JANUARY 27, 2018
IN 1935, the writer and artist Denton Welch, then a 20-year-old student at Goldsmiths’ College in London, was struck by a car while biking to his aunt’s house in Surrey. It was the beginning of a bank-holiday weekend, and if his autobiographical fiction can be taken as fact, Welch was unused to the amount of traffic on the road. The vehicle crushed his legs, leaving him catheterized and sporadically impotent, with ultimately fatal injuries to his spine and kidneys. Before he died at the age of 33, Welch drafted three novels, Maiden Voyage (1943), In Youth Is Pleasure (1944), and the posthumously published A Voice Through a Cloud (1950), along with numerous stories and poems. He also produced oil paintings, watercolors, and a refurbished dollhouse now in the permanent collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum of Childhood. His biography places him in a lineage of doomed literary geniuses, one that includes Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers, whose premature awareness of their own mortality gave their artistic visions an askew acuteness.
While England’s young males were at war, Welch lived an invalid’s life in the countryside, developing an idiosyncratic voice that addressed highly personal passions: material culture, food, manmade grottos, architectural restoration, homosexuality. In real life, Welch haunted antique stores and junk sales; his narrators pride themselves on finding beautiful objects among other people’s garbage. He exerted enough control over his books’ design that they beg consideration as physical objects. My copies of his three novels — two borrowed, one bought at a stoop sale in Manhattan — were published by E. P. Dutton in the 1980s, with cover illustrations and ornate chapter headings rendered by Welch himself. The curio-like nature of the volumes reflects the preciousness of the prose. Sadly, the editions currently in print from Exact Change Press have replaced the author’s cover illustrations with monochromatic photographs. Still, considering that Welch’s fiction was out of print for many years in the United States, these new editions are something of a gift to contemporary readers.
Welch belongs to an abbreviated literary generation populated by few people other than himself; his first book was published during World War II, and his last was completed before a postwar sensibility had any time to develop. His short masterpiece In Youth Is Pleasure couples the linguistic virtuosity of modernism with a manic cast of characters, a melding reminiscent of Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948) and the early work of James Purdy. His writing was beloved by a wide variety of writers and artists, from so-called realists like E. M. Forster, John Updike, Jocelyn Brooke, and Barbara Pym, to so-called experimentalists like William Burroughs, John Waters, Meary James Thurairajah Tambimuttu, and Richard Hell. Yet Welch exists far outside the narrow parameters of this kind of genrefication. His work muddles more than just the tired binaries of experimentalism and realism. Like that of Salinger, it orients itself in odd relation to both adult and adolescent sensibilities. Even those who scoff at coming-of-age stories will find, in Welch, a delightfully subversive practitioner of the genre.
The plots of Maiden Voyage and In Youth Is Pleasure have the same basic structure. A boy, miserable and bullied at boarding school, leaves to be with his family, who make him nearly as miserable as his schoolmates do. Maiden Voyage begins when its protagonist runs away from Repton, where Welch himself was sent against his will, and where one of his real-life bullies was a young Roald Dahl. After bouncing between his aunt and his cousin for a while, the narrator ends up traveling to Shanghai to live with his estranged father. In Youth Is Pleasure focuses on a 15-year-old who goes on a summer vacation with his father and brother after a difficult school year. A Voice Through a Cloud deals explicitly with Welch’s bicycle accident and its immediate aftermath. In one passage, the eponymous narrator muses while lying in a hospital bed:
I thought of eating delicious food, wearing good clothes, feeling proud and gay, going for walks, singing and dancing alone, fencing and swimming and painting pictures with other people, reading books. And everything seemed horrible and thin and nasty as soiled paper. I wondered how I could ever have believed in these things, how I could even for a moment have thought they were real. Now I knew nothing was real but pain, heat, blood, tingling, loneliness and sweat.
In Welch’s work, dual realities are constantly competing for his protagonist’s attention: one includes the mundane circumstances of an active, healthy, idealized boyhood, while the other depicts his protagonist’s alienated emotional life, which casts a pall over the narrative that often overwhelms its events.
