” and to take power. The leader of the Diggers Movement, Benjamin Cooley, nicknamed “Kangaroo,” inspires a blind and passionate devotion in his followers. Callcott, who is Cooley’s lieutenant, introduces Somers to him.


Kangaroo is attractive but enigmatic; his personality radiates authority and an ambiguous charm; the supple agility of his intelligence seems to cover an implacable strength. He served with great distinction during the war, having reached the rank of general; the cadres of the Movement are former officers who fought under him at the front. In civilian life he is a wealthy lawyer in Sydney; he is a Jew.

Kangaroo tries to persuade Somers to put his pen to the service of the Movement. His philosophy sounds rather familiar (after all, it was already that of the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov): a strong authority, exerted from above, will secure social order and eliminate, as much as possible, physical misery—popular kitchens will feed hungry children, and public works will employ their fathers: “Life is cruel…Man needs to be reassured…He needs to be relieved from the terrible responsibility of governing himself…Man needs a quiet, gentle father…I offer myself…” etc., etc. (As a critic observed, one wonders how such pronouncements did not cause more harm to Lawrence’s reputation than all the so-called “obscenities” of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.)

Somers is fascinated. For quite a while, he flirts with the temptation. At the last moment, however, he draws back. Behind Kangaroo’s seductiveness, he scents an obscure menace. Suddenly the old nightmare of the war years spent in the isolation of Cornwall, trapped by the imbecile and ferocious hostility of the country people surges again in his memory. Whether it is perpetrated by a blind mob or by a charismatic leader, the rape of an individual conscience is equally hideous. (Lawrence would certainly have subscribed to Simone Weil’s assessment: “The social realm belongs to the devil” and it is this fundamental conviction that, in the end, protected him from falling into the fascist snare.)

Shortly after Somers’s withdrawal, a violent clash occurs during a political demonstration in Sydney, opposing trade-unionists and Kangaroo’s storm-troopers. Kangaroo himself is shot by an unidentified assassin. As he lies dying, Somers pays him a last visit. Kangaroo believes that, deep in his heart, Somers always loved him, but never dared admit the fact; he begs him instantly to confess at last his true feelings. Somers is torn between the wish to comfort a dying man and the moral impossibility to tell a lie. He finally answers: “In a way, I love you, Kangaroo. Our souls are alike somewhere. But it is true I don’t want to love you.”

Somers and his wife prepare to leave Australia. Shortly before their departure, Callcott visits him and bitterly reproaches him for having taken advantage of his trust and friendship in order to spy upon the Movement. He enjoins him to remain forever silent on this subject and hints darkly at reprisals that would punish any indiscretion.

It is with mixed feelings that Somers finally leaves Australia, “that strange country that a man might love so hopelessly.” At first, he had been intoxicated with “that marvelous, soft, flower-blue of the air,” “the new freedom, silvery and paradisiacal,” “the new atmosphere, untainted by authority—silvery, untouched freedom.” However, “the freedom, like everything had two sides to it. Sometimes a heavy, reptile-hostility came off the sombre land, something gruesome and infinitely repulsive…. It was as if the silvery freedom suddenly turned, and showed the scaly back of a reptile, and the horrible jaws.” He suddenly wants to get out, “away to America which is not so sloppy and lovey, but hard and greedy and domineering, perhaps, but not mushy-lovey.” Somers and his wife start their long journey to America “upon a cold, dark, inhospitable sea.”

Since its first publication in 1923, Kangaroo never succeeded really to disarm the hostility of its Australian readers; they remain generally inclined to dismiss the book on account of what they call the “fanciful” character of its plot; and some local critics—otherwise more perceptive—still reject Kangaroo as ill-informed, slapdash, and sham. Their irritation seems to betray a deeper uneasiness, and one suspects them of diversionary tactics: as they focus their attacks on the political intrigue of Kangaroo (which is indeed its weakest point) they completely ignore the book’s most memorable achievement—its evocation of Australia. Could it be that this portrait is of such blinding truthfulness that it does not bear being squarely faced?

Yet, the ironic paradox is that the plot of Kangaroo was precisely not a fantasy. Kangaroo did in fact exist (only his dramatic death belonged to fiction); studies based on archives that had remained secret for half a century finally succeeded in identifying him and his clandestine activities.1 He was Sir Charles Rosenthal, a Sydney architect, of Jewish origin (commentators of the novel had long pondered why Lawrence had described his protagonist as a Jew: the very simple answer to this riddle was that his real-life model actually was a Jew).


