Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Rerun: Denton Welch's Doll Houses (orig. 02/13/08)


This is the story of how, in 1935, a 20-year-old art student on a bicycle got entangled with a car and suffered suffered a fractured spine. Although he was not paralyzed, he suffered severe pain and complications, including spinal tuberculosis that ultimately led to his early death 13 years later – but not before he had written three autobiographical novels, a good many short stories and copious volumes of journals. Denton Welch did not set out to be a writer. After leaving Repton School, he studied art in London with the intention of becoming a painter. But his injuries made him reclusive, so that he was thrown back for literary material on his childhood and adolescence.

Easily bored and searching for a pastime, one day he found an old doll's house in the cellar of a friend's home. The dolls' house was in very bad condition but he decided to restore it. He found out that it had been made in 1783, by spotting a date in the doll house's tiny kitchen fireplace under a layer of paint. Despite being neglected, the house had retained many of its original features. These included the mantelpieces in each room and the perfectly moulded cornices and door frames. Underneath the many layers of paint on the house Welch found the small red bricks which were originally painted on the house. He continued to restore the doll house for years, even working on it in the hospital during his final days. Upon his death, the doll house was presented by his secretary Eric Oliver to the Bethanal Green Museum of Childhood where it is still on display.

Allen Bennett: A child who at the age of seven could remark in a slow, earnest, thoughtful voice that "a flea would despise the amount of lemonade I've got, Mother," Denton Welch was never going to be ordinary. After family holidays spent rooting through the junk shops and coming across a severed human head in the undergrowth on a solitary walk, it's hardly surprising if he and his writing failed to fit in. Certainly, much of what Welch wrote trembled on the brink of sex, which gave it much of its energy. Often catheterised and racked by his physical inabilities, Welch was very much an onlooker and non-participant. It's hard to think that had he lived Welch would now be in his 80s. To his readers, he will always be that frail, curly-haired high-foreheaded young man who sits at the checkerboard table with the lustres and the candles painstakingly restoring his beloved doll house to perfection or meticulously rendering his own shattered life inside the perfect doll houses of his stories and novels.

Three books

I Left My Grandather's House (1938)

A Short Guide to Denton Welch: It would be difficult to find any more intensely cultural, or cultured world in literature than Welch's. His obsession with old churches, rambling gardens, ruling-class mansions, period furniture and all the smaller artefacts, like 'Gothic Revival toast-racks', that are special emblems of Englishness make him more English, more pre-War, and more literary in the Bloomsbury sense than any other writer of his time and place.

And yet what readers will find in all of his work, is a highly-coloured, imagistic, raw and seemingly unsophisticated style that seems to invite ridicule, before the reader realises it is his or her own psychological defences that Welch's clear, factual voice has aroused. While its grammatical construction is precise to the point of sounding stiff to our ears, Welch's language continually stimulates because it is uncensored in terms of the private experiences it unfolds. The author is continually saying what is unsayable, even 'unthinkable' in daily social life, and the anarchic result is hilarious and moving.

Like Austen or Proust, Denton Welch achieves a surgical accuracy of description of the poltroons, wasters and fops of his own class. Few writers etch the vanity of human beings with too much money and too little experience so sharply as he. But in his writing there is also a frankness about his own oddities of mind that is disarming and deceptively easy to read (as it surely is not easy to write). A passage of Welch leads us to understand how charm can have a serious evaluative meaning in prose. It is a lesson in good style. It astounds me that a person whose social world was so rarefied and hermetic could write with such sensitivity to human suffering and with no sense of self-importance or pretence.

from I Left My Grandfather's House

I had come to the edge of the moor again, where there were stone walls and green fields. Before nightfall I must find the hostel, somewhere near Gidleigh.

When I did arrive, I found the wooden hut at the back of the farm-house full of small boys. A young master was in charge of them. He came up to speak to me at once, telling me that they had come from a school in the north and that they always went for a jaunt in the summer.

The boys were rushing around, shouting and making such a noise with their feet in the flimsy shed that I could hardly hear what he said.

'We've got to have supper now,' he yelled; and he went off cheerfully to marshal his boys.

He seemed very strict and full of orders, I thought. The boys were not particularly obedient, and I heard him shout exasperatedly, 'That's not playing the game - do it properly - don't play the goat,' many times.

The boys were perfectly sure that he would not get too angry. They banged about with enamel plates and mugs; a group of them hung round him continually, waiting for orders, but doing nothing.

