This is another in a series that has been forming here over the years without me realizing it: musings on favorite books. Whether it's true or not, on general principle I will say that spoilers abound here, so if such things bother you, don't read this essay. I'll be talking about bird feeders, or dogs, or something else soon. The quotations in the essay all come from:
Renault, Mary. The Charioteer. New York: Pantheon Books, 1974
At one point in The Charioteer, by Mary Renault, Laurence Odell (Laurie, or Spud to his friends) is rereading Plato’s The Phaedrus, a book he has found deeply inspiring since adolescence. When a friend asks him to describe it, he is momentarily stymied for many reasons, but one of the biggest is “it had been a part of his mind’s furniture for years…” (p.108). This is as good as any description of my relationship with The Charioteer. It has been a touchstone for me since I first picked it up thirty-five years ago. Trying to describe that relationship, however, has proven elusive; I doubt I’ll ever be able to do it effectively. I suppose it’s like trying to describe any important long-term relationship. I've probably read it dozens, even scores of times, and almost every reading has revealed something new. I think the book is wiser than I am, with insights that wait patiently for me to see only when I’m ready for them. It has anticipated and marked key changes in my life and gave me hope at key points. I would even go so far to say it had a hand in shaping my ethics.
I have a fairly clear memory of the first time I saw the book. It was lying out on a counter or table at home, allowing me to glance at the blurb on the front cover. “Against a background of war and pain, a young man confronts his own homosexuality—an intimate novel of love and courage!” I had felt different all my life, in a way that I intuited was shameful and required hiding, but it wasn't until I was twelve that I knew to label it as homosexuality. That word on the cover seemed to scream at me in neon letters; I picked it up, hoping for answers.
When I think about that action now, I marvel at how little terror I felt. I had sought out information on the subject before that day, looking up the word in the dictionary—a step that came with little risk, and just as much satisfaction—and I think I had even come across some books in local bookstores before this, but buying them was out of the question. What if someone found them in my possession, and connected the dots? Hell, how could I possibly face the cashier in the store? Only recently have I wondered if the book was lying out because someone else was reading it. Yet somehow I felt uncharacteristically safe absconding with it and adding it to my collection, where it remains, dog-eared, yellowed and scotch-taped. I think I was just lucky to grow up with parents who were exhaustive and eclectic readers. My childhood home was stuffed with books; no one was likely to miss this one.
How to describe that first reading? It stands to reason that it would be the hardest one to describe. It’s the furthest back chronologically, buried by all other experiences, and rooted in my least developed self. I just remember that first reading felt like a lightning bolt. Here, in a WWII-era British army hospital, was a man with my thoughts and feelings, including many I hadn't been able to put my finger on yet. If I remind you how terrifying and shameful those thoughts had been, maybe it will make more sense why I felt such relief to find them being explored, free of hysteria or disgust. Feelings that had been horrifying and overwhelming suddenly seemed valid. My intellect was touched and challenged, sure, but the sense of being understood was the real impact.
The novel shows Laurie having a similar epiphany. He has just met Andrew, and is quietly reveling in his new understanding. He imagines the letter he wishes he could write to his mother:
I have fallen in love. I now know something about myself which I have been suspecting for years, if I had the honesty to admit it. I ought to be frightened and ashamed, but I’m not. Since I can see no earthly hope for this attachment, I should be wretched, but I am not. I know now why I was born, why everything has happened to me ever… Oddly enough, what I feel most is relief, because I now know that what kept me fighting it for so long was the fear that what I was looking for didn't exist.” (p.57)
Though it was the portrayal of love between men that most resonated with me, there were other aspects of the book I also appreciated. As a Quaker kid in a conservative small town, I loved the honest, nuanced portrait of Andrew and his pacifism. He is given the chance to make his case eloquently, and his challengers respect him, even as they make some good arguments too. This theme contributed to the feeling the book had been written expressly for me in some unimaginable, intuitive way.
As passionately as I loved the book though, even then I didn't consider it flawless. For one thing I resented the way the picture faded to black any time physical intimacy loomed between the characters. Yes, basic teenage randiness was part of the equation, but I was also just desperate for some instruction. Furtive perusal of my parents’ books in the living room had provided me some informative straight erotica, in the form of Lady Chatterly’s Lover and The Delta of Venus, but gay stuff was elusive (the story in Delta detailing the gang rape of a schoolboy, was not comforting). Mary Renault conveys the emotional impact of the sex beautifully and I can appreciate that now, but at the time I found her discretion irritating.