Rosenthal was a reserve general and the chairman of a rightist patriotic league, the “King and Empire Alliance.” Historical research has now established that this “Alliance” served for a time as a cover for a secret army organized in multiple, mutually watertight cells, and which was designed to replace the regular army and the police, should the traditional forces of order escape the control of the right, in the eventuality of a Labor electoral victory. However, the Labor defeat in the 1922 state elections deprived these plans of their urgency and this clandestine army was progressively and silently disbanded; the general public never even realized that it once existed. Originally, two incidents could have blown the secret of the conspiracy: in 1921, a nasty scuffle took place in Sydney, opposing trade-unionists and rightist militants (it now appears that the latter were Rosenthal’s men.) Then, ten years later, a certain Colonel Campbell again organized briefly in Sydney a private militia, on a pattern that was reminiscent of the one which Lawrence had described—thus retrospectively providing Kangaroo with eerie powers of prophecy. Yet, at the time, no one ever attempted to probe into the background of these events and to unravel their real connections.

The amazing fact is that, during his brief stay in Sydney, Lawrence had stumbled upon a momentous political conspiracy that at the time entirely escaped the awareness of the public. He owed this discovery to one of these fortuitous chains of circumstances which seem to happen only to wandering poets—and which sometimes enable them to grasp situations more perceptively than professional journalists. On the ship which brought him to Sydney, Lawrence became acquainted with a young officer recently demobilized, who, in turn, introduced him to another veteran, his friend Major W.J.R. Scott—who was to become partly a model for Callcott in the novel; but whereas Callcott is given a working class background, Scott belonged to an old and influential family, and was himself a freemason and a wealthy businessman. Scott, whose acquaintance Lawrence cultivated assiduously during his entire stay, was the right-hand man of Rosenthal, and it was he who introduced Lawrence to the Leader. Yet, contrary to what is suggested in the novel, it seems that it was Lawrence who kept calling upon his new and dangerous friends, and not the other way round. Obviously, from his very first meeting with them, he must have felt that he had hit upon an extraordinary topic—hence the frantic energy with which he launched himself at once into writing his Australian novel, briefly interrupting his work only to return now and then to his secret sources in Sydney, in order to draw further information from them.

Lawrence succeeded in protecting his informers’ secret by the paradoxical means of writing a book on the subject: simply, he pretended that it all belonged to the realm of fiction. In this respect, he succeeded all too well, since some critics were to reproach him for the improbable nature of his tale. Even his wife, it seems, never knew the true object of his meetings with Scott; she assumed that the latter was a mere social acquaintance. One year after leaving Australia, as Lawrence was visiting a Mexican town with Frieda and two American friends, his companions found him one morning in a state of extreme agitation; he told them that, during the night, a man with a knife had attempted to enter his room. He shouted to Frieda: “They have arrived” but she thought that it was only one of his usual nightmares and did not pay further attention to the incident. In fact, Lawrence’s fear was not groundless. One should remember the menacing hints that Callcott had dropped to Somers before the latter’s departure from Australia…. Rosenthal’s conspiracy, in which eminent politicians and influential businessmen were deeply involved, constituted technically a crime of sedition—this was no trifling matter, and secrecy would have had to be enforced at any cost.


When Lawrence reached Australia, he was naturally not the first literary explorer of the continent.

The earliest apparitions of Australia in literature belong to myth and hallucination, as befits a land whose reality seems sometimes not to have fully dawned yet on its very inhabitants. Swift located Lilliput by 30°2′ latitude south; he did not mention its longitude (in Gulliver’s time, longitude was still very difficult to calculate), but the position which he indicated, to the north-west of Van Diemen’s Land (i.e., Tasmania), corresponds roughly to South Australia. Swift had road reports of the Dutch navigators as well as the writings of Dampier and other explorers, and he could well have derived the idea of Brobdingnag from the giants whom Tasman mentioned in his description of Van Diemen’s Land; nevertheless, he located Brobdingnag somewhere near Alaska. With the Houyhnhnms’ country, however, we are taken back in the southern hemisphere. The map that accompanies his narrative presents some resemblance to Cape Leeuwin and the western end of the Bight.

