Thursday, October 7, 2010

A collection of objets d'art (Books - Maiden Voyage by Denton Welch)

The past week has been a heavy one of studying for exams, writing papers, and school-related reading at bookeywookey. So I uncharacteristically had scarcely a minute to read anything of a more recreational nature. I finished Denton Welch's Maiden Voyage on a subway ride last Saturday but haven't been able to write about it until now. This book sits somewhere between novel and memoir. It concerns Denton Welch, an English boy, who at 16 feels very out of place because of his love for objets d'art and his hatred for his public school. He runs away and then gets sent to his father in Shanghai. The book concerns his year-long visit there as he flirts with soldiers (even in the 1930s he wrote openly of his attraction to men) and gets invited to people's homes because they have heard of his love for pretty things. It is unknowingly peppered with many instances of that institutionalized imperialist racism and antisemitism the British Empire was so famous for, which frequently had me cringing. Otherwise this book consists of two things an acute sensitivity to what surrounds him:
On the desk near the door was a lovely Greek bronze head. Its empty eye-sockets made it look blind and as if it were crying. The librarian showed us how the inlaid eyes would have fitted, and where tufts of hair were inserted in the holes on the scalp.

We left the library and went into the private dining room. A sticky-looking, empty medicine bottle was on the sideboard.

"The mixture. To be taken three times a day. His Grace the Duke of Devonshire," I read. I wondered what it had tasted like and what it was for. If I had been alone I would have smelled the bottle.
Welch has a talent for choosing the details that will help the reader have a fully sensoral appreciation for what he describes. He also makes smarter-than-his-years observations about many of the people he meets accomplished with the more-than-occasional well-turned phrase:
"People think that because you're grown up you don't want any fun."

"Yes, isn't it silly?" I said politely.

"Shut up all day in that uniform, you need a little freedom when you can get it," she mused as if talking to herself.

Now I knew why Nurse Robins was so quiet. She hated her uniform. She wanted to run in the fields, to trip over mole-hills and sprawl in the mud. She was Peter Pan to herself.
Or this moment of horror which, even though it seems a rip-off of the beating of the horse in Crime and Punishment is still a grotesque - horrible and beautiful:
One day as I walked through one of these mournful villages, I saw a strange creature steadying himself against the counter of an open shop. He was in rags, and his chin was covered with stubble, but he was young, and against the background of jeering Chinese faces his skill looked almost startlingly white...

I watched him trying hopelessly to push through the crowd. He was swaying dangerously and a vicious kick brought him down. He lay still, with his face in the gutter. People spat on his back where the white skin showed through the rents in his paper-thin shirt. Others aimed playful kicks at his hard, trembling buttocks. A little boy jumped on his shoulders and straddled his neck with small fat legs and dimpled knees. He grabbed two tufts of the man's hair and jigged up and down on his neck, riding him as if he were a horse.

I waited until the crowd melted away; then I went up to the man. He lay breathing into the dust, making a frightening, grating sound in his nose and throat. I was about to try to turn him over when he groaned and muttered something angrily. I stepped back and watched him staggering to his feet. He began to sway very slowly out of the village. I walked behind, keeping my eyes off him for fear of seeing him fall again.

Suddenly he began to sing, throwing his head from side to side, and waving his arms wildly. He shouted the words and rolled along as if he were happy; then, as suddenly as he had begun, he stopped. His hands dropped, his head fluttered weakly and he fell. But this time it was soft grass that received him. We were all alone in the country. I looked down at his face lying sideways amongst the blades of grass. A little tickle of saliva ran out of the corner of his mouth and lost itself in his young beard. He looked like Jesus.
I found the sections like the one above startlingly poignant, but these were set pieces amidst the second of the two features of Maiden Voyage - a tiresomely repeated refrain of someone or other saying "I have heard you like pretty things..." and young Denton going off to that someone's home and admiring their coffeepots and their little glass bottles or wishing to dress in a fez "like Disraeli in 1830." Just a few chapters before his departure and the book's end, Denton pays a visit to his selfish aunt, telling a story of a shameful childhood memory as the background to his present visit, which ends up being coincident with his uncle having a stroke:
I said good-night and went to my own room. There on the bedside table lay the Tales of Mystery and Imagination. I took the book up and wished that I could write a story about a mandarin swinging from the scarlet beam, my uncle's sudden stroke, Clutterbuck's sour philosophy, and my aunt's childish, pleasant love of show and her longing for affection.
He had, in fact, done just that. But I found myself wishing that he could have told more stories like it. It is one of the few satisfying sections of the book amidst what ends up feeling a frivolous collection of impressions loosely arrayed like the pretty objects he sees in the homes he visits. The book never finds a form that gives integrity and completeness to the full-length work suggested by the covers that collect its pages together. Its admirably precocious but finally a little precious, and makes me wonder if it is the strength of Welch's writing that so many admire or the experience of that writing in the context of the knowledge of his tragic accident at age twenty and subsequent death at thirty-three? I'm not sure yet what I think. I may have to read another of his books to decide.

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