"I heard a voice through a great cloud of agony and sickness. The voice was asking questions. It seemed to be opening and closing like a concertina. The words were loud, as the swelling noises of an organ. Then they melted to the tiniest, wiry tinkle of water in a glass."
Often, when both the flesh and spirit seem weak, I think of the English writer and painter Denton Welch (1915-1948) who endured great physical hardship during his short life and produced a remarkable body of work.
Welch published his first novel, Maiden Voyage, in 1943. It tells the story of a boy growing up in China, then at an English boarding school which he bolted, and then back in China. Eight years prior to this, during his student days at Goldsmiths' College of Art, Welch was grieviously injured when his bicycle was struck by a car during a trip from London into Surrey. His crushed spine was treated during painful hospital and sanitorium stays over an extended of months (prior to antibiotic treatment of infections) and he never fully recovered. The accident and its aftermath form the basis for his unfinished final novel A Voice Through A Cloud, which is commonly accounted his masterpiece.
Portrait of Denton Welch by Gerald McKenzie Leet, 1935
I discriminate between Welch's books of fiction (including novels and short stories) mostly on the basis of my mood, i.e., what I feel like reading at the moment. They're not for all moods because they're so piercing, but I can recommend all of them. Some critics describe and, by implication, deride his range (in terms of subject matter chosen and prose style) as narrow. It is true that you can certainly chart Welch's "progress" by noticing that some stories seem to reappear and be retold later in new guises.
Denton Welch working on the 1783 Dolls' House
Welch's Journals, which were published posthumously in 1952, are an extraordinary and integral part of his work. They fill in factual blanks and holes for the curious reader because, as has often been observed, Welch's work is nakedly autobiographical.
"I have been eating my lunch in the fields nearby (Ryvita, cheese, apricot jam, chocolate, bar of squashed dried fruits, coffee), sitting on my coral air-cushion, given me by May, reading for the fourth or fifth time an outline of the Brontë sisters' lives.......this is what goes on in nineteen-forty-three, the year of the greatest war to stop all wars, if I have the quotation right. Now I shall leave this cool church and this medieval fresco and get on my bicycle again. This may be read about in years to come and then people will know what I did on this June day."
For that reason, because Welch's principal subject matter was himself and his own life -- the objects he observed, studied and collected; his intense, yet distracted and peevish relationships; the foods he ate when he felt well and his appetite was keen; the scents and fragrances he adored when he could journey outdoors and picnic -- and because he wrote so precisely and so well, reading the Journals is immensely interesting and intensely uplifting. They are multi-leveled art and never cease to yield new pleasures and insights into the human struggle to be decently human.
Denton Welch: The Coffin House (top); Cover for A Last Sheaf (bottom)
I've come to like Welch's visual art a great deal and wish I owned a piece of it. Both his painting and graphic art show a sense of line, color and touch that are uniquely "crabby", haunting and slightly irritating. It definitely gets under your skin. As far as I know, however, Welch is still considered an "acquired taste" and isn't a part of anyone's standard curriculum of 20th century British art, although his magnificent restored 18th century dolls' house is on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum of Childhood in London.
As a final note, for anyone who might find this interesting, we were introduced to Denton Welch's work in 1985 by Neil Tennant, one of the Pet Shop Boys, who bought Caroline a copy of Maiden Voyage because he loved Welch's novels and wanted to spread the word to people he thought might be interested. Caroline was working at the time as a publicist for EMI Records in New York and had the pleasure of working with the PSBs during their initial string of excellent hit singles (West End Girls, It's A Sin, What Have I Done To Deserve This?). Neil was (and I imagine still is) a lovely, thoughtful person and this was the only time a rock star ever turned us on to a great literary artist.
"I hope you have not been worrying about me. I am quite all right but I will never go back to school. I have a very nice room here with hot and cold water. The cathedral is lovely and I have been wandering all over it."
"I was so full of joy that I ran down the lane and over the fields, until I was exhausted. I felt like a person full of power and skill. I was no longer part of the dead old system. I could bear anything now till the end of term."
Denton Welch with antique angel (top), Self-Portrait 1938 (middle), Madonna and Angel (bottom)