on 25 November 2013
The Charioteer is a beautifully written and extraordinarily perceptive novel, detailing the life and relationships of a young soldier confined to hospital in the days after Dunkirk. An extremely vivid evocation of time and place, it is also one of those subtle works that is likely to linger in the memory, growing in force, long after it has been read.
While Renault deserves credit for her unusual choice of subject matter (in the context of the early '50s), the fact that the novel addresses homosexuality may in fact serve to distract from what is, in the end, a powerful and moving exploration of love, loss and the complexities of lived experience as opposed to inflexible ideals of existence.
This novel was published fifty years ago and has now been given the status of a gay classic. It's a sensitive, psychological study of a triangular relationship set on the home front during the second world war, starring Laurie, a young soldier recovering from a shattered leg in hospital, Andrew, a hospital orderly and conscientious objector with whom he is in love throughout the book, and Ralph, a seaman, who once saved his life at Dunkirk and who is in love with Laurie too. The book is about Laurie's moral and emotional journey towards an understanding of himself, his needs and desires as a gay man, and of those closest to him. It's also an evocation of the shadowy climate of concealment, prejudice and the fear of exposure in which such men were forced to live during those dark times.
In a generous introduction to this new edition, the actor Simon Russell Beale tells us how important such novels were to men of his generation, hungrily looking for an affirmation of who they were and what was good and noble about their (criminalised) feelings. It was a brave novel to write. Countless gay men of the time must have been deeply grateful for it.
It's a compelling read; the story, the characterisation and the setting is strong, one cares strongly about what happens to the main characters (though Andrew is underplayed in contrast to the other two). There are a host of interesting minor characters too - Reg, the working-class friend of Laurie; Mr Straike, Laurie's pompous stepfather; Mervyn, the little boy he befriends in the next hospital bed; Nurse Adrian (also in love with Laurie - why weren't her feelings foregrounded too?); not to mention the crowd of gay men whom Laurie encounters at a gay party early on, his entrée to a gay world he does not feel part of.
But time has revealed some serious flaws. Even allowing for the circumspection required of gay authors then, it's strangely obscure in many of its situations and conversation, as other reviewers have noted here. I was often left scratching my head wondering what was being alluded to or left unsaid. The action is mostly set in hospital wards: this has the subliminal - and unintentional - effect of saying: look what a sick world these people live in. This is compounded by making both heroes - Laurie and Ralph - physically as well as psychologically damaged, again symbolically saying: these are not whole men, their lives are blighted forever. Was Renault aware of the effect of this? I doubt it; but it's there. In addition, a lot of soul-searching introspection goes on; gay people are divided into the reprehensible (the queers) or the noble (our heroes) - fair enough, as Beale says, but it still leaves a bad taste in the mouth. There is a claustrophobic feel about the whole narrative too - its like being in a big dusty room with all the shutters closed. For these reasons I was left feeling ambivalent about this book, admiring it rather than liking it.
But thank heavens we did not end with a doomy death, thus avoiding the depressing pattern of so many early gay novels - I was dreading that. One can argue about the eventual outcome - who will Laurie settle on, Andrew or Ralph? I, for one felt he'd made the wrong choice, but that's very much up for discussion - but the lead up to it, and the central importance of it, makes this, as Sarah Waters says, a deeply romantic book. The emphasis is on the search for love, not sex - which, not surprisingly though a little oddly, is largely absent from the account.
Judged by the standards of today's gay novels, this feels stiff, old-fashioned, tight-lipped, and limited, yet still with a lot of power and with something compelling about it. Judged by the standards of fifty years ago it must have seemed brave, inspiring, revolutionary, exciting, as well as deeply informative. Given this, it difficult to know how to place this novel. One thing I can say, though - read it. Virago were definitely right to reprint it.
on 26 December 2013
The Charioteer is a pioneering novel of gay love, just republished in this edition. When first published in 1953, it could not be sold in the USA. It is of its time in that it buys into the notion that Laurie, the central character, has become gay following his parents' divorce i.e. deprived of a father at an early age; and in its binary approach: between quasi-platonic same-sex love, on the one hand, and embrace of 'queer' society: underground, furtive and potentially shady, on the other. Laurie is torn between Andrew, who embodies the first quality, and Ralph, who has lived his sexuality and confronts Laurie with an agonising choice.
As a child of the 50s, I can empathise with Mary Renault's depiction. There were no voluntarily 'out' gay men. Gay men either suppressed their sexuality (the choice Andrew appears, in part at least, to represent) or they lived out their sexuality in secret, or at best in private, knowing that their reputations, their family ties and their careers (certainly so in the case of Laurie and Ralph who are both enlisted in WW II Britain in the book)and their freedom from prosecution and imprisonment were all in constant peril.
That is where Renault's book achieves greatness. She conveys all that tension and conflict while allowing her central characters to be, in the best sense, romantic heroes: real, admirable and searching for something which is both beautiful and attainable.
