Like Steam Escaping
- Denton Welch: Writer and Artist by James Methuen-Campbell
Tartarus, 268 pp, £30.00, March 2002, ISBN 1 872621 60 0
In 1936 Denton Welch, who was then an art student at Goldsmiths College and had no thoughts of becoming a writer, suffered an appalling accident. He was bicycling from Greenwich down the main Brighton road, on a Whitsun holiday, when a car ran into him, fracturing his spine and leaving him a permanent invalid, till his death in 1948 at the age of 32.
It is of course a tragic tale, but also an inspiring and encouraging one. You might say that the hero of the story is writing. That puts the point clumsily, but if you are to write a biography of Welch, it is what it will have be about.
Before catastrophe overtook him, he was, after all, not a very impressive character. One can loosely describe him as a ‘narcissist’, a very wide label but one that he would have used himself. He was an incorrigible poker into other people’s cupboards and belongings, had a passion for antiques and a mild tendency to theft. His mother, of whom he was passionately fond, died when he was 11, and this loss no doubt reinforced his fetishistic feeling for objets d’art. We read in his In Youth Is Pleasure (1944) of how, to quiet his terror at going to a new school, he rubs a Chinese agate chicken, given to him by his mother, and then pops it into his mouth and sucks it like a sweet. It was no doubt the loss of his mother which prompted him, in bewilderment more than for any more definite reason, to run away from his public school (Repton) and then to agree, without much resistance, to return. His life as an art student was lonely and aimless, and though he had charm and a malicious wit, there would come times when any friend of his would be rebuffed, for interfering with his solitude.
He had, at all events, a certain inner toughness, so that the horror of his awakening in hospital, in agonising pain, with his legs paralysed and his battered face almost unrecognisable, did not completely overwhelm him. He was still observant and curious: he studied the effect of his grotesque appearance on his visitors’ faces. His long stay in hospitals and nursing homes, lasting more than a year, would, however, be an endless, directionless saga of mood changes: he would be overcome with tides of irritation, disgust and childish resentments (though not of self-pity). He would seethe against nurses, matrons and doctors, resenting their friendly overtures or exhortations to be stoical. Whole days would pass for him, too, in deliberately organised daydreams, in which he would minutely explore an imaginary 18th-century house. When at last he finds a doctor he can be friendly with, he falls madly and unmanageably in love with him. He feels his own absurdity and finds it impossible to think of the future; though just occasionally he has an inkling of unused power. At last, by a strong instinct of self-preservation, he decides to escape from medical care, and his erstwhile landlady, from his Greenwich days, comes to share a flat with him and to help look after him.
All this is described in great detail in his last major piece of writing, the poignant novel A Voice through a Cloud (1950). His first year or so of independence was, in fact, a time of extreme unhappiness for him, though much of what happened remains obscure. But what is plain is that, at this time, he discovered the potentialities of writing and surprised himself by the seriousness and ambition with which he approached it.
He chose, rather naturally, to write about himself, his only slightly younger self. A reviewer of his first published book, Maiden Voyage (1943), wrote that ‘he lives for us in these pages with an almost embarrassing vividness,’ and another that it was ‘a painful picture of adolescence at its most gawky period’; but the words ‘embarrassing’ and ‘painful’ are not really appropriate. For there was at least one compensation for this new-found writer. Separated from his younger self by no more than a year or two in time but an abyss of terrifying experience, it would have been quite ridiculous for him to blush or squirm at this self. He recognised it to be his precious subject matter, most probably his only subject matter; and the success of his dealing with it lies in exactness and objectivity and an immunity to embarrassment or ‘shame’.
How cunningly, for example, he handles the episode in Maiden Voyage about the drunken Russian at the Chinese village shop, altogether a ‘shame’ episode.
He lurched and caught hold of the doorpost just in time. He thrust his other hand out for alms and the shopkeeper spat neatly into it. Everyone laughed. The young man jerked and flicked his hand, trying to shake off the phlegm; then he made a grimace which was meant to be a smile, and I felt terribly ashamed.