A good century later, when Poe described Arthur Gordon Pym’s little boat—with three turtles for all supplies—drifting ever further south on the empty Austral Ocean, and softly vanishing into a huge, bland Whiteness (“White Australia” already?) he seemed to have had a premonition of that sweet, all-pervasive nothingness which, in the same latitude, was eventually to affect Lawrence so deeply.

Throughout the entire nineteenth century, the reactions of Anglo-Saxon visitors and settlers to the Australian landscape2 betray a deep uneasiness, even a sort of unspeakable fear—which was all the more striking since the individuals who experienced it were otherwise not particularly remarkable for their imagination or sensitivity. The fact was that, without presenting any glaring dangers or harboring ferocious animals, Australian nature seemed paradoxically to exude an obscure menace. For this is a topsy-turvy world, where the reversal of the seasons is merely an ominous symptom of a much more disturbing reality. Even in those regions where the weather is apparently mild and pleasant, one can all too easily die of thirst and starvation; the country looks welcoming, and yet it is radically sterile and inhospitable; it resembles a huge, open, and sunny orchard, but a closer look reveals trees on which nothing grows but a grim, ligneous semblance of fruit—repellent wooden pears. The ubiquitous, shabby, monotonous gum trees, losing their bark all year round, seem permanently clad in rags, and their dusty foliage does not even provide any shade (eucalyptus leaves turn away from the sun and, instead of spreading horizontally, droop dejectedly, as if collapsing in utter exhaustion). The fauna is generally harmless, but so grotesque that it sometimes borders on the sinister. Whom is Nature mocking with such absurd inventions as the kangaroo and the platypus? And the fat and slothful wombats and the clumsy possums—noisy, heavy-breathing, which wake you up in the middle of the night, as they stumble on the tin roofs with their heavy, hesitant gait of drunkards? In the empty forests, the shrill chattering of the cockatoos, the hysterical and imbecile laughter of the kookaburrahs seem to rehash ad nauseam an exasperating and lugubrious joke from which man is excluded, and which merely emphasizes his exile.

The scenery is shapeless. Was it worn away by the ages, or is it barely emerging out of the primeval chaos? The early European pioneers were bravely determined to tackle nature, but their challenge fell flat; it merely encountered a colossal indifference on which all their energy could not find any grip. Even today, the big modern cities that have incongruously grown on the edge of the ageless bush seem hardly less temporary and flimsy than the fragile shelters of the nomadic natives whose light tracks, for some fifty thousand years, merely ruffled briefly the dust of the deserts. The inexpressible horror that was felt by the first settlers was rooted in one deep intuition: this is a world of such radical strangeness that it makes man lose all relevance—here man is completely superfluous. The true face of Australia is the face of the Earth before the emergence of man, and it is also the face which Earth will present again when man shall be no more.

The feelings that the settlers confusedly experienced more than a century earlier had to wait for Lawrence’s genius before finding form and expression.

Before Lawrence’s arrival, a number of famous writers came briefly to Australia, but their passage was of hardly more than anecdotal interest. For instance, Trollope visited here in 1872; he wrote—boringly, for once—a book of traveling impressions in which he placidly advocated genocide as a solution for the problem of the Aborigines—though he recommended that the operation be carried out without inflicting needless cruelty (ah, the delicacy of a decent man!). Havelock Ellis left the ship of his father (who was a master mariner) when he was sixteen, and spent a year in a remote corner of New South Wales, where he experienced all the unforgettable miseries and ecstasies of adolescence. Mark Twain made a fleeting visit and jotted down a few amusing observations. In 1890, Robert Louis Stevenson stayed in Sydney for a short while, and published here, at his own expense, the sublime open letter in which he took the defense of Father Damien (who had just died of leprosy in Molokai) against the calumnies of a Protestant missionary in Hawaii. Anger never inspired more moving pages—still, they owe nothing to Australia, but the fortuitous accident of their first publication. Finally, at the very end of the century, Joseph Conrad came briefly ashore, but he did hardly more than cross Circular Quay, with bowler hat and furled umbrella, on his way to the office of his shipowners’ agents…


Lawrence and his wife landed in Fremantle—the port of Perth—on May 4, 1922. They were coming from Ceylon where they merely stopped for five weeks (Lawrence found “oriental mysticism” repellent). Before that, they had spent some time in Italy. Lawrence was thirty-six—he had only eight more years to live. As a writer, he already enjoyed a fame tinged with scandal, but was virtually penniless: he had barely twenty pounds left in his pocket. Only his American publishers were still sending him a modest check now and then. All of the couple’s belongings fit into four trunks, two bags, and one hatbox. Lawrence had decided to go to the United States, where an eccentric millionairess had invited him to join an artists’ community which she had established in New Mexico. On his way, Australia was simply to be a three month stopover.