Of course, by today's standards the book is circumspect in its language. It could not otherwise have been published at all. But just as Trollope, a century earlier, never used the word 'adultery' while making it perfectly clear to his readers what was going on, so Renault does the same. And, like Trollope, she has an amazing ability to unwrap human nature and emotions.
on 20 May 2015
There's nothing that I can add to the many , far more eloquent reviews on this book- but- I've read and 're-read it many times and each time found another layer revealed. It's a beautiful, slow moving and very tender portrayal of a man trying to lead a moral life and be true to himself. If you like multi layered, allegorical and complex writing than you,'ll love this. I loved every word of Renault 's spare, elegant sometimes oblique writing and certainly count this as one of my favourite books ever.
on 13 December 2015
"The writing is ... often (perhaps of necessity) so oblique that its meaning is not infrequently impenetrable." So writes David Gladwell (q.v.) and so say I. Other reviewers mention this, but don't seem as bothered as myself. For me, it destroys the book's credibility. If you can't understand what is being said at the simplest - or indeed any - level, (surely a sine qua non?) then the book is a failure.
It is a great shame because the comprehensible parts of the narration are often insightful and interesting.
on 4 July 2016
I find this a stunning story each time I read it.
Its central theme of homosexuality should not blind one to the complex characters and circumstances faced and the overwhelming message of hope.
It really is, still, an emotional roller coaster.
on 9 December 2013
I got this because it was the Radio 4 book of the week & while it sounded good I missed bits etc. I really enjoyed it - finished it in a weekend.
So it's about Laurie, this young gay guy & the events of probably about 6 months whie he's in hospital after a knee injury he got at Dunkirk in WW2.
The plot had me me turning the pages waiting to see what happened. There were some bits of it (maybe 4-5 episodes, a page at most each) which were quite subtle & I had to read a couple of times to work out exactly what had happenned, a bit like if you're reading a play. But I quite liked that really as guess a lot of things would have to be on a nod & a wink & I suppose I got it enough to know I had missed something! I really didn't find this an issue at all like the other reviewer did. I think there's still more to get out of it on a second reading & think I'd like to try some of the author's other books.
on 12 March 2015
My dog-eared 1959 paperback of this gay 'classic' has a startling front cover blurb: "Three men plunged into a struggle with their unnatural love." Probably not the pitch they're using in the current re-issue.
It's 1940. Laurie Odell has been repatriated with other wounded servicemen from Dunkirk. In a military hospital in the West Country he develops a crush on Andrew, a shy young conscientious objector consigned to ward orderly duties as an alternative to prison. At a louche party (men dancing with each other: quick, bring smelling salts!) Laurie is reunited with injured sailor Ralph, on whom he had a crush at boarding school; Ralph was expelled from their school for misbehaviour that is only hinted at.
Rather a lot is only hinted at as, in the midst of war, a gay 'love-triangle' develops.There's a lot of talk and no 'action'. A single chaste kiss; a couple of sex-scenes that take place off the page (like those in Gone With the Wind and most novels of the '40s and '50s). The book's best chapter is the wedding when Laurie's mother's remarries, full of precision-honed awkwardness. Of the three men, Laurie is still firmly closeted; Ralph is 'out', at least to his friends; Andrew doesn't know enough to think of it as a closet.
Words like 'rent' and 'queen' and 'cottage' were already in use in the 1940s, although 'gay' is not used in the sense we have for it now. When Renault describes the room in which the party is taking place, the furnishings include 'various poufs', which clearly would be edited out if it was being written today.
THE CHARIOTEER, which first came out, so to speak, in 1953, is painfully slow, very dated and more than a little 'twee', similar in many respects to Forster's Edwardian-era MAURICE. Nevertheless (again like MAURICE) it is an important and deeply felt novel about homosexual love. It was daring in its day and clearly sent out a plea for understanding and tolerance. The men in the story are living with the ever-present threat of what happened to Alan Turing: exposure, shame, arrest and the choice between imprisonment and chemical castration.
on 22 December 2013
This is a classic of gay literature. It was published in 1953, 14 years before the decriminalisation of homosexuality (and then only between men aged at least 21). It was a brave story to write in the 1950s. But the story is set in the early years of the Second World War when death was all around and traditional social (and sexual) attitudes were changing fast.
If the past is ever a foreign country, this is it. Attitudes have changed so much that it is sometimes a struggle to understand the closeted way people think about sexuality in this novel.
Mary Renault, probably out of necessity, is coy about what the lovers do with each other in the story. At times I found myself asking: 'have they just shagged, or what?'
But this is a story more about love than sex.
And it's an argument in favour of all of us being allowed to love whoever we wish. People who label others or themselves do not come out of the story too well. Neither does religion.
So, despite being of historical interest, The Charioteer is also quite modern. Or maybe we haven't advanced as much as we should have done in the 60 years since the book was first published?
The language is old-fashioned; it makes you concentrate. There are some pin-sharp descriptions of people, which I loved.
I raced to the end and was left wanting more.
I still feel sorry for sweet Andrew.
on 5 February 2014
Renault's taut, spare writing is a joy to read and there are some supremely beautiful and quite arresting turns of phrase. As the story unfolds there is a real sense of empathy with the characters, whome she paints with a fine pen. Nothing overt or salacious but a real sense of a young man's confusion and searching for identity, while relationships are built and lost. Brilliant.