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Saturday, 12 January 2013

Sea And Sardinia, by D.H. Lawrence, Reviewed

Full of detail, contrasts, contradictions and signature Lawrencian repetitions, this travel memoir is a fascinating read. As regular readers of my book reviews will know, an important factor in my enjoyment of any work is how well written is the piece. This one does not disappoint. Lawrence uses language with a mix of expert observation and casual scholarship rooted in instinct. His descriptions of people and place are vital, complex, opinionated and full of character.

First published in 1923, when he and Frieda had been married for 9 years, the book is an account of their travels from Sicily to Sardinia. That he refers to Frieda initially as Queen Bee and then simply as 'q.b.' (yes, in lower case) says something of the relationship between husband and wife. Though it's never stated in any direct way, the reader is left with the impression that the marriage is a strange sort of equal partnership with Frieda accepting Lawrence's particular take on the battle of the sexes. There is almost nothing of their togetherness and, in fact, he rarely refers to her in anything other than an aside, almost as if journeying alone. It's an odd stance, but takes little away from the joy of the journey for the reader, merely excluding the emotional interaction between the pair.

There's an air of the stoic about the way in which he describes various tribulations of the journey. Bleakness, inefficient and argumentative officials, and potential disaster are all taken in his stride. In fact, he seems to actually enjoy some of the privations. Of course, I read this account from the point of view of the modern traveller, for whom the ordinary necessities are taken for granted. Perhaps what the Lawrences faced on their various trips was simply the 'norm' of their day.

Post-First World War Italy and the two islands, under Mussolini's fascist rule at the time, face change and so-called progress with a suspicion that is sometimes palpable. One of the aspects I find so intriguing in the account is that Lawrence, in spite of his often dismissive opinions, is not at all judgemental on most of those occasions when one would expect strong condemnation. He seems to simply accept that things are the way they are.

English: Tunisia, Sicily and The South of Italy
English: Tunisia, Sardinia, Sicily and The South of Italy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I've never been to Italy, Sicily or Sardinia but I always associated them with warmth. They are, after all, seated well within the Mediterranean. But the book describes the cold on parts of the journey in such detailed terms that the reader shivers with the chill. The landscape varies enormously over the duration of their journey, much of it through rugged countryside still untamed, rather like the Sardinians who he appears to admire for their almost savage way of life.

The tone of the account is that of a man tired of the relative stability and conservatism he sees as personifying his homeland at the time. This is a man in search of something, though it's uncertain what exactly that is. There is admiration as well as opprobrium and he clearly loves the characters they encounter, describing them in living terms that bring them out of the page to sit beside you as you read.

I thoroughly enjoyed the language of the book; the idiosyncratic English style and use of metaphor and simile. I was entertained and informed, intrigued and stimulated. But, would the book encourage me to visit Sardinia? It's a much changed world now, almost a hundred years later, but there was an underlying history and tradition informing the people that left me feeling I wouldn't be comfortable in their company. So, no, it hasn't left me with a yearning to visit the land, unlike Captain Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernières, which had me holidaying in Cephalonia the year I read it. The book is, nevertheless, a very good read and I have no reservations about recommending it to armchair travellers.

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