No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Saturday, December 10, 2011

2011/62: The Charioteer -- Mary Renault

Darling Mother,
I have fallen in love. I now know something about myself which I have been suspecting for years, if I had had the honesty to admit it. I ought to be frightened and ashamed, but I am not. Since I can see no earthly hope for the attachment, I ought to be wretched, but I am not. I know now why I was born, why everything has happened to me ever; I know why I am lame, because it has brought me to the right place at the right time. (p.56)
Set in autumn 1940 and published in 1953 (1959 in the USA), The Charioteer is not a historical novel in the usual sense of the term: Renault was writing of England in the recent past, an England at once transformed and defined by the state of being at war. Sixty years later, that wartime setting has a cliched familiarity born of decades of film, TV and literature. But Renault is not interested in writing another story about home-front heroism -- at least, that isn't the focus of the story. The Charioteer is primarily a story about love.

The protagonist, Laurie Odell, is male; so are the two people with whom he falls in love.

Homosexuality was illegal, regarded as a mental illness and as morally objectionable. (Mathematician and cryptographer Alan Turing, convicted for homosexual conduct in 1952, was given the choice between a prison sentence or treatment with female hormones: he opted for the latter in the hope that it would be less disruptive to his work. Within a year he was dead.) Laurie, and the other gay men in the story, are outsiders, keeping their selves secret, having to be 'sure' about someone before they can allude, however indirectly, to anything sexual.

And Laurie, though he realises that he is 'different', is pretty much an innocent. How could he not be? How could he discover himself?

The title of The Charioteer derives from Plato's Phaedrus: the charioteer drives two horses, one black and one white. As Laurie describes it to Andrew, "Each of the gods has a pair of divine white horses, but the soul only has one. The other ... is black and scruffy, with a thick neck, a flat face, hairy fetlocks, gray bloodshot eyes, and shaggy ears. He's hard of hearing, thick-skinned, and given to bolting whenever he sees something he wants." (p.101). The white horse is the moral urge; the black horse is base lust and mindless passion. Or, perhaps, the white horse is pure, intellectual love, founded on morality and respect; the black horse is sexual indulgence, succumbing to the body's urges, hedonism.

On the one hand, there's Andrew, a Quaker, a conscientious objector who's working in the hospital where Laurie is taken after being severely wounded at Dunkirk. Laurie's instantly drawn to Andrew, fascinated by him, but Andrew (a man of integrity, trying to live an ethical life) seems oblivious.

On the other hand, there's Ralph Lanyon, who was at school with Laurie and was expelled for inappropriate behaviour with a younger boy. (This, it seems, was Laurie's first glimpse of the possibility of homosexuality. Ralph gave him his own copy of Phaedrus, which Laurie keeps with him for the next seven years.) Ralph, it turns out, was captaining the ship that brought a doped-up and hallucinating Laurie back across the Channel from Dunkirk. The two meet again through a string of coincidences (an air raid, a chance encounter, a birthday party doubling as a gay social -- 'we can't offer you any girls', says the host guardedly, not yet wholly sure of Laurie -- and the mention of a name).

Laurie finally has someone with whom he can talk, "a speaker of his own language; another solitary still making his own maps". He begins to realise that he needs to keep Andrew safe; that Andrew doesn't know, and doesn't need to know, anything about the way in which Laurie loves him.

Laurie also rejects the exclusive / excluded coterie of gay men to whom he was introduced at that party -- a group who've 'identified themselves with their limitations', who are promiscuous and melodramatic and jealously possessive.

What's left? Can he accept his own nature and have a meaningful relationship? Will he have to close the door on love and sex?

There's a lot more to The Charioteer than I've mentioned here. The ways in which Laurie's friends and acquaintances react to him (especially Reg, a working-class bloke who's in the next bed at the hospital, and has to square his prejudices with his knowledge of Laurie as an individual). The allusions -- this is not an explicit novel -- to the dark underside of the homosexual 'scene' in wartime Britain; the compromises that must be made. Laurie's relationship with his mother, who's about to marry a noxious clergyman. The peace that Laurie finds in Andrew's company; the tension between him and Ralph. And throughout, Renault's fine, subtle (sometimes opaque) prose, the prose that hooked me on her historical novels in my teens.

I think I'll be coming back to this novel again and again.

It can be good to be given what you want; it can be better, in the end, never to have it proved to you that this was what you wanted. (p. 291)