... a text that feels as if it had tumbled out in the white heat of conviction. There is nothing balanced in Burning Man, nothing judicious, careful, or patient, which is exactly how Lawrence would have wanted it. Above all, Wilson resists any expectation that it is the biographer’s duty to resolve the dips, bumps, and tangles of her subject’s life. Instead, she makes a point of leaning into Lawrence’s contradictions, convinced that this is where the engine of his genius lies ... [a] fine biography ... Matching her methodology to her man, Wilson comes at Lawrence’s work with a thrilling indifference to the old categories ... So convinced is Wilson of Lawrence’s engagement with this medieval schema that she even maintains that each house he lived in 'was positioned at a higher spot than the last,' in imitation of the upward thrust of The Divine Comedy. This is difficult to square with Lawrence’s evident love of contingency ... Even with this unconvincing and cumbersome apparatus, Burning Man is an exhilarating ride.
Wilson’s target is less a straightforward biography than a sifting of Lawrence’s legacy for what remains urgent and alive, the aim being to shed its infernal baggage in search of an abiding paradise. One threat to her Dante comparison is how remote from heaven Lawrence increasingly appears, his attachment to the physical world growing shriller the weaker his grip on it becomes. But these tensions are all part of the drama ... Wilson’s Guilty Thing, her life of Thomas De Quincey, is one of the finest recent literary biographies. Partial portrait though it is, Burning Man is in the same league ... this is a book that performs a rare and laudable task: of saving a writer, posthumously, from himself. We are all beneficiaries of Wilson’s articulate and persuasive advocacy.
... an ambitious biography ... Lawrence was a procession of one, 'the sole member of his own party' as his biographer neatly puts it. It is to the author’s great credit, then, that hardly any of the vast pile of dirt that has accumulated around Lawrence in the 90-odd years since his death is swept under the carpet ... Lawrence is certainly the victim in Burning Man, as well as being its hero and also, you infer, its agent provocateur ... Ms. Wilson is good on the self-consciously performative aspects of the Lawrences’ union ... Far from being a conventional life and times, Burning Man is a triptych based on a Dante-esque pattern, full of highly imaginative detours into Lawrentian dualism ... there is something rather satisfying about the final conundrum that Frances Wilson sets out to solve.
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 ... 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 ... 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 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.
In Burning Man, Wilson seeks neither to condemn nor vindicate the author. Instead, she tries to understand D. H. Lawrence as a human being ... At first, readers may perceive her Lawrentian Divine Comedy as overly contrived. As the pages of the biography continue, though, the path mapped out by Dante often seems to be not only an insightful analogy but sometimes even a story that Lawrence himself might have constructed ... Wilson has shown in her previous biographies of Dorothy Wordsworth and Thomas De Quincey that she is both an innovative and a careful scholar. Burning Man proves her talents once again ... The book might not be easily understood or appreciated by readers unfamiliar with the life and work (both novels and nonfiction) of D. H. Lawrence. Nevertheless, it is certainly a book worth approaching after a bit of preliminary study ... Wilson (alongside other recent biographers such as Geoff Dyer and John Worthen) clears away the smoldering ashes and allows Lawrence, like a phoenix, to rise again for our time.
... a revelation, proof that a great biography has little to do with the greatness of its subject ... One of the most compelling parts of Burning Man is Wilson’s appreciation for Lawrence’s out-of-print memoir of his friend Maurice Magnus.
Wilson’s narrative lays bare the fascinating struggle between Lawrence’s two selves: one peaceful and spiritual, another which fantasises about shooting everyone he sees 'with invisible arrows of death'. Lawrence, Wilson writes, is a figure 'composed of mysteries rather than certainties': in this astonishing tale, rife with jealousy, messianism and blood, she meets Lawrence on his own terms, offering readers a mythology of his deeply wild and complex spirit.
