Like a lot of people who might be familiar with the work of Denton Welch, my first "encounter" with him was his oft-anthologized story "When I Was Thirteen." I came across the story in Alberto Manguel and Craig Stephenson's anthology Meanwhile, in Another Part of the Forest: Gay Stories from Alice Munro to Yukio Mishima. The story is about a thirteen-year-old boy (probably some time in the 1920s) on vacation in a ski resort in Switzerland. While his older brother goes out to spend the day on the slopes with friends, the narrator is left behind at the hotel and develops something of a hero-worship fantasy for a university student who also happens to be staying at the resort. I loved the story for evoking such vivid details--the taste of hot chocolate after a day out in the cold, the French pastries, the warmth of a feather bed, getting into the same bath water the university student had just sat in. I remember thinking how accurately Welch could capture certain images and sensations of early adolescence that I realized I had forgotten, and I loved how homosexual desire is never explicitly stated, but is an undercurrent throughout the story (as it is in much of his fiction). I made a mental note to further explore his work one day.
A few years passed, and I can't remember what I was working on, but last summer I decided to read what Manguel describes as "one of his best works," In Youth Is Pleasure, and again I was charmed and fascinated by this little-known British writer. I went on to read I Left My Grandfather's House and The Stories of Denton Welch, a collection of twenty-six of his stories and, more recently, his incomplete (but definitely best) novel, A Voice through a Cloud.
When I read, I tend to underline passages I like, but with Welch I find it hard to know when to put the pencil down. Listen to this, for example:
Since his last visit to me, I saw him always as a lost dog, forlorn, harassed, with an unenticing hint of danger that made one wish to get away from him. What warned one against him before he had opened his mouth? Was it the eyes staring, then circling? The badly related hand and leg movements? The scheming that was so obvious that one had a fancy of steaming, churning thoughts bubbling up against the walls of a glass skull?
Soon afterwards Mrs. Talbot struggled up from her low deck chair to say good-bye. Standing on those fragile black-silk legs she looked very tottery and ancient; but there was a great lump of pride and malevolence behind her pale little eyes, and I thought that it was this lump which was her driving force. Insolent pride and ill-will carried her through the day, kept her from dying, from melting into nothing. I thought that each year to come would make the little beady eyes clearer and paler, until they were nothing but two sucked acid drops. All colour would drain out of her, leaving only the pure venom.
Wow! These two passages come from "Brave and Cruel," a story I ironically felt was not among his best (in fact, many of his stories don't always entirely work as stories), yet for me it almost doesn't matter because with Welch the prose is so stellar--and fresh, too, not at all sounding like they were written more than seventy years ago.
When I was reading A Voice through a Cloud, again and again I kept underlining short passages and phrases, and surprising word choices, so much so that much of my copy is dirtied with pencil markings. But here's a passage that has long stayed with me for its haunting beauty:
There were some birds at night beyond the garden. Behind their hard cymbal clashes or sad flute sounds I used to hear the far-away moping of the sea and then the fitful barking of a dog. I would imagine his cry coming across the fields, the brimming icy ditches and the bare hedges glittering with black drops of water. Perhaps it came from some lonely farm where he was chained up in a cobbled yard. The chain would grate and clink like a ghost's as he ran from side to side, barking and waiting for the answer which never came. At last his tail would curve down through his legs and he would huddle back into the dank straw of his barrel.
I wrote about the night bird cries, the sea sounds and the lonely barking, and I liked what I wrote in flashes; but something was wrong with it. There is always something wrong with writing. So I tore the paper up at last, liking the untouched memory so much better, not wanting it forced into the insincerity of words.
It really is stunning: the dog's chain clinking like a ghost's, and then the ironic, "There's always something wrong with writing." The phrase comes to me often as I sit at my desk frustrated.
I can't find the passage right now, but I remember being struck by a simple sentence that went something like this, "I turned away, shirking the difficult task of having to say something about the painting"; and I thought that had I written that I would have said something much more dull, like, "I turned away, not wanting to say anything about the painting." It's little things like this that make his prose so memorable and beguiling, and layered, containing in that seldom-used word "shirk" a hint of judgment.
Welch's fiction is very autobiographical, and so as I read through his work, I couldn't help feeling like I got to know someone very closely, not just his thoughts and idiosyncratic worldview, but also his neuroses and obsessions, his desires, his history: there's his childhood in China, his art school years in London, his later years in the British countryside. In a weird way (and I'm not sure what this says about me) but never have I read a writer with whom I felt such kinship. Before Welch ventured into fiction writing, he originally wanted to become a painter (his work, which often adorns the covers of his books, is somewhat mediocre), but at the age of twenty, while riding his bike one day in south London, he was struck by a car and spent the rest of his life--the next thirteen years--convalescing. Unable to paint, he turned to writing and in the remainder of his life produced an amazing volume of work. The nearly complete A Voice through a Cloud was written at the very end of his life when he was in a great deal of pain and could often work on it for no more than a few minutes at a time. Welch died in 1948 at the age of 33, a shame that someone with such obvious talent should pass away so early and in such obscurity. This Sunday, March 29th, marks one hundred years since Welch's birth, and I wonder: will Denton Welch societies (if there is such a thing; there's a Denton Welch website, but it's been under construction for years) commemorate the anniversary with readings and speeches? Will there be radio documentaries on Welch the way there were for Barbara Pym in 2013 on the 100th anniversary of her birth? Or will I alone sit at my kitchen table with a cupcake and a lit candle stuck in it, reflecting on the work of this most remarkable writer?