What essayist Sadie Stein has referred to as Welch’s “metafictional approach” is crystallized in the varying distance the novelist places between himself and the notion that he is writing memoirs. The narrators of both Maiden Voyage and A Voice Through a Cloud share the author’s name, while the protagonist of In Youth Is Pleasure, Orvil Pym, is set apart from the world by a storybook frame and the language of fairy tale — a distancing effect later embraced by postmodern fictionists. And like the slew of postwar authors who interrogate identity and selfhood, Welch encourages readers to consider the ways in which author and protagonist split and converge: Is the Denton Welch of A Voice Through a Cloud the same as the Denton Welch of Maiden Voyage? Is the narrator of either of these books the real Denton Welch?
The answer, unsurprisingly with such an emotionally attuned writer, lies barely beneath the skin. Welch filters the circumstances of an ordinary childhood — for early 20th-century pastoral England — through the lens of an invalid looking back at childhood through pain, the wistfulness of ill health, and the conspicuous sense that his youthful ciphers should be paying attention to the details. Welch’s narrators are teenagers seen through the eyes of an adult who knows that these children will grow up to be writers. Maiden Voyage and In Youth Is Pleasure are less about writing than they are about the pained observation of life that precedes the act of writing.
Welch’s protagonists exercise their observational faculties in their fascination with antiques and knickknacks and bric-a-brac, their embrace of physical spaces and architecture. Lesser authors would treat these intellectual interests as a balm for the violence of their classmates at boarding school. Yet Welch, who died several decades before homosexual sex was legalized in England, applies a similar perception to his male tormentors as he does to his material passions. In his childlike world, people resemble objects, and violence is difficult to distinguish from affection. Consider a passage from Maiden Voyage in which an “Old boy” arrives at the school with a pack of hounds and — in a bizarre satire of English sporting life — mobilizes the students for a fox hunt. Denton, running behind the hunt because he “enjoyed being free and alone,” describes removing thorns from the shoulder of an older boy:
“There, I’ve got them out!” I said at last.
[The hunter] swung round quickly and pressed hard against me, rubbing his cheek against mine. I could feel how warm and moist his body was, and the touch of his eyelashes was like feathers. He spoke harshly and yearningly and shut his eyes.
I was suddenly alarmed and made a movement away from him, but he grasped me tightly and dug his fingers into my flesh until I gave a short gasp of pain. When he heard it he dropped his hands to his sides and laughed softly.
“Was I suffocating you?” he asked. Then he hitched up his shorts and ran on.
The potential exaltation of being the protagonist in an artist’s coming-of-age story is undercut by the frenzy and despair of childhood — a childhood the protagonists must endure at the hands of people less sensitive than themselves. But the simplicity of this dynamic is further complicated by the authorial voice: Welch imbues his narration with a sense of the impulsiveness, anger, and selfishness native to teenagers.
In its very unlikability, Welch’s voice establishes an unusual intimacy with his readership. Certainly, many of the critics who have written about him have responded personally. In her Paris Review essay, Stein talks about discovering Welch on a study-abroad trip to London while she was experiencing the first bout of a chronic clinical depression. Tiffany Murray, writing about Welch for The Independent’s “Book of a Lifetime” series, compares the adolescent urgency of In Youth Is Pleasure with other intellectual heroes of her teenagedom, The Smiths and Egon Schiele. The playwright Alan Bennett, in a foreword to James Methuen-Campbell’s biography of Welch, discusses discovering the author as an 18-year-old in the early 1950s, when he thought “that to be ‘sensitive’ was a writer’s first requirement.” Every critic seems to have a different opinion of which novel is Welch’s best, although all of them, like precocious teenagers, articulate a hierarchy as though their opinion is the definitive one.
In my view, Welch’s worst novel is the long-winded A Voice Through a Cloud, which he was still revising at the time of his death. In Youth Is Pleasure is the best, and Maiden Voyage is number two. Still, the book with which I feel the greatest — and strangest — sense of intimacy is the one I like the least, and also the one that strays the farthest from his typical Künstlerroman structure. Like Welch, I experienced a serious, formative accident: as a 10-year-old child, I was struck by a motorcycle while crossing a London street with my father. Surrounded by a Dickensian mob who speculated on the extent of my injuries, I went into a shock that briefly paralyzed me. Rushed in an ambulance to St Thomas’ Hospital, I was injected with morphine while a technician plied me with laughing gas as he wrapped my shattered leg in plaster. The man who hit me walked into the technician’s office with a police officer and chided me about street safety. I had a recurring dream in which I jumped off a building, and bubbled to consciousness with the levity of a nitrous-oxide high before I hit the ground. As Welch writes in A Voice Through a Cloud:
I tried to tell myself that the agony was not real, that I would wake up to find it a dream. It seemed too violent and extraordinary to be real; but then I knew that it was real and that the comforting thought was the lie.