... a remarkable and idiosyncratic work of biographical criticism, in part because of how intentionally shaped it is ... She persuasively argues that Lawrence’s travel essays are every bit as good as, maybe better than, his fiction ... by focusing her attention largely on 10 years in the middle of Lawrence’s career, Wilson is able to identify patterns, styles of being and writing, that might get lost in a more sprawling cradle-to-wherever-Lawrence’s-body-ended-up account ... ilson, with her compressed time frame and swift intelligence, has given Lawrence the biography he deserves.
Wilson approaches Lawrence with the fierce spirit of argument that he has always attracted and required ... she’s battling her way into the fray, taking a pleasurably Lawrentian all-or-nothing attitude ... This is a bold, fervent contribution to Lawrence studies, full of spirit and insight and enviably agile prose. It’s a fitting response to Lawrence’s embattledness, which arguably necessitates extreme investment and speculative volatility. It’s impossible to do him justice, so it’s better to go for a high-energy caper instead. One result of this is that Wilson propels herself into some loopy judgments ... Perhaps because of the bold imaginative creativity of this vision, Wilson’s more minor judgments are often both original and spot on ... Wilson is great at deft character sketches ... an enthralling and eccentric friend of a book (it’s appropriate that Lawrence’s friendships were as out of control as they were energizing), much more fun as a read than traditional biographies with more measured judgments. Compared with so many other versions of Lawrence, Wilson’s book offers rich ambivalence toward its subject, in place of a stark binary. It may be all to the good if neither Lawrence nor his biographers have the sense for health or the sanity that Leavis promised us.
This is in many ways a superb biography ... Wilson seems to have read everything related to Lawrence, and her writing about him is gloriously vivid. Yet it does have a striking 'peculiarity': Wilson’s claim that Lawrence self-consciously “structured his life” according to the three phases—Hell, Purgatory and Paradise—of Dante’s The Divine Comedy ... As well as being inherently unconvincing, this theory...rather spoils what is in other ways an engaging and accomplished biography.
... vivid and unusual ... Avoiding the obligation to say something about everything, Wilson brings to her chosen episodes something of the imaginative density of the realist novel, which is all to the good. But this virtue is complicated by her decision to incorporate her three stages into a symbolic pattern that leads Lawrence from England’s Hell, through the Purgatory of Florence, to the paradisal heights of Taos ... Wilson, a splendidly unsentimental commentator, is interested in the creativity of the uglier emotions ... By invoking the idea of so providential and strongly predetermined a narrative Wilson manages to convey very successfully, by contrast, the haplessness of Lawrence’s itinerant life: she is good throughout on his inability to stay still ... So this is a highly organised life about a life that was anything but organised, a mismatch which I think Wilson recognises for she finds a similar contradictoriness in Lawrence himself ... Wilson illustrates in affectionate detail how Lawrence the man could be extremely provocative, and his greatest prose is really the continuation of that character trait, as much in his brilliantly errant style as in the perilous ‘metaphysic’ underwriting it.
Wilson pays welcome attention to Lawrence’s poems and to his essays, travel books, reviews, and polemical pamphlets ... Wilson claims that 'Lawrence structured his life . . . around Dante’s great poem in the way that James Joyce shaped Ulysses around The Odyssey.' To which one can only say: no, he didn’t. Lawrence was too much of an improviser to structure his life around anything. It is Wilson who does the structuring ... About [Lawrence's sexuality], Wilson is curt ... In view of Wilson’s sympathy with the poems, it’s a pity that she passes over his magnificent last volume, with its sequence of poems about facing death, which at times rise to remarkable lyrical heights ... Wilson’s coverage of the last years of Lawrence’s life is awkwardly hurried and sketchy. Those who wish to know what happened after his death can find the details in the books by Worthen and Ellis. It might have been better if Wilson had stopped in 1925.