At last he had them all sitting at the trestle table with their bread and butter and cocoa before them. He appealed to their better natures, telling them not to be greedy or to eat nastily. All the time he was working very hard; his dark hair began to hang down limply over his white, damp forehedad, and his mouth was continually open.

The boys shouted all their jokes to him, asked him absurd questions, hung on his arms, and passed him food.

After the meal, when they had banged and rattled all their mugs and plates into the sink and wiped them on their dirty towels, they grouped round him in a spreading mass; the whole floor seemed to be covered with boys. An amazing silence reigned. What was going to happen? Were they going to pray?

The young master sat above them on the trestle table, swinging his feet. Several boys climbed up from the floor and clung around him. He shook them off half-heartedly, then decided to take their arms in his and hold them in subdued positions in this way.

'What's it going to be?' he asked all the boys with verve.

They shouted different names; the master decided on the most popular and called out:

'Very well, we'll have "Chestnut Tree".'

A roar of delight went up followed by as sudden a silence; then the singing and miming began.

The master led with athletic energy. He beat his chest, tapped his head, held out his hands, till the sweat grew in diamonds on his face. The chorus of piping shrill voices affected my curiously. It was such a green, unfeeling, assured sound. It was like listening to a room full of green parrots who knew that they were saying their pieces properly. It was a charming sound, but also very indifferent and cold.


In Youth is Pleasure (1943)

William Burroughs: 'I am writing an introduction for a German translation of Denton Welch's novel "In Youth is Pleasure". I've been running through it and underlining certain passages. I'll just read some at random. He's such a marvelous writer, the way he can make anything into something. Writers who complain that they don't have anything to write about should read Denton Welch and see what he can do with practically nothing. Like this, he borrows a boy's bicycle.

"Oh, yes", said the Stowe boy in his most tired voice, "you can borrow it for as long as you like. I loathe riding it. The saddle seems specially designed to deprive one of one's manhood; but perhaps you won't mind that."

Orvil was too happy to be pricked into any retort by the intended insult.

Orvil wished passionately that he had no body so that these remarks could never be applied to him. He felt ashamed to be in position to be deprived of his manhood. His tears made damp, chocolatery lumps out of the feathery dust. The whole surface of the river bristled with a fir of hissing raindrop, sharp as bullets."

'What a mind ! Denton Welch is actually Kim Carsons in my novel The Place of Dead Roads, which is also dedicated to Welch. I sort of kidnapped him to be my hero.'

from In Youth is Pleasure

Orvil took the book back with him to the crowded court and found a chair in a corner. His eye followed the glass trolleys axiously. A waiter approached and put down the teapot and hot-water jug of that frosted-looking silver found only in hotels. Orvil poured out a cup of tea and waited impatiently for the cakes. His eyes were already eating them up as the man steered the trolley towards him. The little cakes lay helpless on their plates and seemed to call to him. He took in at a glance the square ones covered with jam, sprinkled with coconut and topped with glistening cherries; the round shortbread ones with portholes to show the bright lemon curd inside; the small tarts of criss-cross lattice-work; the phallic chocolate and coffee eclairs, oozing fat worms of cream; the squares of sponge, enclosed in four hard slabs of chocolate and dressed with wicked green beauty-spots of pistachio nut.

Orvil had one of each sort put on a plate before him. He hardly dared ask for so many, and only achieved it by refusing to look at the waiter. He fixed his gaze on the distance until the waiter left him; then he bowed his head, opened the book, and began to eat.

The chatter and the music surged around him. The waves of sound broke through the deliciousness of the cakes, then receded and were forgotten again. Orvil was not concentrating, but the hyphenated words, 'press-up', 'knees-bend', 'trunk-turn', 'deep-breathing', jumped out from the printed page. His eyes also idly followed the diagrams of a coarse little man who squatted, thrust his legs out, and tucked his chin into his neck until a large vein, like a branching ivy stem, stood out on his forehead.

Although Orvil's eyes still looked down at the page, they gradually came to focus far beyond it. He thought of ruins lost in wooded valleys; kittens with black faces; toast in a Gothic Revival toast-rack like the nave of some miniature cathedral; lovely uncut stones reminiscent of sucked jujubes; a top-heavy georgian coffee-pot shaped like a funeral urn; his mother's minute ring-watch, the face the size of a sequin, with little diamonds winking all round it. He saw it again on her little finger, and remembered how miraculous it had always seemed.


A Voice Through a Cloud (1950)

Biographer Michael De-La-Noy: A Voice Through a Cloud was written largely during the final racking months before Welch's heart gave out. Echoing his own tragedy, it is a lyric, rebellious plaint of pain, fear and despair.

The accident itself is described in forceful, fearsome terms. "I heard a voice through a great cloud of agony and sickness," writes Welch. "The voice was asking questions. It seemed to be opening and closing like a concertina. The words were loud, as the swelling notes of an organ, then they melted to the tiniest wiry tinkle of water in a glass. I knew that I was lying on my back on the grass. I could feel the shiny blades on my neck. Bright little points glittered all down the front of the liquid man kneeling beside me. I knew at once that he was a policeman, and I thought he was performing some ritual operation on me. There was a confusion in my mind between being brought to life—forceps, navel-cords, midwives —and being put to death—ropes, axes and black masks; but whatever it was that was happening, I felt that all men came to this at last."

The novel is also devastating in ways Welch did not intend. It breaks down painfully towards the end as Welch's physical condition became so dire that he was capable only of writing one sentence at a time, and the exertion of doing even this would exhaust and sicken him so severely he would need to lie very still for hours afterwards with a cold compress on his forehead until he regained the strength to add another sentence. The last few pages become insensible and the novel ends abruptly with Welch's final, inconclusive thought.

from A Voice Through a Cloud

One day a specialist was in the ward, examining a patient, when the patient fell down in front of him in a fit. The patient was a fat middle-aged man; he shrieked and trembled and rolled on the floor, as if he were wallowing in mud. It was a terrifying and grotesque sight, but the specialist watched it with a smile on his face. He neither raised the patient up nor prevented him from cutting his head on the corner of the bedside locker.

When at last the convulsions had subsided and the patient, with blood on his face, looked up bewildered, the specialist's smile grew even more Buddhistic and bland and he said in a fluting voice, so that other people should hear, 'Well, I must say there's one improvement this week - you're falling so much more gracefully!'

He gave a light little well-bred laugh, which at once raised up in my mind a picture of some woman with enormous bust measurement, swathed in strainingly tight red velvet. He seemed delighted with his own urbane, unsentimental wit, and I felt that at that moment he would have used the words 'heartless elegance' about himself. He seemed really to be living for a moment in his own conception of an eighteenth-century French marquise in her brilliant salon.

I suddenly began to hate the specialist for his clownish show of vanity and facetiousness. I hated him so much that my face began to burn. I felt insulted and outraged; I wanted to have the specialist publicly beaten in front of all the staring patients. I imagined his black pin-striped trousers being taken down, and his squeals of shame and pain ringing through the ward.


Hey. The great Denton Welch is up today. You really should read him if you haven't. On my end, if plans have gone the way we planned, today Zac and I will be driving for approximately six hours from Puerto Natales, Chile to El Calafate, Argentina where we will turn in our rental car and then head by bus or shuttle or something into La Anita Valley, where will spend the next three plus days continuing our Patagonia experience. Sound nice? I bet it is.


Thomas Moronic said...

Oh man, Denton Welch is so good. Another writer who I was introduced to via this place, Dennis. His stuff is beautiful. I remember liking this post the first time round and it's a very welcome rerun, too. I like Alan Bennett's description up top.

When I was visiting Texas in 2008 I requested to see the original manuscripts for Welch's stuff. I saw the handwritten version of In Youth is Pleasure, some of his notebook; really beautiful stuff and sitting as close to the paper as he was when he wrote it ... very weird in the nicest of ways.

DavidEhrenstein said...

I gave Jack Smith a copy of In Youth is Pleasure to read about a year before he died. He loved it.

As will you.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Latest FaBlog: I Walked With A Chomsky

Chilly Jay Chill said...

Denton Welch! Great to see this post. This reminds me that I need to upgrade my yellowing crumbling old paperbacks to those lovely Exact Change editions.

Hope you're having a wonderful trip, Dennis. Look forward to hearing about Patagonia if you get internet access. Have you read the Bruce Chatwin book about the place?

I got the wildly unexpected news that Mira Corpora is a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize for first fiction. Been stunned and giddy all day!

Loved your answers to the questionnaire post yesterday. I'm not familiar with the Bas Jan Ader video you mentioned. Apparently there's a dvd that includes a doc about him and his video works. Have you seen that doc? Are all his videos worth checking out?

Hope all's well with you and Zac!

steevee said...

Here's my review of the Romanian film CHILD'S POSE.

gary gray said...

this rerun is new to me. wow i must discover more of of his work. is mesmerizing how he using language. jezz i can't find the words. tomorrow will be a full day for me looking into his works. very exciting. thanks for the rerun.

well, maybe it will have to wait. tomorrow i start my journey to nyc. oddly enough i'm more excited about learning about Denton Welch