The next morning I woke in a long and crowded ward. A team of doctors stood pompously by my bedside, while the most pompous one informed me of my chances of survival. I spent the next week marooned in my bed, wracked with inexplicable pain, vomiting, urinating, and defecating into bottles and bedpans held by the nurses, my saviors. Welch writes of the experience of having a catheter inserted by a nurse he mistakes for a doctor because of his gender:
I remember being filled with a sense of surprise and wonder as I watched him pushing the soft little rubber tube down the urethra. It seemed to me an extraordinary thing to be doing, and I felt that I ought perhaps to resent his taking such strange liberties with my body when I was defenceless. I wondered, too, why I did not feel alarm as the little tube sank deeper and deeper into me. But I had neither of these feelings. I watched him with a peculiar interest. It seemed marvellous that anything could be pushed down such a tiny and delicate passage.
The tragedy of A Voice Through a Cloud is that Welch apprehends his own homosexuality only while he is being treated for an accident that sexually incapacitated him. In real life, Welch did live with a partner, Eric Oliver, who writes a moving foreword to A Voice Through a Cloud, although both Welch and Oliver have made clear that the physical aspects of their relationship were rather limited. In his Journals (1952), Welch relates his deep feelings for Eric:
I suddenly wanted to be hiking and hearty and pre-war and pre-accident, everything young and careless. I wished that Eric and I had known each other when we were both eighteen and that we had walked miles together every day and slept every night in haystacks. I longed for it quite bitterly, and I felt the desperation that everything was dying and decaying and that Eric and I who were just made to be young and gay for ever together would go down getting sadder and older and more entangled every moment of the day.
In his earlier novels, written during the war years, Welch mitigates sexuality with the specter of belligerence, cruelty, and trickery. In A Voice Through a Cloud, he attempts to write something both more tender and more forward-thinking in its sensibility. At the heart of the novel is Welch’s unrequited infatuation with his doctor, a love in which physical and emotional needs are diverted toward a caretaker who can both help his recovery and understand the tortured psyche of a bedridden person. The romantic nature of Welch’s interest in Dr. Farley is obvious from their first meeting:
He was tall and dark and dressed in dark clothes. His body seemed elastic but not light. As he came nearer, I saw that he was looking into me with eyes that could not pierce, because they were too brown and soft, too like a stag’s eyes. […] I was suddenly conscious of my tangled hair, uncut for weeks. Was it a disagreeable mop to someone so well clipped and trimmed? Did he criticize the crumpled pyjamas and flowered dressing-gown — so obviously chosen by a woman for a man? Was I being quickly slipped into a pigeonhole marked, “Peculiar — (needs handling)”? This wave of self-consciousness must have been due to the unexpected friendliness of his approach. I had expected grimness, therefore friendliness came as a shock.
Welch’s confessional bent, in his last days (he was close to death for much of the book’s composition, and he ultimately eked out sentences during rare moments of consciousness), is only more pronounced. Attempting to write a story of convalescence, he ended up writing a tale of unrequited love. Like Gore Vidal’s polarizing, early gay novel The City and The Pillar (1948), published the year Welch died, the imbalances of A Voice Through a Cloud bespeak an author struggling for a style that the social imagination of a new literary era might permit him to express. The publication of novels like these ensured that narratives of sickness and of attraction are unlikely to be conflated today. Sex has largely been drawn into a literary conversation that protects it from euphemism, however much euphemism and the distancing of fantasy might enliven attraction.
Only in the fifth grade at the time of my accident, I was spared from the awakening of attraction as a patient in a hospital bed, and by the time I was old enough to understand my own sexuality, my leg had healed — in spite of the fact that it was set incorrectly, prompting further surgery and causing me to spend the rest of the school year in a wheelchair. It was the psychological effects of enduring a random accident that stuck with me, the low morale of being an invalid and the sufferer of unlikely misfortune, a state of mind that Welch and few others have conveyed in fiction. The accident destroyed my self-esteem; the confidence I had in my body disappeared and did not return until adulthood. Luckily, as Denton Welch proves in his best novels, one can leave childhood behind and return to it only in the form of writing.