- Maiden Voyage A Voice Through a Cloud by Denton Welch
Penguin, 256 pp, £2.95, July 1983, ISBN 0 14 009522 5
The facts of Denton Welch’s brief life are fairly well known, partly of course because they were his sole subject-matter as a writer. He was born in 1915, the youngest of three brothers, and spent much of his boyhood in China, where his father had business interests. His adored mother (an American, and a Christian Scientist) died when he was 11, and this event caused him a deep emotional disturbance, at the height of which he ran away from his much-detested public school. (The action, to his surprise, proved on the whole to have raised him in the world’s, and his own family’s, esteem.) After a spell back in China, he was allowed by his father to enrol as an art-student at Goldsmith’s College, but three years later, while bicycling, he was run down by a motorist, suffering permanent injury to his spine. His convalescence lasted many months and was never complete. Nevertheless he was able eventually to leave his nursing-home, and he resumed painting and began to write. His first (autobiographical) book, Maiden Voyage, appeared in 1943, with a Foreword by Edith Sitwell, and had a great success, as did its successor, the very slightly fictionalised In Youth is Pleasure (1945). Meanwhile he published stories, and an article about Sickert, in Horizon and other magazines. His health gradually deterioriated, and he spent his last years desperately trying to finish a further autobiographical work, A Voice Through a Cloud, which dealt with the time succeeding his road accident. In his last weeks he persisted in writing, though suffering such violent headaches that he could only work for a few minutes a day. He died in December 1948.
Rereading Denton Welch sets one’s mind running upon narcissism. I am not taking the word in the classical Freudian sense, which posits a wholesale withdrawal of the libido from objects and redirection of it on to the ego, with possible consequences in megalomania. What I have in mind is a more common-or-garden condition: a certain kind of egocentricity which goes with intense interest in one’s own body and which manifests itself – here, superficially at least, in disagreement with Freud – in an obsessive interest in objects. For Denton Welch, from an early age, the antique-shop, and objets d’art generally, were a pole of his existence. He was, and remained, intensely covetous of objects and always had his nose in cupboards, hoping they would house some magical item or hoard. He felt the temptation to steal objects, and also to eat them or somehow incorporate them into himself. This whole complex of impulses is beautifully caught in the passage in Maiden Voyage where a Chinese antique-dealer, complimenting the young Welch as a ‘handsome youth’, gives him a Ming blue-and-white artist’s brush pot.
I flushed with pleasure and embarrassment as the dealer passed the brush pot to me. Before he put it in my hands he caressed it with a show of love; then he smacked his lips hungrily, as if he found it very delicious.
I held it tightly, fingering its cold, smooth sides. I wanted to concentrate on it. I left the others and stood by the ruinous carp tank in the courtyard. I heard laughter coming through the fretwork windows. They were amused that I wanted to be alone with my new possession.
As he makes plain, we are to associate these traits with despair and resentment at the death of his mother. In In Youth is Pleasure, to quiet his panic at the approach of a new school term, the hero, on his solitary walks, seeks for solace in the Chinese agate chicken which his mother gave him, rubbing the fetish object as if to bring it to life, then popping it into his mouth and sucking it like a sweet. The end of Maiden Voyage sees its hero, as he prepares to return to England, irrationally trying to rob his father of the mother’s family silver.
To be thus thrown back upon objects gives, as he realises, a coldness to Welch’s sexual imagination. Dotted around in his fiction and journals are recurrent scenes in which he gazes admiringly at some muscular young man undressing to bathe; and side by side with the hero-worship we feel the tendency to turn the bather into a breakable object or objet d’art, bringing all the fears that surround objets d’art – that any change in them can only be for the worse, like a cracking or chipping or staining.
What is also made definite to him is that there cannot be much love, and this fact has to be faced. He will have friends, but at times a blank will descend and he will wonder what it would matter if he never saw them again. It is not so much that he is happier in solitude as that it seems his natural medium. ‘I do not think that people want love most,’ he writes in his Journal (12 May 1946): ‘they need the settled reveries, the calm testing and tasting of their past and the world’s past ... I am talking about “people” when I mean “me”.’ It surprised Welch very much when he found himself sharing a successful ménage with the devoted Eric Oliver.
His first successful step in writing was promoted partly by reading J.R. Ackerley’s Hindoo Holiday, the work of another author who could only ever write about himself. I have seen a comparison made between the temperaments of these two, but this seems quite wrong. Ackerley was indeed a narcissist, but then narcissism is a large family. The point about Ackerley was that he spent his whole life in a mad muddle about love, whereas Denton Welch seems extremely clear about it.
Indeed, in general, though there was much ‘crass casualty’, there seems to be very little muddle in Denton Welch’s life, apart from the one great crisis of muddle in his adolescence – the period, leading up to his running away from school, with which so much of his work is concerned. By the time he was writing, this crisis had become almost a commonplace in English fiction: the sensitive young man, the ‘sissy’ – shall he adapt to the ‘masculine’ values that parents and schoolmasters want to impose on him? Could he do so even if he tried? But if not, can he avoid hero-worshipping those who are able to? Denton Welch’s original contribution was to render this crisis with a calm savagery and clear-eyed shamelessness that reject self-pity and special pleading.
