Above all, she hopes we will be inspired afresh by his uncommon ferocity, his never-ending quest to find a good way – the right way – to live. Can she make this happen? Well, this early reader has always been repulsed by Lawrence, the Great Unreadable, a man who was apt to tell women they did not really know a floor until they’d scrubbed it. As a student, Sons and Lovers made me queasy; I remember chucking the Penguin Classics edition of The Rainbow at the inevitable Paul Klee poster on my wall. But Wilson writes so brilliantly, and with such conviction. If you believe, as I do, that to live life well is to fail in ways that may be unimaginably huge, this strange and confounding book is for you.
There is a trend in biography and exhibition-making at the moment to surround every out-of-date attitude, every disobliging thought with crime-scene tape and high-vis cones. Warning: pale, stale, male in the road. Tate Modern’s Rodin exhibition is one long finger wag. Great artist, grating wall texts. There is none of the tut-tut about Wilson. She gives it to you straight — pederasty, homophobia, Tahiti, miscegenation, the Pueblo Indians — and leaves you to decide for yourself. Author: trust your reader. Lawrence is not noble. He is frail, failing, furious, human and wholly compelling.
This is a red-hot, propulsive book. The impression it leaves is of Lawrence not so much as a phoenix (his chosen personal emblem) rising from the flames, but of a moth coming too close to a candle and, singed and frantic, flying into and into and into the wick.
I suspect they will remain unconvinced. But Wilson’s Dantesque excursion detracts only marginally from the brilliance of her book. Her great strength is the aliveness of her writing, which constantly interweaves glowing phrases from Lawrence into its fabric. Visiting the Benedictine Abbey at Monte Cassino, for example, Lawrence marvelled at the great marble floor into which Benvenuto Cellini had set “pieces of lapis lazuli, blue as cornflowers”, and Wilson quotes the simile in her account. Another Wilson asset is the depth of her research. She seems to have read everything even tangentially related to Lawrence, including, heroically, all four volumes of Mabel Dodge’s memoirs.