From the very first contact, Australian society looked immediately familiar to him, at least in one particular respect. It was not a classless society, but rather a one-class society—overwhelmingly proletarian, and the son of a Nottingham miner found there at once the atmosphere of his childhood. He recognized here the type of man who “is quite indifferent to thought and hostile to consciousness. It seems to him more manly to be unconscious, even blank, to most of the great emotions.” Australians tend to be utterly devoid of eloquence, they distrust words, which they handle in a flat and clumsy manner. Yet, for Lawrence, this virile workingman’s muteness did not hinder communication. He described it in Kangaroo:

Somers was of the people himself, and he had that alert instinct of the common people, the instinctive knowledge of what his neighbour was wanting and thinking, and the instinctive necessity to answer. With the other classes, there is a certain definite breach between individual and individual, and not much goes across except what is intended to go across. But with the common people, and with most Australians, there is no breach. The communication is silent and involuntary, the give and take flows like waves from person to person, and each one knows: unless he is foiled by speech…. But there is this difference in Australia: each individual seems to feel himself pledged to put himself aside, to keep himself at least half out of count. The whole geniality is based on a sort of code of “You put yourself aside, and I’ll put myself aside.” This is done with a watchful will: a sort of duel. And above this, a great geniality. But the continual holding most of himself aside, out of count, makes a man go blank in his withheld self.

Yet, the Australian taciturnity is not merely a form of silent communication; on a deeper level, it also springs from an inexhaustible reservoir of indifference:

People mattered so little. People mattered hardly at all. They were there, they were friendly. But they never entered inside one. It is said that man is the chief environment of man. That, for Richard, was not true in Australia. Man was there, but unnoticeable. You said a few words to a neighbour or an acquaintance, but it was merely for the sake of making a sound of some sort. Just a sound. There was nothing really to be said. The vast continent is really void of speech. Only man makes noises to man, from habit. Richard found he never wanted to talk to anybody, never wanted to be with anybody. He had fallen apart out of the human association. And the rest of the people either were the same, or they herded together in a promiscuous fashion. But this speechless, aimless solitariness was in the air. It was natural to the country. The people left you alone. They didn’t follow you with their curiosity and their inquisitiveness and their human fellowship. You passed, and they forgot you. You came again, and they hardly saw you. You spoke, and they were friendly. But they never asked any questions, and they never encroached. They didn’t care. The profound Australian indifference, which still is not really apathy. The disintegration of the social mankind back to its elements. Rudimentary individuals with no desire of communication. Speeches, just noises. A herding together like dumb cattle, a promiscuity like slovenly animals. Yet the basic indifference under everything.

In the letters that he wrote to various correspondents nearly as soon as he arrived (Lawrence was a tireless and prolific letter writer), some essential themes appear at once: Australia is the most democratic country he ever encountered, but the more he looks at democracy, the less he likes it. He will develop these views in Kangaroo; at first, Somers expresses an instinctive repulsion:

“Oh, how I detest this treacly democratic Australia! It swamps one with a sort of common emotion like treacle, and before one knows where one is, one is caught like a fly on a flypaper, in one mess with all the other buzzers. How I hate it! I want to go away!”…

So Somers felt blind to Australia and blind to the uncouth Australians. To him they were barbarians. The most loutish Neapolitan loafer was nearer to him in pulse than these British Australians with their aggressive familiarity. He surveyed them from an immense distance, with a kind of horror.

But these first impressions will eventually acquire more complex nuances:

Of course he was bound to admit that they ran their city very well, as far as he could see. Everything was very easy, and there was no fuss. Amazing how little fuss and bother there was—on the whole. Nobody seemed to bother, there seemed to be no policemen and no authority, the whole thing went by itself, loose and easy, without any bossing. No real authority—no superior classes—hardly even any boss. And everything rolling along as easily as a full river, to all appearances.