E.M. Forster, who knew his way about this adolescent crisis, but who believed there could be beneficent muddles as well as vicious ones, seems actually to have thought Denton Welch too much in control and deficient in muddle. On reading Maiden Voyage, he wrote Welch what the latter described as ‘a fine letter ... full of very sensible praise of the book’, but to William Plomer Forster wrote: ‘Denton Welch is certainly easy to read, and he doesn’t in this book tease any one whom I think ought not to be teased. Anyhow he is the sort of writer I am always grateful to. They will never do any better, but that is their cul de sac, not mine.’
Welch was a man to whom two great events happened, his adolescent breakdown and his road accident, and I rather wonder if he would ever have created much had it not been for the second of these. His drawing and painting, which appears to have gone on much the same after his accident as before it, does not strike me as amounting to a great deal. In these over-furnished little canvases, these Samuel Palmers grown wry and squint-eyed, everything seems so unliving, as if the objects had never belonged to the natural world. The fingers that grasp a vase seem actually to go into it, as if it were made of putty. You would not guess from these pictures the vigour and passion for life he could show as a writer.
A phrase from Alfred Adler, ‘the masculine protest’, somehow seems relevant to Denton Welch. According to Adler, the formula ‘I wish to be a complete man’ is the ‘guiding fiction’ in every neurosis; and the ‘masculine protest’ that this fiction dictates may not necessarily take an aggressively virile form – it may equally well, in its furious desire to conquer, disguise itself as ‘timidity, anxiety, effeminacy or flight from the world’. Of course Adler is speaking of neurosis, and we do not have the right to call Welch a neurotic: still, the phrase ‘masculine protest’ does seem to catch something about him. He felt waves of indignation against stupid stereotypes of ‘male’ behaviour, or what he called ‘male affectation’: but what figured much more for him, really, was a protest, and on the whole a successful protest, against being cheated of life and wholeness. It is this protest which makes A Voice Through a Cloud, which recounts his prolonged convalescence after his accident, a memorable book.
The work of protest is going on as much in the actual writing of the book, ten years later, as in the oscillations of collapse and revival, of defeatism and fighting-back, that he is recalling. When he finally discovered writing, he latched onto it with vigour and fanaticism, feeling no doubt that what he was doing, for all its narcissistic narrowness, was important. The thing was, he felt, to be used. ‘I want to be a sausage machine pouring out good sausages, savoury and toothsome, delightful, desirable. I want pleasure and interest to flow out of me, to feel alive and able to bear a heavy load of work to be done.’ He teaches himself to look on his own defeatist elements – for instance, his pangs of petty literary vanity – judiciously and tolerantly, as a side-result of the accident that ruined his body. ‘Our heart, into which something has eaten when we were ill and weak, must be mended and patched, so that that terrible pettiness and fear of being overlooked may be wiped out for ever’ (Journal, 31 December 1942). Though by pretension an aesthete, he is also, in his Journals, very much a moralist, and is not put off by memories of schoolmasters and sermons from preaching self-discipline. In a curious entry he remarks that, with a little more stamina and self-restraint, the graffiti in public lavatories could have been poetry.
What also seems to happen is that his old ‘perverse’ relationship to objects, his tendency to fetishise them and to want to appropriate them, reappear in his writing as a strength. Consider this, from In Youth is Pleasure: ‘He was quite unhurt, but had begun to cry bitterly. He was crying for all the tortures and atrocities in the world. His tears made damp chocolaty lumps out of the feathery dust.’ What is so characteristic is the bringing-down-to-earth effect – Orvil’s tears being suddenly transformed into curious, vividly-evoked, slightly magical material objects. Or take this engaging sentence from his story ‘The Fire in the Wood’: ‘As he walked towards her over the polished floor, his wellingtons squelched, letting out little sighing puffs of air.’ This putting-to-effect of common objects and their mana proves a surprisingly fruitful resource to him. (He evidently had a thing about rubber boots, for it is Sickert’s ‘sewer boots’ which form the central comic feature of his brilliant evocation of the painter in ‘Sickert at St Peter’s’.) It is not, however, just a matter of material objects. Similar impulses come into play in rendering scraps of conversation, expressive gestures, impressions and epiphanies of all kinds. You feel him somehow pouncing upon them and appropriating them, with a ruthlessness a little cannibalistic but for all that not cruel. The right of others to be as they are is never questioned; and as a consequence, cold in style as his novels and stories are, they are often very poignant. Throughout all the young Orvil’s resentments and hysterias in In Youth is Pleasure, his father’s helplessness to help is conveyed with accuracy and justice. There is nothing to be done about it: Orvil’s mother’s death comes between them fatally. At any mention of her death, the father’s face would ‘freeze and harden, and his voice become abrupt and cruel and contemptuous’; and when a stranger commiserates with him on the death, he cuts him short, in ‘a most curious, leering, hideous voice’, declaring, ‘with satisfaction’, that it was much the best thing. ‘She was never to be thought of or considered again – because she had been loved so much. It was disgusting to show that you knew such a woman had ever existed.’ There are many such touching and powerful passages in Denton Welch’s fiction. He was right that his work had importance and deserved to live. I think it will.