What role does D.H. Lawrence play in the life of a literary translator in Alison Moore’s novel about loss, memory and ghosts…
Following a family tragedy, Jessie Noon moved from the Fens to the Midlands and currently lives on the Scottish Borders with a cat, dog and – so she believes – a ghost. To compel matters, she hasn’t seen her son for years and is receiving mysterious messages stating, ‘I’m on my way home’. Perhaps her fortunes will change when she strikes up a relationship with Robert, a local outreach worker.
As a literary translator, Jessie is in a position of responsibility, consumed with finding the right words to ensure clear communication. She understands how structures and syntax create meaning. But her own life is harder to categorise and define – particularly when seemingly solid structures around her begin to disintegrate and crack. We learn that a child has gone missing, a boy is in a coma, and then there’s the unborn baby…
There are both implicit and explicit references to D.H. Lawrence in this short novel. Moore gives a nod to Lawrence when she used the line, ‘the wind muttered at the window and the trees shook off the last of their leaves’ which is taken from Lawrence’s poem ‘At the Window’. The most obvious reference, though, is having the main protagonist Jesse reading her third biography of Lawrence, despite knowing she will have to endure him die all over again. She informs us that Lawrence is always ‘poised between worlds’ – new and old, rural v industry and that characters from his books are always ‘torn between staying and leaving, torn between this world, this life, and another.’
Jesse Noon is also caught between places and stuck in a kind of emotional limbo given her personal circumstances. The novel is full of transient descriptions such as childhood memories of ‘crossing the invisible border between France and Germany’ and how writers are hidden behind agents and editors. We later discover that her husband Will, who walked out on her a year ago, left a goodbye message written in steam on the bathroom mirror, that would eventually disappear, like him. This is very different to a handwritten note which would give solidity to the facts and allow her to ponder the words. A recurring theme in Moore’s novel is being present yet absent.
Moore uses the biography of Lawrence as a narrative device to mirror events in Jesse Noon’s life. For example, when her husband leaves her, it’s at the point she’s reading about Lawrence eloping with Frieda. When she later has an affair with Robert she observes, ‘He had no curtains, just wooden blinds. He had no cushions. She supposed that the hard, bare surfaces were easier to keep clean’. She feels guilty because she has left her dog on its own and it needs feeding and so returns home. Later she reads her Lawrence biography: ‘She read a chapter, in which Lawrence mistreated a dog, and Jessie loved the book for its kindness, for how it tried to understand and forgive Lawrence for his flaws’.
There are implicit references to Lawrence as well. Moore is a writer of meticulous detail, much of which simmers below the surface, and so I don’t believe these are coincidental. She is too good a writer to leave anything to chance. Let’s start with Noon, the surname of the main protagonist. Is this a nod to Mr Noon, Lawrence’s unfinished novel published posthumously and if so, how does this add extra layers of meaning? Firstly, choosing to refer to an ‘unfinished’ novel fits with the uncanny and unresolved issues raised in Missing. Secondly, there are ethical questions around publishing ‘unfinished’ work. Finally, there is the issue of critics interpreting this work and imposing their own meaning on to it. Lawrence biographer Benda Maddox argues Mr Noon is a ‘factually accurate and barely fictionalized account of Lawrence and Frieda’s early sexual relations’. All of these ambiguities reinforce various themes raised in Moore’s novel, which is why I believe the title is a deliberate nod to Lawrence’s 1934 novel.
Jesse Noon is a translator, as was Lawrence. Lawrence had a superb command of language. He could speak German, French, Spanish and Italian and translated the works of Giovanni Verga. He even attempted Russian but found it too difficult and so had to collaborate with S.S. Koteliansky. Moore has made her main protagonist a translator not to echo Lawrence’s life but because of what the profession implies. Translation involves interpretation and communication (and miscommunication).
We learn that Jessie has three versions of The Outsider, each with a different translation of the opening line. Even something as solid and tangible as a book has a degree of uncertainty about it. Likewise, Ulysses was meddled with years after James Joyce’s death. There are multiple versions of books. Nothing is ever final. This allows Moore to make the sinister observation that ‘she would once have said death, death was final, but she was no longer sure about that’.
The opening to Missing sees Jesse attend a Halloween party dressed as someone who had died of TB – the disease that eventually took Lawrence’s life in 1930. It is such an odd choice of fancy dress, particularly given that TB is no longer the threat it once was, is this another intertextual reference?
Jessie grew up in the suburbs and longed to live in either the centre of London or on a farm, some kind of extreme, but she finds herself living in neither, still somewhere between. Lawrence lived a nomadic life and always seemed happiest when he was in a boat, neither here nor there, enjoying liminal space on his way to the next adventure.
Moore is clearly either a fan of Lawrence or knowledgeable about him as he is also mentioned in her 2016 novel He Wants. She is a nuanced author who ensures every sentence counts and so the implicit references, no matter how tangential, are worth considering. Readers are the ultimate interpreters – we bring our own history to the text and this, to some degree, informs how we perceive those squiggly patterns of ink on a page. The author provides structures and signposts to push us in a very particular direction so that we don’t get lost in ourselves.