That’s where it was. Like a full river of life, made up of drops of water all alike. Europe is really established upon the aristocratic principle. Remove the sense of class distinction, of higher and lower, and you have anarchy in Europe…. But in Australia, it seemed to Somers, the distinction was already gone. There was really no class distinction. There was a difference of money and of “smartness.” But nobody felt better than anybody else, or higher; only better-off. And there is all the difference in the world between feeling better than your fellow man, and merely feeling better-off.

Now Somers was English by blood and education, and though he had no antecedents whatsoever, yet he felt himself to be one of the responsible members of society, as contrasted with the innumerable irresponsible members. In old, cultured, ethical England this distinction is radical between the responsible members of society and the irresponsible. It is even a categorical distinction. It is a caste distinction, a distinction in the very being. It is the distinction between the proletariat and the ruling classes.

But in Australia nobody is supposed to rule, and nobody does rule, so the distinction falls to the ground. The proletariat appoints men to administer the law, not to rule. These ministers are not really responsible, any more than the housemaid is responsible. The proletariat is all the time responsible, the only source of authority…

Somers for the first time felt himself immersed in real democracy—in spite of all the disparity in wealth. The instinct of the place was absolutely and flatly democratic, à terre democratic. Demos was here his own master, undisputed, and therefore quite calm about it…

And this was what Richard Lovat Somers could not stand. You may be the most liberal Englishman, and yet you cannot fail to see the categorical difference between the responsible and the irresponsible classes. You cannot fail to admit the necessity for rule…. The working classes in England feel just the same about it as do the upper classes…

Somers was a true Englishman, with an Englishman’s hatred of anarchy, and an Englishman’s instinct for authority. So he felt himself at a discount in Australia. In Australia authority was a dead letter. There was no giving of orders here; or if orders were given, they would not be received as such. A man in one position might make a suggestion to a man in another position, and this latter might or might not accept the suggestion, according to his disposition.

But from the beginning, what struck Lawrence most of all was a dizzying feeling of emptiness. After less than a week in Australia, he wrote to his sister-in-law:

You never knew anything so nothing, nichts, nullus, niente, as the life here. Australians are always vaguely and meaninglessly on the go. That’s what the life in a new country does to you: it makes you so material, so outward that your real inner life and your inner self dies out, and you clatter around like so many mechanical animals…. Yet the weird, unawakened country is wonderful.

This last sentence heralded what was to become a major theme: the revelation of the natural scenery. For the Australian, emptiness had two faces: on the one side, there was the vacuity of the human world, devoid of controls and of interiority, and on the other, the mystery of the natural space in its ageless virginity. This parallelism, which will be developed in Kangaroo, took its starting point in a quasimystical experience that Lawrence had shortly after his arrival, as he went one night, walking alone under a full moon in the bush, near Perth—he experienced a sort of ecstasy, into which suddenly crept an unspeakable terror. The counterpoint between natural and human realms will, at the very end of Kangaroo—as we shall see later—find an amazing and triumphant synthesis.

Lawrence spent only two weeks in Perth, but this short time was well employed. In a local literary salon, he met a certain Mollie Skinner, a nurse and amateur writer, who submitted a manuscript to him. Lawrence agreed to revise her work, and this rare instance of a literary collaboration between a master and a beginner resulted in a book, The Boy in the Bush, which was published a few years later under their two names. He also met a local civil servant, of Dutch origin, W. Siebenhaar, who was rather a bad poet (later on, when sailing from Perth to Sydney, Lawrence threw the volume of his poems into the Southern Ocean), but a competent translator from the Dutch. He showed to Lawrence the manuscript of his English translation of Max Havelaar, the masterpiece of the Multatuli (Douwes Dekker, 1820–1887). Lawrence immediately recognized the exceptional importance of this work—which, besides its literary merits, was also a prophetic indictment of colonialism; he agreed to write an introduction for Siebenhaar’s translation, which eventually appeared in 1927.

Lawrence and his wife left Fremantle by ship on May 18, bound for Sydney, where they arrived on the 27th, after two short calls in Adelaide and Melbourne. As we already mentioned, it was during this passage that they became acquainted with a young officer recently demobilized, who gave them the address of one of his friends in Sydney—Major Scott, who, in turn, was to introduce Lawrence to “Kangaroo.”

