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From Nabokov and Lawrence, Giants of 20th-Century Fiction, New Volumes of Nonfiction


Here is the best passage in “Think, Write, Speak,” one that, were I a tattoo person, I would consider advertising on my forearm:

“In a sense we are all crashing to death from the top story of our birth to the flat stones of the churchyard and wondering with an immortal Alice in Wonderland at the patterns of the passing wall. This capacity to wonder at trifles no matter the imminent peril, these asides of the spirit, these footnotes in the volume of life are the highest forms of consciousness, and it is in this childishly speculative state of mind, so distant from commonsense and its logic, that we know the world to be good.”

It only makes sense that the Lawrence collection, “The Bad Side of Books: Selected Essays,” is the stronger volume. (At $19.95 it’s also the better bargain.) Its editor, Geoff Dyer, has chosen his favorite of Lawrence’s nonfiction, not merely relying on previously unpublished work.

Most of this material was new to me, and I enjoyed this book enormously. His 1925 essay, “Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine” (the animal perished after Lawrence, who disliked guns, shot it), deserves to be more widely anthologized.

His 1921-22 essay, “Memoir of Maurice Magnus,” is perhaps the best portrait of a sponge I have read. Lawrence’s rather grand friend kept asking for money until Lawrence could take it no longer. One ends up admiring this writer’s ability to be cruel, to be a ramrod in print. About his ungrateful friend, who ultimately commits suicide, Lawrence writes: “I could, by giving half my money, have saved his life. I had chosen not to save his life. Now, after a year has gone by, I keep to my choice. I still would not save his life.”

In his 1924 essay “A Letter From Germany,” Lawrence is uncannily prescient about Europe’s shifting temperament. He does not mention Hitler. Yet he writes: “Something has happened. Something has happened which has not yet eventuated. The old spell of the old world has broken, and the old, bristling, savage spirit has set in.”

In “Art and Morality,” an essay from 1925, Lawrence essentially predicts the selfie. Speaking of the new Kodak cameras, he writes: “To every man, to every woman, the universe is just a setting to the absolute little picture of himself, herself.”


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