The Russian, further spat on and kicked, pushes his way out of the crowd and lies down in the dust. He gets up and starts to sing, waving his arms about, and then falls down again.
A little trickle of saliva ran out of the corner of his mouth and lost itself in his young beard. He looked like Jesus.
The narrator feels in his own pocket, finding one dollar and fifty cents, and puts the two coins in the Russian’s hand, kneading his fingers round them. Then, as he walks away, he wonders what it will be like to have no pocket money for the rest of the week. He returns.
I looked furtively around me; then I knelt down, opened his finger, and took out the dollar. The fifty-cent piece looked very small, alone on his big palm. I shut his fingers on it to hide it.
I put the dollar in my pocket and started to run. I wanted to get away.
When I looked back I saw a tiny figure moving among the grave-mounds. I felt the dollar, warm against my thigh.
‘Shamelessness’ can, of course, be a kind of attitudinising, but Denton Welch’s aim is, precisely, to eschew all attitudinising – you might almost say, all attitude. How hard he worked for this we know from remarks in his journal. He writes (16 March 1948): ‘I would knock the posturing out of words, bash them into shape, iron out their obstinate awkwardness.’ It was important when writing about adolescent embarrassments, but even more so when writing about his accident.
It is plain that writing, when he came round to discovering it, was for Welch to be the equivalent of health. He writes in his journal: ‘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.’ Elsewhere, however, he writes of a ‘spongy, tripe-like substance threatening me’, ‘some grey woolly substance’ invading the scene. The phrases evidently suggest an enemy, they seem to symbolise defeatism or ill-health; and somehow they put me in mind of his paintings, which I do not feel amount to very much. Limp neo-rococo doodlings, Samuel Palmers gone malign and queer: they strike me as fusty and defunctive, made of materials that have never belonged to the living world, and lacking in the energy and discipline of his writing.
James Methuen-Campbell, as the title of his biography of Welch implies, holds a higher opinion of the paintings; and one of the valuable features of his book is a detailed catalogue of them. His is certainly a sober and well-informed biography, a shade less zestful, but also less gossipy, than Michael De-la-Noy’s Denton Welch: The Making of a Writer (1984), and he draws on a very wide range of Welch’s acquaintances. But since, both by disposition and by circumstances, Welch was a solitary, there is a limit to what they can tell us.
But anyway, writing a biography of Denton Welch runs up against a great, maybe an insoluble, problem. For, from his own writings, we know his intimate thoughts about almost every event in his brief life. Or at least we have the illusion of doing so, and how shall we test the truth of it? Here, outside informants are not much help. Thus for much of the time the biographer is reduced simply to stringing together what Welch says here, and what he says there.
To do more than this, moreover, is perilous. When Methuen-Campbell supplies context to Welch’s words, or interprets them for us, one gets the feeling that he is conventionalising him. He resorts to the ‘must have’ formula, always a snare for biographers: ‘The move from the sheltered life at St Michael’s’ – Welch’s prep school – ‘to the boisterous public school in Derbyshire, with the older boys almost grown men, must have seemed extremely daunting.’ Very likely so, but why ‘must’? More important, he sometimes credits Welch with broad generalisations, which are exactly what, by implication, his prose eschews. On a passage in A Voice through a Cloud, describing the brusque way in which a nurse rips off the narrator’s dressings, Methuen-Campbell comments: ‘When morning came there was the quick realisation that any humanity one might reasonably expect from the nursing had long since been sacrificed before the god of daily routine.’ Such a ponderous or rancorous fancy could, indeed, have easily entered the narrator’s mind at this moment, but we are not to suppose the author would have underwritten it.