The couple stayed in Sydney for only one week: accommodation was too expensive. On Scott’s advice, they rented a bungalow in Thirroul, a small holiday resort on the coast, some forty-five miles south of Sydney. Thirroul (renamed Mullumbimby in the novel) is linked to Sydney by rail, which enabled Lawrence to spend occasionally a day in the city, all by himself, in order to maintain contact with “Kangaroo.” Besides these brief interludes, he led the life of a hermit. He kept writing his novel—and he fought fiercely with Frieda (at times the screams of the couple were so dreadful that the delivery boy from the local grocery shop was too scared to enter the house). Frieda had a fiery temperament, whereas the ardor of Lawrence (whose health was very frail) found its more usual outlet on paper rather than in bed (husband and wife slept in separate rooms). Kangaroo also offers many observations on the problem of conjugal life:

Human love, human trust are always perilous, because they break down. The greater the love, the greater the trust, and the greater the peril, the greater the disaster. Because to place absolute trust on another human being is in itself a disaster, both ways, since each human being is a ship that must sail its own course, even if it go in company with another ship. Two ships may sail together to the world’s end. But lock them together in mid-ocean and try to steer both with one rudder, and they will smash one another to bits. So it is when one individual seeks absolutely to love, or trust, another. Absolute lovers always smash one another, absolute trusters the same. Since man has been trying absolutely to love women, and women to love man, the human species has almost wrecked itself.

From his extremely brief and limited Australian experience, Lawrence left nothing to go to waste—every crumb was put to good use. For instance, were he to make a new acquaintance, he would immediately turn him into two or three different characters in his novel; or again, out of the Thirroul bungalow, he extracted two different fictional dwellings. He pressed every sensation, every impression to the last drop; he enlarged, he extrapolated—he imagined the truth.

On July 15, after forty-three days of frantic work, he finally completed the writing of Kangaroo (almost four hundred pages of small print in the current paperback edition). Now he had less than four weeks left to enjoy the beach and the bush of Thirroul; at last he was completely at leisure. On August 11, the couple sailed for America, via Wellington and Tahiti (in Tahiti, Lawrence was much shocked by the sexual license displayed by a cinema crew who were traveling on the same ship—but then, only a Puritan could have conceived Lady Chatterley’s Lover…).


Kangaroo appeared in 1923, but was not distributed at once in Australia. On the one hand, local booksellers did not evince much interest in the book; on the other, Lawrence, still fearing reprisals, may have deliberately delayed the release of his book on the Australian market. Two years later, when it became available at last, reactions (as we already saw) were lukewarm—to say the least. Yet, for any non-Australian reader, it is absolutely evident that Kangaroo is a lyrical hymn celebrating the land and the people of Australia. For the Australians themselves, however, this may not be so obvious: we tend always to flatter ourselves with imaginary qualities, but when it is our true virtues that are being praised, usually this does not afford us much satisfaction. For example, if you go to any branch of the Australian Tourism Office, the employees will try to persuade you—in all good faith, and with a full array of glossy illustrated pamphlets—that Australia is a land of spectacular beauty. They are deceiving you—and they are deceiving themselves. Australian scenery is of inexpressible beauty, it is true, but it is also utterly inconspicuous and non-spectacular—and impossible to capture with a camera: this worn-down immensity, with its half-erased profiles constitutes a magic space entirely devoid of focal point; like ghosts, mirages, and supernatural visions, it escapes the photographer, it does not leave any impression on film. Lawrence grasped wonderfully this evanescent character:

It was virgin bush, and was as if unvisited, lost, sombre, with plenty of space, yet spreading grey for miles and miles, in a hollow towards the west. Far in the west, the sky having suddenly cleared, they saw the magical range of the Blue Mountains. And all this hoary space of bush between. The strange, as it were, invisible beauty of Australia, which is undeniably there, but which seems to lurk just beyond the range of our white vision. You feel you can’t see—as if your eyes hadn’t the vision in them to correspond with the outside landscape. For the landscape is so unimpressive, like a face with little or no features, a dark face. It is so aboriginal, out of our ken, and it hangs back so aloof. Somers always felt he looked at it through a cleft in the atmosphere; as one looks at one of the ugly-faced, distorted aborigines with his wonderful dark eyes that have such incomprehensible ancient shine in them, across gulfs of unbridged centuries. And yet, when you don’t have the feeling of ugliness or monotony, in landscape or in nigger, you get a sense of subtle, remote, formless beauty more poignant than anything ever experienced before.