The book is...a pliable construct that bends to the author’s whim, consenting to be led every which way without regard for the conventions of chronology or context. The reader is implicitly held hostage as well, dependent on the biographer’s confidence and skill to steer one through the narrative, which is usually linked by a more or less persuasive conceit. The whole enterprise is a bet against large odds and the payoff can result in an exciting, even revelatory rereading. When the form doesn’t fully work, however, this approach can seem scattershot and contrived, with any fresh insights likely to get lost amid the welter of surrounding facts and details ... Wilson aims to be innovative above all, even if it means making gnomic assertions that sound profound in a sort of Barthesian way at first reading but don’t hold up to a closer parsing ... I was never convinced that the triadic arc she imposes really fits. Nor was I sure it added much to an understanding of the often conflicting forces that impelled Lawrence’s movements ... I found the references to and summations of the Comedy tedious, in addition to which they interrupted the flow of a narrative that was already insistently digressive. There are, without question, areas in which Wilson shines. She is in some ways a Lawrentian-styled explicator of Lawrence ... Wilson frees herself and us from trying to put his parts together, which, paradoxically, allows us to see him in the round ... I would venture that, if the literary fates are kind, Wilson’s unusual and vividly written approach, studded with nuggets of information and riveting quotes, might succeed in bringing Lawrence back around for another look.
Wilson’s new book succeeds on two levels. First, it reinvigorates the genre of biography by presenting its own thematic shape, dispensing with simple chronology and moving about more loosely in the baggy shapes of its stories. Second, it reads a great writer with real sympathy and acuteness. While I don’t always agree with her conclusions, I find the book nearly always entertaining and insightful ... Having read several doorstop biographies in the last few years, I find Wilson’s lively economy a breath of fresh air ... Reading Wilson’s book, one allows her some structural latitude because she is herself good company as a writer, an appreciator of vital prose ... The great gift of Frances Wilson’s book, like the contributions of Geoff Dyer, is that it invites new readers to come to Lawrence freshly and find out his importance for themselves.
Wilson is a sympathetic but not uncritical reader of Lawrence’s texts. And her pen is exquisitely cutting ... Wilson often tries to distinguish between a Self One and a Self Two in Lawrence’s character. But this tendency to break him down risks overlooking another thing clear from Wilson’s biography: that Lawrence was a great synthesiser ... I would also quibble with Wilson’s assertion, near the end of her biography, that after Kate Millett’s assessment of Lawrence fifty years ago, he was 'dropped off university lists and was thrown into the Inferno where he has remained ever since'. This is an overgeneralisation ... Nevertheless, Burning Man is an elegantly written, intelligent, and very witty account of one of the most consequential writers of the last century. Wilson skilfully examines Lawrence’s rage, impotence, silliness, and genius.
Every page, almost every paragraph, of this book is exciting (except some of the digressions on Dante). Wilson complains that many biographies feel like plodding across a vast flat plain, whereas she is never afraid to dart off into the bushes, chasing intriguing characters wherever she finds them ... If you want a cool, dispassionate biography, this is not it. Wilson writes as a fan. She worships her hero and then gets furious when he lets her down. At times she seems to be almost channelling Lawrence, especially in her landscape descriptions, which are as good as Lawrence’s own. Burning Man had the effect of making me want to reread Lawrence, which I have not done for years, and also to look out for anything else Frances Wilson writes.
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 ... 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 ... There was a sinister side to Lawrence that Wilson avoids.
Wilson is unusually candid about her own mixed feelings toward Lawrence ... an unconventional biography — it skips Lawrence’s early life almost entirely — and, page by page, a fairly entertaining one. Its main virtues derive directly from its subject. Lawrence was unpredictable and unconventional enough to be often frustrating to those around him but fascinating to the rest of us, who may observe his antics at a safe distance. And he had a knack for finding and befriending (and, later, un-befriending) the oddest and most fascinating people, resulting in a cast of characters any novelist would envy ... But Lawrence’s flaws — his confusion and inconsistency, his lack of self-understanding, the overall sense that he lacked a coherent self — also impose themselves on the book, making it feel less than fully cohesive and, ultimately, somewhat unsatisfying. And it should be said that Wilson’s attempt to force a unity by imposing a Dante-esque structure on the book — its three segments are identified as Inferno (England), Purgatory (Italy) and Paradise (New Mexico) — feels artificial and unconvincing. Lawrence’s actual life does not seem to display any such linear trend ... Still, Burning Man will entertain those already interested in Lawrence, and it may have the salutary effect of sending many readers to seek out his literary essays, travel writing and other nonfiction works — writings that, in some respects, have held up better than Lawrence’s novels ... As with any great author, Lawrence is perhaps best understood through his own words.