I also resented Renault’s casual acceptance of Freud’s explanation for the causes of homosexuality. The first pages of the book seem to exist only so we can learn that Laurie lost his weak-willed, alcoholic father at five, being then raised exclusively by his mother. “Laurie was used to the idea that his father had been a bad lot. It did not consciously disturb him, since he had been brought up, for almost as long as he could remember, to think of himself as wholly his mother’s child.” (p. 10) A significant subplot of the book deals with Laurie’s closeness to his mother, including his resentment, or let’s be frank, jealousy of her new husband, and while it introduces some illuminating conflicts in the form of Laurie’s stepfather, even back then, with my disapproval of homosexuality essentially unchallenged and my knowledge of Freud slight, I still found it ridiculous to imply Laurie’s homosexuality had been caused by a smothering mother.
The character of Andrew gets painted with the same brush; we learn quickly that he lost his father early in life, and was ‘brought up a Quaker by his mother, to whom, obviously, he had been passionately devoted. If half he said about her were true, she had been an exceptionally gifted saint. When he spoke of her Laurie saw, as he had never seen in him at other times, a strain of fanaticism.” (p.86). Because Renault’s insights were so rich and detailed most of the time, I found this unquestioned reliance on Freud disappointing.
The first reading had another, more unfortunate impact as well. Though it probably can’t be blamed for planting this idea, it nonetheless helped flesh out, or at least failed to challenge the notion that there were good gays—noble, brave, stoic, hard-working and above all masculine—and bad gays—conniving, weak-willed, soft, but let’s be honest, their greatest crime was effeminacy. The book also states outright at least once that the good gays will be much harder to find, overwhelmed by the hordes of sissies.
At a gay party Laurie has reluctantly attended because he hopes his boyhood hero, Ralph Lanyon, might attend, he has this thought: “after years of muddled thought on the subject, he suddenly saw quite clearly what he’d been running away from all those years…it was the…trouble with nine-tenths of the people here tonight. They were specialists. They had not merely accepted their limitations, as Laurie was ready to accept his, loyal to his humanity if not to his sex, and bringing an extra humility to the hard study of human experience. They had identified themselves with their limitations; they were making a career of them. They had turned from all other reality, and curled up in them snugly, as if in a womb.” (p.141)*
Earlier in the same scene, we’re given a few more reasons for Laurie’s discomfort. Here is his reaction upon first meeting the group: “he became aware that the conversation had a poised, tentative feel. The unspoken query in the air became as unmistakable as a shout. Deciding it was no business of his to resolve it, he threw the onus on Sandy by the simple means of asking to go and wash…He recognized Sandy’s changed voice which he had heard from the landing: it was the voice of Charles’ friends. Suddenly he imagined Lanyon frisking in and speaking like that.” (Pp.122-3) Without having met a single gay man (at least as far as I knew), I recognized this scenario; perhaps special credit should be given to Monty Python for acquainting me with the specific British interpretations early in life. I knew what ‘frisking’ looked like. I knew what ‘that voice’ sounded like. And you better believe I shared Laurie’s squirming distaste for it all.
Laurie is reunited with Ralph, who much to his relief does not frisk in, or speak ‘like that.’ Indeed his effortless masculinity and gruff sailor manners are repeatedly set in contrast with fellow after fellow in the room; in each encounter his status not just as alpha male but as higher being is established with economy. He doesn't best them; few of them are deemed worthy even of notice. And when one of his actions implies a proprietary claim on Laurie, the latter takes note of its presumption, but mostly just appreciates the relief it affords him from unwanted attention.
During the course of that first evening, Laurie tells Ralph about his first brush with this alien world. “There was a man at Oxford. It was all rather silly. He looked a bit like one of the less forceful portraits of Byron. It wasn't so much he himself who attracted me, though up to a point he did. There are always certain people at Oxford who seem to hold a key. I didn't know what I expected he’d let me into, Newstead Abbey by moonlight or something. He kept telling me I was queer and I’d never heard it called that before and I didn't like it. The word, I mean. Shutting you away, somehow; roping you off with a lot of other people you don’t feel much in common with, half of whom hate the other half anyway, and just keep together so they can lean up against other for support…I started to meet his friends. I’d imagined a lot of exquisite people it would be hard work getting to know, but they were all horribly eager, and it wasn't because they liked me really, I could tell that.” (Pp.163-4)
At age twelve, sad to say, these ideas resonated with me as much as anything did in the book. It seemed to confirm my suspicions that the odds were against me finding fellow travelers. I took it as proof that the best I could hope for was the kind of solitary existence Laurie has led, reflected in the character of Alec; “…he recognized a speaker of his own language; another solitary making his own maps, his few certainties gripped with a rather desperate strength.” (p.124)
So, as much as I loved this book, as much as it seemed to resonate down to my deepest foundations, I still didn't believe it. I thought it was a nice fairy tale, maybe the first one that actually spoke to me, but a fairy tale nonetheless. I assumed Ralph states fact when he gives Laurie his copy of The Phaedrus; “read it when you've got a minute…it doesn't exist anywhere in real life, so don’t let it give you illusions. It’s just a nice idea.” (p.29) I appreciated the empathy I found in the novel, but my view of the world remained hopeless at its core.