If such an ambiguous phrase could easily puzzle, one can imagine how Lawrence’s comments on Australian social values were bound to upset, shock, and irritate superficial readers:

Freedom! That’s what they always say: “You feel free in Australia.” And so you do. There is a great relief in the atmosphere, a relief from tension, from pressure. An absence of control or will or form. The sky is open above you, and the air is open around you. Not the old closing-in of Europe.

But what then? The vacancy of this freedom is almost terrifying. In the openness and the freedom this new chaos, this litter of bungalows and tin cans scattered for miles and miles, this Englishness all crumbled out into formlessness and chaos. Even the heart of Sydney itself—an imitation of London and New York, without any core or pith of meaning. Business going on full speed: but only because it is the other end of English or American business.

The absence of any inner meaning: and at the same time the great sense of vacant spaces. The sense of irresponsible freedom. The sense of do-as-you-please liberty. And all utterly uninteresting. What is more hopelessly uninteresting than accomplished liberty? Great swarming, teeming Sydney flowing out into these myriads of bungalows, like shallow waters spreading, undyked. And what then? Nothing. No inner life, no high command, no interest in anything, finally….

What was the good of trying to be an alert, conscious man here? You couldn’t. Drift, drift into a sort of obscurity, backwards into a nameless past, hoary as the country is hoary. Strange old feelings wake up in the soul: old, non-human feelings. And an old, old indifference, like a torpor invades the spirit. An old, saurian torpor.

Thus, once more, human vacuity seems in the end to send us back to the emptiness of Nature:

Richard loved the look of Australia, that marvellous soft flower-blue of the air, and the sombre grey of the earth, the foliage, the brown of the low rocks: like the dull pelts of kangaroos. It had a wonder and a far-awayness, even here in the heart of Sydney. All the shibboleths of mankind are so trumpery. Australia is outside everything…

It’s wonderful to be empty. It’s wonderful to feel this blue globe of emptiness of the Australian air. It shuts everything out.

This shutting-out, this rejection, is salubrious: it is a cleansing process, a purification and a liberation. And the book climaxes and concludes in a stunning reversal of values, in which it becomes suddenly manifest that the centuries-old glory of Western civilization weighs like a stone lid on a grave, whereas the wretched and touching Australian suburbia, with its makeshift little shacks tottering on the edge of the primeval bush, is waking up into the first dawn of the world:

There it is, laid all over the world, the heavy established European way of life. Like their huge ponderous cathedrals and factories and cities, enormous encumbrances of stone and steel and brick, weighing on the surface of the earth. They say Australia is free, and it is. Even the flimsy, foundationless bungalows. Richard railed at the scrappy amorphousness, till two nights after he dreamed he was in Paris, and a third night, it was in some other city, of Italy or France. Here he was staying in a big palazzo of a house—and he struggled to get out, and found himself in a high old provincial street with old gable houses and dark shadow and himself in the gulf between: and at the end of the street a huge, pale-grey bulk of a cathedral, an old Gothic cathedral, huge and massive and grey and beautiful.

But, suddenly, the mass of it made him sick, and the beauty was nauseous to him. So strong a feeling that he woke up. And since that day he has been thankful for the amorphous scrappy scattering of foundationless shacks and bungalows. Since then he had loved the Australian landscape, with the remote gum-trees running their white nerves into the air, the random streets of flimsy bungalows, all loose from one another, and temporary-seeming…

He had now a horror of vast superincumbent buildings. They were a nightmare. Even the cathedrals. Huge, huge bulks that are called beauty. Beauty seemed to him like some turgid tumour. Never again, he felt, did he want to look at London, the horrible weight of it: or at Rome with all the pressure on the hills. Horrible, inert, man-moulded weight. Heavy as death.

No, no, the flimsy hills of Australia were like a new world, and the frail inconspicuousness of the landscape that was still so clear and clean, clean of all fogginess or confusion: but the frail, aloof, inconspicuous clarity of the landscape was like a sort of heaven—bungalows, shacks, corrugated iron and all. No wonder Australians love Australia. It is the land that as yet has made no great mistake, humanly. The horrible human mistakes of Europe. And, probably, the even worse human mistakes of America.

This Issue

April 21, 1994