Were it not for his untimely death in 1948, aged just 33, Denton Welch might have become a household name in modern literature, perhaps spoken of in the same breath as George Orwell, Raymond Carver or Charles Bukowski.
Until very recently, I had never heard of him (Thank you to Open Road Media for sending me a review copy of ‘In Youth is Pleasure’ and getting me acquainted).
That he was admired by the likes of Beat writer William S. Burroughs, celebrated English playwright Alan Bennett and literary giant E.M. Forster says something quite significant I think about his concise career. Denton Welch was struck by a car while out cycling in Surrey when he was 20. He suffered permanent damage to his spine, an injury that would eventually lead to his early death. Despite his chronic ill-health, he continued to explore, observe and write, acquiring a distinctive literary voice set within the English countryside and acquiring many admirers of his vivid prose and precise descriptons.
He produced numerous novels including In Youth is Pleasure plus many short stories and was a prodigious diarist. As a classically trained painter at Goldsmiths College, London he had mixed success, but did produce a striking, colourful self-potrait showing a gaunt, thoughtful young man in glasses and a purple collared shirt that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.
‘In Youth is Pleasure’ is a deeply autobiographical novel with Welch transformed into Orvil Pim, a 15-year-old public school boy, who spends his summer holiday with his father and two older brothers in a grand old hotel in the English countryside.
It should be an idyllic time, indeed the novel begin in almost fairy tale fashion:
One summer, several years before the war began, a young boy of fifteen was staying with his father and two elder brothers at a hotel near the Thames in Surrey…
But, adolescence is never that much fun especially for a sensitive soul like Orvil Pym whose only wish is to be left alone so he can explore the hotel gardens, or take walks along the river, set sail on a canoe, ride a bicycle to an old church or search for curios in an antique shop.
Welch beautifully creates a portrait of the adolescent mind with all its longings, desires, pangs of guilt and rich imaginative powers.
Orvil’s dealings with strangers from the adult world beautifully describe adolescent confusion, most notably in Orvil’s unsettling encounters with an eccentric holidaying schoolmaster, with whom he forms both a fatherly attachment and something of a homo-erotic crush.
Welch’s compact writing style reminded me of George Orwell and his dictum not to use too many words when few will do. The text is sparse, pared back, the descriptions of Orvil’s adventures and mis-adventures precise, creating vivid pictures of the English countryside in summer and the inner world of Orvil’s imagination.
Upon entering an empty church on one of his ramblings, Orvil is filled with a “tingling expectancy”. Later on, discovering a gothic brass tombstone inside, he suddenly “without knowing why” lies down at full length on the cold slab and put his lips to the brass lady’s face, kissing her “juicily.”
The novel bristles with undertones of sexual expectation, desire, uncertainty and excitement: Orvil is voyeuristic, he takes off his clothes when alone and unobserved, he consumes different medications at once, he steals great gulps of communion wine in an empty church and smears his lips and cheeks red with stolen lipstick.
Mostly, like every rebellious adolescent, he longs to be left alone and not forced to return to boarding school, with its “iron beds like black enamelled skeletons”
He saw himself refusing to go back to school and disappearing completely. He was alone in a small London room with a gas-ring. He was working on something at a desk. It might have been a book, or a painting, or even a wool mat. It didn’t matter; it was real work, all alone, full of joy.
The last third of the book is given over to a delightful detail-rich account of Welch’s walking tour as an 18-year-old through southern England called I Left My Grandfather’s house.
He recounts his lonely walks along country roads and through fields, his meetings with fellow travellers and eccentric hostel dwellers (not much has changed in that regard) and descriptions of ancient, ruins, old churches, architecture, art, food and the English countryside.
Here, again, Welch displays his talent for painting vivid scenes and for creating that longing in the reader to join him in his lonely wanderings.
In an article published in The Guardian in 2005 following the publication of a biography of Welch, Alan Bennett writes of his admiration for Welch’s vivid writing style, sensitivity and his ability to speak directly to him as a young man who read his journals in the early 1950s.
“Utterly unlike any person I had come across, he seemed a sympathetic voice and – a characteristic of books read when young – seemed to be speaking particularly to me,” Bennett wrote.
William S. Burroughs pays Welch the highest compliment, saying that he was the writer that “most directly influenced” his own work – a statement that should encourage others to explore this forgotten writer.
With the publication of Welch’s novels in e-book format, a new generation may yet discover his talents.