Even so, the book was already working on me, calling me to higher standards. One incident springs to mind; at a party when I was thirteen, I was thrilled to find myself in a dark room making out with a nice girl. I began to hope this might prove I was curable. The girl took my hand and slid it inside her jeans. The invitation I believed I was receiving suddenly seemed not just appealing, but positively life-changing. Then a scene in the book, with Laurie in a similar situation, flashed into my mind. “Then suddenly he felt delighted with himself. After this nothing would ever be exactly the same, one’s limitations would never seem quite so irrevocably fixed. At this moment she linked her arms around his neck and for the first time kissed him of her own accord. He saw her face; it brought him down to earth with a jolt. He remembered now who was paying for all this.”(p.273) I politely declined the invitation, eventually finding a way to end the make-out session too. The girl was undoubtedly mystified and I’m sure felt rejected; I don’t claim that my actions were brave or noble, but at the time I felt I was making the harder, more ethical choice, for her sake as well as mine. I was still years away from even considering coming out, but at that point the book made pretending to pursue girls no longer justifiable. “Remember who is paying for this” became a phrase I would say to myself, whenever I felt tempted to hide in some nice girl’s feelings.
I probably dipped back into the book a few times over the next few years, but the next pivotal reading was in the winter of 1986. I had come out in the last few weeks to my immediate family and closest friends, and felt content that the rest of the world could find out if and when it needed to. Over all the experience had been free of drama or conflict. I was lucky; everyone I told responded with love and support, even when they copped to worries later. As ready as I was to be out though, I still largely felt ‘unclubbable.’ Some of that was probably valid; friendships based on full honesty were still fairly new in my life, so nurturing the ones I already had seemed like a good idea. But I can see now I also held onto the good gay/bad gay paradigm learned from Laurie and Ralph. There weren't many openly gay men on my college campus; the few that I was aware of I felt I had nothing in common with. I was also vaguely aware that indeed, half of them seemed to hate the other half, and I wanted no part of it. For the time being, it felt safest to keep making my own maps. And yes, I was still afraid I’d be surrounded by fellows ‘frisking’ and ‘speaking like that’. My homophobia had been years in the making, with the full weight of society behind it; it would take a few more years for it to erode to any useful degree.
This notwithstanding, when I reread The Charioteer this time, I felt a new solace. Now the complexity and verisimilitude of the characters made me hope that they might actually exist. I still hadn't met anyone like Andrew, nor even like Ralph, but I no longer thought it was impossible.
By funny coincidence the previous year I had read The Phaedrus for a Humanities class, so I now also had a better sense of how Plato’s work influenced the novel structurally and thematically. The characters’ search for and commitment to ideal forms of ethical systems was one clear influence. I appreciated how the place Laurie and Andrew have their first serious discussion mirrors the location where Socrates and Phaedrus have theirs: a sunny slope, shade trees, even a babbling brook, all perfect for an assignation. I may even have begun to see how my reaction to The Charioteer and Laurie’s reaction to The Phaedrus all resembled the shock of recognition Socrates describes as the true lover’s response to glimpsing his patron god in the character of the beloved.
It was this reading that also garnered the book a bit of a soundtrack. My roommate Peter had gotten a cassette with both Yaz albums as a Christmas present and he and I fell in love with it. All that winter it stayed in the stereo—with auto-reverse—and we listened to nothing else. Allison Moyet’s soulful, androgynous voice and Vince Clark’s surprisingly emotional synthesizers are now woven the book for me. Ralph and Laurie taking a nighttime drive through the blacked-out British countryside, makes me hear Ode to Boy:
When he drives I love to watch his hands,
Smooth, almost feminine, almost American.**
The song Midnight also conjurs the atmosphere of the book, though not any specific scene.
Midnight, it’s raining outside,
He must be soaking wet.
Everyone is sleeping tight,
God knows, I've tried my best,
But Darling you know it looks bad,
Just lost the best thing that I ever had,
Still I don’t know why I did him wrong
It’s too late now, he’s gone.
