In a letter of 1913, DH Lawrence described his belief that in order to be an artist, it is necessary to be profoundly religious: a veritable martyr, in fact. “I always feel as if I stood naked for the fire of Almighty God to go through me,” wrote this man who had always repudiated his christian name, which was David (friends called him Lorenzo). “I often think of my dear Saint Lawrence on his gridiron, when he said ‘Turn me over, brothers, I am done enough on this side.’”
In her new biography, Frances Wilson, who has been quietly in thrall to the novelist since she was a student, does not grill him lightly over charcoal; not for her the righteous disgust of Kate Millett, whose feminist attack on the author in Sexual Politics in 1970 more or less did for him, at least in our universities (a cancellation avant la lettre). Nevertheless, her book is a highly flammable thing. If its subject is a crazed prophet, sex-obsessed and violently contrarian, who stalks Bloomsbury drawing rooms breathing fire all over everyone he meets, her own style is hardly any less combustible.
I cannot recall when last I felt so uncertain of a book’s essential merit, so confused by its intensity, its digressions, the way it disappears down wormholes. But equally, I cannot remember the last time one left me feeling so exhilarated, so challenged and absorbed. Will it restore Lawrence’s reputation? Will it make people want to read the old fox again? I’m not sure it matters if it doesn’t. Burning Man is a work of art in its own right, as wanton and as magnificently flawed as anything Lawrence ever wrote; an object lesson in all that can happen when literary passion is allowed to go completely mad in the archives.
Wilson doesn’t begin at the beginning, nor does she end at the end, though if you concentrate, the life is all here, from Eastwood, Nottinghamshire, where Lawrence grew up the son of a coalminer, to Taos, New Mexico, where his ashes were either mixed into the cement of an altar stone, or eaten by his wife, Frieda, and his acolytes, Mabel Dodge and Dorothy Brett. Her focus is on the years 1915 to 1925, a narrative she organises into three sections along the lines of Dante’s Divine Comedy.
It brings Lawrence alive in all his derangement: his ridiculousness as well as his glory; his perspicacity and blindness
Lawrence’s Inferno is England during the first world war: he is newly married to the German divorcee, Frieda von Richthofen; The Rainbow is being prosecuted for obscenity (no one knows precisely what this obscenity involved – records are lost – but one reviewer spoke for many when he described it as a “monotonous wilderness of phallicism”). Purgatory is Italy from 1919 to 1922, which ultimately produces what Wilson daringly regards as his masterpiece: a little-known introduction to Memoir of Maurice Magnus (its author, now all but forgotten, was an indebted former French Legionnaire and the lover of the writer Norman Douglas). Finally, there is Paradise, AKA New Mexico, to which he is invited by the American socialite, proponent of psychoanalysis and memoirist, Mabel Dodge, though his stay there is hardly rapturous: in the desert, the tuberculosis that, in 1930, will kill him now increases its noose-like hold on his waxy body.
Wilson makes no apology for the fact that she gives major roles to figures previously considered minor, that episodes other biographers have thrown away in a paragraph have induced her to go to town – and thanks to this, there are times when Burning Man seems more like a group biography than a life of Lawrence. Here is EM Forster, telling Lawrence he is “a deaf, impercipient fanatic”; here is HD, the Imagist poet, for whom Lawrence was both spirit guide and satyr; and here is Dorothy Brett, a Buffalo Bill-obsessed aristocrat whose ear trumpet was called Toby. But such multiplicity also feels right. Never was anyone more written about by friends and contemporaries than Lawrence. Richard Aldington, HD’s husband, devoted three books to him; by the time Lawrence had been dead for just four years, 17 had been published. Wilson’s approach speaks to the intensely powerful feelings he stirred in others; it reaches in to their love and their loathing as if into the guts of some dead animal. I’m not being over the top. This is visceral, bloody stuff: intimate and festering.
There are longueurs. I was bored and confused by the more than 100 pages she gives over to Lawrence’s escapades with Magnus. Were the two men lovers, or not? But I was fascinated by the syphilitic Mabel Dodge, at whom Wilson resists the temptation to laugh (Dodge, lured into a relationship with an equally syphilitic Native American called Tony Lujan by the nightly drumming he performed while squatting on the floor of his house in the pueblo, is a comical figure, as deluded as she is controlling). The chorus of voices builds and builds. Sometimes ecstatic and sometimes shrill, it brings Lawrence alive in all his derangement: his ridiculousness as well as his glory; his perspicacity and his blindness.
What does Wilson want for Lawrence? She believes his genius lies elsewhere than in his novels – in his travel writing, for instance – and regards him as the inventor of auto fiction; she would like us to read the books we haven’t heard of, rather than those we have. Would this wild man have despised our times, increasingly puritan and tending towards censorship? No! He would, she insists, have fitted right in, for he was nothing if not convinced of his moral superiority.
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.
• Burning Man: The Ascent of DH Lawrence by Frances Wilson is published by Bloomsbury (£25). To support the Guardian order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply