‘The Fox’ of D.H. Lawrence

D. H. Lawrence
D. H. Lawrence; drawing by David Levine

Lawrence the man and D.H. Lawrence the writer: both provoked strong reactions in his lifetime, and it all still goes on. He had the defects of his qualities: he had no defects, he was a genius; he is at the heart of English literature; he is secure in his place in world literature; he is a misogynist and a scumbag. But pick up a Lawrence tale and the old magic begins working. I read him as a young woman, in the old Rhodesia, and not in the proper order: in wartime one grabs what one can get. It was Aaron’s Rod, my first one: and nearly sixty years later in my mind are scenes as bright as they were then. The sounds of water as a man washes, listening while his wife badmouths him, for he is leaving her forever. Nascently fascist Italy, plagued by gangs of unemployed youth; mountains streaked with snow like tigers; the vividness of it all: I was seduced while resisting the man’s message, which seemed to be a recommendation to find a strong personality to submit oneself to. And so with Kangaroo and the Australian bush, which I can see now as he described it, dreamlike and spectral, different from the bush I actually saw later. Quite forgotten is the nonsense about the strong Leader and his followers, suspiciously like storm troopers.

All of his books have that seductive quality. He spellbinds, he knocks you over the head with the power of his identification with what he sees. It is generally agreed, even by antagonists, that Sons and Lovers and The Rainbow remain unassailable, but that is about it. Then things go from bad to worse, they say, and as for the swooning Mexican rhapsodies—better forget them. No writer has been easier to parody. I myself have shrieked as loudly with laughter as anyone, even while mentally hearing Lawrence’s “Canaille, canaille” and his intemperate ranting, for like many who have a talent for abusing others, he could not stand so much as a whisper of criticism. Amid all this noise it is often forgotten that he wrote fine poems, and that some of his short stories are as good as any in the language.

The story The Fox, first published in 1923, is quintessential Lawrence, on the cusp, as it were, of the light and the dark.* Its atmosphere is so strong one may easily forget how firmly it is set in its time and place. The war is just over, and the soldiers are coming home. It must be 1919 because the great flu epidemic has victims in the near village. We have had another postwar grimness since then: poor food, cold, bare sufficiency, endurance. This one preceded what some of us remember by thirty years. Food is short. So is fuel. The winter is coming. A little farm where two young…

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