I was nineteen. The book still had deep emotional impact, but it was starting to take on greater intellectual richness now too. I think my passionate embrace of Yaz (seriously, Peter and I listened to nothing else for nine weeks) echoed the lightning bolt of feeling the book had triggered in my twelve year old self. Probably no one else in the world equates that music with that novel the way I do. It’s a little quirk of my personal history that I suspect gave me another booster shot of passion right when I needed it. I was still pretty cynical, but the book was helping to erode that too.
Skip forward a few more years, I'd graduated college, and moved with friends to Seattle. The Charioteer was one of maybe six books I brought along with me on the trip, chosen consciously as security blankets. Reading it now, after three or so years of getting more comfortable in my skin, I saw with some amusement that maybe I had now become the kind of gay man Ralph and Laurie would have found off-putting. I frequently wore bracelets for one example, something that is singled out for opprobrium at least twice in the book. I had tried to make peace with whatever innate androgyny I might have, and no longer believed effeminacy was the greatest crime a gay man could commit. Though I don’t remember having it explicitly confirmed at any point, I strongly suspected that at least a few closeted men had watched me with horror from the shadows, much as I had watched some of my gay brothers in years past. This suspicion, true or not, humbled me. Though I still loved the novel, still honored it for what it had given me, I began to make allowances for parts of it, the way one does for hidebound relatives. “It was a different time,” I told myself. “Don’t judge the past by the standards of the present. Had I been alive in WWII era England, I’d have thought the same way. Hell, I was thinking that way less than five years ago.” Essentially I believed I had grown past the book; it had helped shape me and given me much to be grateful for, but now I was going where the characters, and possibly Renault herself, would not follow.
From this place of greater relaxation, I began to appreciate the humor and exquisite language more. Laurie, receiving the dreaded invitation to his mother’s wedding, tells his friend Reg, “Don’t you wish your name was Gareth? ...That’s what my stepfather-elect’s called. I suppose he was conceived with Tennyson in limp suede sitting in the po-cupboard.” Reg, in an airplane splint for his broken shoulder is described “as awkward in crowds as an antlered stag.”(p.95) Renault’s perception and economy with words are never more evident than when she’s portraying drunk people. Ralph, after he’s had a few, says, “You see Spud, if you will interrupt yourself without previous notice in this arbitrary and irrational manner, you must put up with a bit of disorganization.”
“What was that?”
“Don’t be unreasonable. I can’t keep saying arbitrary and irrational just to please you.”
Maybe best of all, the party scene that had once so horrified me now became touching and hilarious. Even while many of the secondary characters remained ridiculous (nor did they lose their Monty Python qualities), they no longer struck me as pathetic as they once had. I had greater sympathy for the camping queens, especially as I noticed how many of them were in fact soldiers, squeezed past endurance by a struggling war effort and a repressive culture. The humor was still there, usually still at someone’s expense, but the characters became more human for me. I no longer despised them the way Ralph and Laurie did. Strangely, I still wasn't separating Renault from her characters in a clear way, and assumed that in this matter they probably spoke her mind. This became the biggest rift between me and the book, the place where I felt I needed to make the greatest allowance for that beloved but hidebound relative.
I couldn't tell you how many more times I've read it since then, though I've probably visited at least once a decade. I’m now old enough to have fathered any of those young men. Previously they had always been older, wiser and more experienced, leading the way for me. I think I was in my thirties when I began to notice the characters’ youth instead of their maturity. While I still admired their ethical strivings, now I recognized the polarities, rigidities, and self-righteousness people their age are prone to. The demands they make on themselves are exacting, often admirably so, but they're likely to judge failure, their own and others', harshly. They're hard on each other, and themselves, in the ways only high-minded young people (okay, especially young men) can be.
This shift in view probably first allowed me to see Renault’s quiet presence as something separate from them. Her observations are always so discreet, her intrusions so delicate, that I had rarely taken note of them before; this, even as they probably quietly formed some of the most solid blocks in my ethical foundation. Laurie is unquestionably a insightful and compassionate observer, but Renault gently steps in whenever his limitations need to be addressed or bypassed. Any time Laurie’s age is mentioned, it’s a good bet Renault is sharing an insight Laurie hasn't yet learned. “At twenty-three, one is not frightened off a conversation merely by the fear of its becoming intense. But intensity can be a powerful solvent of thin and brittle protective surfaces, and at twenty-three one is well aware of this.” (p.75) “Laurie’s mind withdrew, after a time, to a middle distance behind his eyes, where he thought about Andrew. He solved no problems, nor attempted it; he made no plans. He was twenty three: he received infinite consolation and joy merely from the contemplation of Andrew’s being.” (p.97-8) "They were both young enough to be capable of solemn abstract discussion about love..." (p.275) Occasionally we take a brief detour inside someone else’s head, where Renault’s presence is a bit easier to notice. “Matron had just arrived, and done a round. She came poking into the ward, her petticoat showing slightly, defensively frigid; she had been promoted beyond her dreams and it had been a Nessus’ shirt to her. Homesick for her little country nursing home, she peered down the lines of beds, noting with dismay how many men were up and at large, rough men with rude, cruel laughter, who wrote things on walls, who talked about women, who got V.D. (but then one was able to transfer them elsewhere). She was wretched, but her career was booming.” (p.61)***
Separating Renault out from her righteous, rigid, young characters showed me she probably wasn't judging the camping queens (or anyone) as harshly as they did. The queens are still funny, and she probably doesn't expect us to admire them when they’re squealing and gossiping, but her view is ultimately compassionate.