Or there is the question of Welch’s relationship to Eric Oliver, a young man whom he got to know in 1943 and who moved in with him in 1944, looking after him devotedly for the last four years of his life. It was an ‘affair’ of sorts, but according to Methuen-Campbell not much of a physical affair; indeed, Oliver later denied that they were ever ‘lovers’. As a legacy from his accident, Welch, who was incontinent, had to sleep on a waterproof sheet and much of the time had to wear a catheter. (He was reticent about the extent to which his body had been ‘messed up’.) Nevertheless, the advent of Oliver was an enormous piece of good fortune for him, helped a little by his own shrewdness.
But Methuen-Campbell speaks of his ‘infatuation’ with his new friend; he describes him as ‘besotted’ with Oliver; and this does not sound quite right. It is to ignore what Welch would write about the intermittences of love. ‘I do not think that people want love most,’ he writes in his journal for 12 May 1946: ‘they need the settled reverie, the calm testing and tasting of their past and the world’s past.’ And again (2 February 1947): ‘How almost non-existent is my feeling for other people, especially when I am ill! There they are, doing things for me, making life possible, and I am dead to them, hardly even conventionally grateful, almost unable to realise that they have feelings at all.’ Moreover, Methuen-Campbell quotes a journal entry for 8 May 1944 as showing that the affair with Oliver ‘was preying on Denton’s mind’. It runs: ‘When you long with all your heart for someone to love you, a madness grows there that shakes all sense from the trees and the water and the earth. And nothing lives for you, except the long deep bitter want.’ But the next sentence, which he does not quote, reads: ‘And this is what everyone feels from birth to death’ – which makes it clear that the remark is a quite general one and does not particularly refer to Oliver.
There is a question I have skirted, and shall go on skirting, which is how proper it is to regard Welch’s fiction, or even, say, his brilliant and teasing sketch of Walter Sickert (‘Sickert at St Peter’s’), as records of fact. The posthumously published Fragments of a Life Story should be a warning to us. It is an unforgettable piece of writing. Being ‘overcome with the horror of living’, the narrator has a sudden impulse to commit suicide and, as part of this, instinctively determines to wreck the one happy element in his existence, his friendship with his doctor (evidently the ‘Doctor Farley’ of A Voice through a Cloud). He steals into the doctor’s house, huddling into the heavy curtain behind the door, and begins to cry uncontrollably. ‘I made noises like an animal or a musical instrument, squeezing out my breath or hissing it in through my teeth, muttering things that finished on a little scream, like steam escaping.’ The doctor comes in, discovers him crouching on the ground, and pulls him to his feet, holding him against himself to steady him, for he was ‘trembling violently with lust and fear’. For a moment he feels joy; then the doctor gently releases him, at which he falls to cursing and blaspheming and makes for the garden, going round to the front of the house to make more trouble. The grotesque scene ends with the doctor dragging him, still laughing, hurling insults and swearing, away from the stair-banisters and throwing him out of the house by main force. The ensuing suicide attempt, by swallowing 16 harmless Prontisil tablets, is a hopeless fiasco, and he wakes up next morning realising that ‘nothing was changed; either in the world or in me.’
He is writing here with his best ‘shameless’ clarity and vividness, but what a later entry in his journal (2 December 1942) reveals is that the event, as described, never actually happened: that is to say, Welch did not enter the doctor’s house, he merely ‘slunk into the garden and flattened my face against the pane of the living-room window’.
Welch was very fortunate in his literary career. He received what he called a ‘plum, jewel, diadem knock-out’ letter of encouragement about Maiden Voyage from Edith Sitwell, and a ‘fine letter’ from E.M. Forster, ‘full of very sensible praise of the book’. Sitwell urged him to do something quite different next time, something not introspective but ‘violent and vulgar’, while Forster privately decided he would never be able to. He wrote to William Plomer that Welch was ‘the sort of writer I am always grateful to. They will never do any better, but that is their cul-de-sac, not mine.’ But all credit to them, and to Cyril Connolly who was the first to publish him (‘Sickert at St Peter’s’ appeared in Horizon in August 1942), for being so certain that he counted.