Sea and Sardinia
Book: Sea and Sardinia
ISBN 13: 978-0141180762
'Travel seems to me a splendid lesson in disillusion' DH Lawrence in a letter to Mary Cannan.
DH Lawrence went to Sardinia in 1921. He spent 9 days on the island with his wife Frieda (the queen bee, or q-b); and they travelled by train from Cagliari in the South, up to Terranova in the North East to where they caught the ferry back to Sicily, their then home. On returning, Lawrence 'had nothing to do' so wrote the manuscript of Sea and Sardinia in 6 weeks - and all from memory, as he claimed not to have taken a single note whilst travelling. All of which makes it an odd read: it's both badly researched and self-obsessed and yet hugely revealing and lit from within by Lawrence's monumental and unsettled questing ego.
Lawrence and his missus had been beached in Sicily for some time; and from from his diaries and letters of the time it's evident that they felt somehow trapped by the weight of culture there - Sicily's very ancientness and superabundance of cultural artefacts weren't a balm but an irritant. He felt a sense of atrophy in the presence of so many things, and longed to step outside the great tunnel of history. And to Lawrence, Sardinia was just this - outside of history, forgotten and Other; and in it's ancient granite boulders and primitive way of life, Lawrence seemed to see a way back to some purer, older consciousness - the possibility of setting in motion what he called a 'process of rediscovering backwards...down the old ways of time.' It seems he also thought he might find in it a place to settle, to be free of the ceaseless urge towards motion - a place to be still.
And in many ways, despite this underlying theme of atavism, the book really is nothing more than a hymn to kinesis and the act of travel. Once you've absorbed the outright weirdness of Lawrence's obsession with the ancient and his hysterical (if consistent) responses to certain scenic landmarks (his gagging thrall in the face of Mt. Eryx is almost Hammer Horror in its camp hyperbole) then he becomes a great, if slightly unsettling travelling companion. The route he and Frieda take - a kind of anti-tourist route through the cragged mountainous heartlands that even today are remote and rarely visited - means the visions are filled with a certain elusive magic. His descriptions of his fellow travellers on the various trains he and the queen bee take, the peasants in their costumes that spark yet more atavistic reveries, the granite of the mountains which send him back to his beloved Cornwall - these are the things that stick in the mind.
They didn't settle in Sardinia, of course; and much of that which he sought in the ancient and the remote was what appalled and enraged him. In the end Sardinia became just another stopping off place, yet more proof of Lawrence's search for the impossible - that which would provide him with a sense of calm stasis. As Clive James has said of him, 'he was in search of...a significance this world does not supply and has never supplied'.
Finally then, whatever one makes of Lawrence, the real power of the book is in the wonder of his ecstatic prose. For epiphanic moments like this:
Wonderful to go out on a frozen road, to see the grass in shadow bluish with hoar-frost, to the grass in the yellow winter-sunrise beams melting and going cold-twinkly. Wonderful the bluish, cold air, and things standing up in the cold distance. After two southern winters, with roses blooming all the time, this bleakness and this touch of frost in the ringing morning goes to my soul like an intoxication. I am so glad on this lonely naked road, I don't know what to do with myself. I walk down in the shallow grassy ditches under the loose stone walls, I walk on the little ridge of glass, the little bank on which the wall is built, I cross the road across the frozen cow-droppings; and it is all so familiar to my feet, my very feet in contact, that I am wild as if I have made a discovery.
The Wild Places
Robert Macfarlane's The Wild Places has become something of a node for me in recent months - that special kind of book that seems to expand and fill space, throwing out ideas and experiences, prompting explorations of places and books. When I first finished it back in February I had an almost insatiable hunger to be outside; and I was driven to lookat things, look at them narrowly, trying to pierce some secret thrum beneath the surface of things. Like Annie Dillard, Macfarlane has the amazing ability to make you see again - partly because of some vicarious thrill at his own almost hallucinatory clarity of vision and ability to translate this into prose, but also because of the way you return to the source, re-examine things you realise you hadn't truly looked at in years, if ever.
The other function of this node has been how The Wild Places has directed my reading. Macfarlane includes a bibliography in the book (as he does in Mountains of The Mind) - an item of intense allure and repulsion for the likes of me. So I have found myself in dusty corners with obscure books (I got a copy of Ted Hughes Wodwo through the post just yesterday, evidently from the library of a heavy smoker if the yellowing pages and tobacco-stink are anything to go by), half-crazed on steepling hangars in the grey glow of dusk dredging up incantations from the journals of Gilbert White, and looking up into the crowns of great trees wondering at the secret lives of the canopy...
All of this is of course, by way of avoiding a review, to urge you to go out and get a copy, and of course to climb a tree and forget everything for a while. It's also to recommend two recent pieces which are loosely adapted from The Wild Places and available elsewhere. This, from the chapter on Holloways which he explores with the inimitable Roger Deakin, and also this short piece on freshwater swimming which is over at the very excellent Caught By The River.