In the last year I've had a surprising—and amusing—new insight into Laurie. Because we spend most of the book inside Laurie’s head, we grow used to how perceptive and sensitive he is. Other characters laud him for it, as Reg does here. “What I mean, they say put yourself in the other chap’s place. But what I reckon, it’s more of a knack, see, and not many people got it. Now you got it, Spud. You got it more than anyone I know. So stands to reason, you expect it back, that’s human nature. Well, you’re out of luck, Spud, that’s all. (p.96) I had accepted,maybe identified with the image of Laurie as the sensitive, gentle type for decades. Then, for whatever reason, this comment from Ralph caught my eye like new. “‘Your spontaneous reactions are going to land you in a lot of trouble, if you don’t watch out.’” (p. 28). I laughed out loud; he was right! Laurie acts impulsively all over the damn place! Entire plot points hang on some of his ill-advised ‘spontaneous reactions’. Social gaffes, irritated outbursts and impulsive actions abound. “Carter…was not the only one to find Laurie’s conversation disconcertingly uninhibited. The innuendo, more generally approved, was apt when it reached him to be smacked into the open with the directness of a fives ball.” (p.14) “Reg…usually covered up Laurie’s social gaffes, but this one was serious.” (p.47) A central pivot in the action occurs when Laurie, awaiting his surgeon—and likely bad news—during rounds, notices one of the med students in the group. “His glance lingered on Laurie; slid away with a flick of his light eyelashes; slid back and lingered again, cautiously, as a fly settles. Laurie, whose nerves were strained, began to be irritated. In heaven’s name, he thought, why so shy? ...the young man looked at him again. Rapidly, Laurie caught his eye before he could disengage it, and gave him a deliberately dazzling smile. As he had confidently expected, the young man went crimson, and merged himself deeply in the throng. I do hope, thought Laurie, he won’t decide later to write me a little note. But no, I don’t think he puts much in writing. To a nunnery go, why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?” (pp.40-1) While no little notes occur, sometime later Laurie does run into him again, and finds himself essentially in the man’s debt. “[Laurie] had told himself, at the time, that one day one of these little jokes would come home to roost.”(p.117)
Once viewed, this character trait was so glaringly obvious that I couldn't believe I’d never seen it before. Laurie is as much loose cannon as he is compassionate thinker, but it took me over thirty years to see it. This discovery gives me hope that the book will continue to surprise and move me, even now when I'm probably the same age as the author was when she wrote it, give or take a few years. I've never really looked for all the ways The Phaedrus shapes it, for example. How often do wagons with pairs of horses show up, even just ambling past, and how much should I make of that? How often does she use the words ‘convention’ or ‘orthodox’ and is there anything to learn there? I feel confident that The Charioteer and I will continue to grow old together.
Gushing about anything makes me feel exposed and vulnerable; doing it over a book seems especially risky. The subjectivity of experience, especially regarding works of art, means that something I find moving may hit others as boring, sentimental, or even (yipe!) offensive.^ I’m sure I’m especially sensitive with this one though, because the epic emotions of the scared twelve year old still underpin the relationship. Age (and additional readings) may have deepened my appreciation and given me better language to describe it, but at the core there remains that lightning bolt of recognition, and the sudden hope that maybe I was not sick or alone after all.
*And did I accept without question the word ‘limitation’ back then? Probably.
** No, I don't know why she equates feminine with American. Just go with it. I do.
*** Renault had been an army nurse during WWII; her descriptions of army hospitals, and her forays into the minds of nurses, are always insightful and fun.
^For starters, a case could be made for some pretty shabby portrayals of women in the book, on the rare occasion they happen at all. I'd argue this is more a function of the inherent sexism of the characters than a failing of Renault's, but David Sweetman, in his biography of her, might disagree.