... the feeling you get reading Frances Wilson’s Burning Man ... The flare of a match, a man on fire, raging, crackling, spitting, consuming everything and everyone around him. Wilson too is on form and on fire ... I’m not totally convinced the Dante business works. Wilson’s voice is so appealing—confiding, intelligent, easy, amused—I would happily have read a straightforward blaze through the life, cradle to grave, basket to casket ... 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.
... obliquely angled, at times perplexing ... At time[s], [Wilson's] insights seem rhetorical ... It’s a not entirely persuasive analogy, yet in Wilson’s hands, it is often a brilliant one. She marshals literary associations with writers and landscapes across four centuries and a continent to show the rich simultaneity of literary culture. Literary context is her art, and it’s with virtuosity and passion that she elicits the contiguities of Romantic imagery and temperament in Dante, Shelley, Lawrence, and others ... The many who loved Lawrence in spite of his vicious fictional portraits of them fill out a rich canvas ... Wilson’s footnotes suggest that she made use of few primary sources here, mainly relying on published letters, memoirs, and previous biographers’ research even when quoting Lawrence. But then, Burning Man may best be considered as much a work of interpretive criticism as of original biography. As such, it’s fascinating reading, if occasionally, like Lawrence himself, akin to 'a radio station whose frequency keeps changing.'
The best biographers appreciate trivia, too. They write books that don’t just provide us with dull, chronological exposés of dates, places and names, but which also include those seemingly irrelevant details that reveal the absolute essence of their subject, and which most of us, if we’re honest, find compulsively fascinating. Frances Wilson is one such biographer ... Burning Man, her new biography of D. H. Lawrence, stands out from all those that have preceded it ... This is a very feminine, intuitive biography of Lawrence—and therein lies its own genius ... Wilson doesn’t care whom she offends, or what she says, or when she says it. She is the slightly tipsy, indiscreet, female presence at the overwhelmingly male Lawrence wake, who says what she really thinks, doesn’t care who’s listening, satiates our curiosity with reliable gossip, and in so doing tells us more about the writer than we ever thought possible. At the same time, she is steeped in all things Lawrentian; so steeped, indeed, that the book reads as though she just sat down one day, started typing, and only stopped when she had told us everything she wanted to say. There isn’t a moment’s hesitation anywhere; only the best biographers can get away with that seemingly effortless light touch, while producing a work that will stand the test of time.
Wilson’s acumen, and willingness to criticise when it is called for, aids her spirited case for reviving Lawrence despite his flaws ... This approach does not excuse the writer’s vicious self-absorption, but it joins up facts so as to open the way to understanding ... Not only does Frances Wilson revive her subject, she lifts the whole genre. Biography of this calibre is rare. Characters flash off the page ... Wilson’s verve and wit are inseparable from her leaping insights.
... [an] ambitious but flawed study ... Wilson creates a fascinating portrait of Lawrence from his childhood in the coal fields of Nottingham to his prolific drive to write ... Crucially, though, Wilson fails to demonstrate that Lawrence’s work—or life—was directly modeled off a Dante-esque worldview. While Wilson’s creativity and erudition shine, the conceit falls flat, and the account of Lawrence fails to reveal fresh insight into the writer’s life and work.
... an absorbing, eccentric work of imaginative biography, a text that is by turns deeply revelatory, opinionated, and occasionally rambling ... With more than a hint of misogyny found in some of his fiction, Lawrence is not a particularly relevant author for our times, and Wilson’s effort may not elicit renewed interest despite the author’s colorful depictions of his travels and provocative analysis of his work and personal shortcomings. A distinctly original perspective on an iconic writer.