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The love that dare speak its name

The Charioteer

Mary Renault

1953

432 pages

Virago

in a nutshell Twenty-three-year-old Laurie, almost fatally wounded in Dunkirk, is in hospital recovering. The long time spent there will be crucial not only for slowly learning to live with his hurt and now lame leg, but also for finally dealing with something that Laurie has long known about himself. Andrew and Ralph - two men who suddenly enter his life, one a conscientious objector, the other a naval officer - prompt Laurie to reflect and test the nature of love, need and desire, finally allowing him to find his own bearings.

why? Renault's prose envelops the reader in the subtle shifts of Laurie's consciousness, while building a moving and thoughtful narrative as well as fully-rounded and deeply humane characters.

flavour extract It was a vivid dream, and too direct to fascinate an analyst. After he woke he thought it surprising; but he knew that at the time it had been full of familiar recognition, and that he had seemed to come home to it all with longing and deep release, after an unbearably long absence which must never be allowed to happen again. It was the kind of thing one can make a joke of next morning, if one can find some uninhibited friend to listen: but that would be impossible for some days, and in any case one could hardly relate such a dream to the person concerned in it.

 

my take

I happened on this novel in Waterstones on my last trip to Bristol. It was on display, and the brightness of the cover caught my eye. I had seen the name of the author before, in many a charity shop, but somehow or other I had never been tempted to actually pick up the books. Lucky me that this time I took the trouble to actually pay attention, because it has been one of my favourite reads of 2021. What I liked most about it, as I mentioned above, is the beautiful, sinewy language that follows the unfolding of the characters' inner world and social relations with both precision and delicacy. I liked the beat of the writing, the sometimes convoluted sentences detailing emotions and thoughts halted by sudden pauses and elisions when a gaze or a kiss or simply intense emotion stops the flow of words. I liked being told so much and then being left to fill in the blanks. It made for a fulfilling readerly experience. Incidentally, the novel is set near Bristol and in Bristol, and this made me cherish it even more. Here's an intense description of a place that most Bristolians and visitors would immediately recognise:

They had come to a bridge over the river. The ground was high here, the river ran between cliffs. Laurie thought how in peacetime, from here, the town would have lain below them like a starry sky. Now, as the bridge gave gently on its chains in the wind that swept along the gorge, there was only a darkling sense of loneliness and height.

I remember one night in particular when I walked to the Suspension Bridge precisely to see the starry sky of the city, and what a sight it was.

Back to the book, I will confess that the novel holds a special place in my reading history for a frivolous reason, which I would ordinarily keep to myself but which I will own up since it's Christmas, and one can afford to be sentimental at Christmas. I now count Ralph, Laurie's school crush and eventually beloved lover, as an addition to the list of my literary crushes (along with Mr Darcy and Ivan Karamazov, in case you are wondering) - "Confessions of a Frivolous Reader" was the alternative title of my blog, after all. (Half) joking aside, it did not surprise me to find out that Mary Renault got her fame by writing about the Greeks and in particular Alexander the great, because Ralph strides in with something godly in his wake. The most compelling aspect of the novel, though, is that this godlike quality - of beauty, integrity, strength - is something that he both holds and loses, since his larger-than-life presence is accompanied by a progressive discovery of his huge need of being loved, which in the end makes him not so much the deus ex machina of Laurie's life as the one who is in need of a godly intervention and rescue himself. There is a captivating passage where Laurie is able to pin down this particular aspect of Ralph's personality:

The desire to be needed was basic in his make-up; it had developed in him a high degree of accomplishment and tact. He had, thought Laurie, the power good advertising is supposed to have of creating demands which had not been aware of themselves before.

Ralph is a serviceable, kind person, yet it is this very quality that leads him to blunder in forming intimacies that ultimately make him feel unhappy. It is only meeting Laurie that will make him question his choices and save him from a life of settling, or no life at all.

The ongoing prodding of the nature of love - what it is, how it works, what bonds it creates and how much it should be allowed to direct one's life - is indeed the main concern of the novel. Queer love is at the forefront of the discussion, but the novel abounds with other forms of love - friendship, marriage, religion. Let's begin by addressing the former. Although this novel was hailed or hated for its open treatment of homosexuality on its being published in 1953, homosexuality is presented in such terms that invite reflection. On the one hand, homosexuality is depicted unapologetically. Ralph, since early recognising and accepting his sexuality whilst at boarding school, has had many lovers. He is also aware that the need of loving, including its very physical demands, is what spurs him on as much as his friends, who have created a sort of counter-society where people are free to express their desires without fear. There is even a passage where Ralph explains how trying to be straight for two years felt like the true deviating experience, which does make it clear to the reader that for him loving men is not a choice, even though he does not deny having or having had a taste for women too.

On the other hand, when uninitiated Laurie falls in love with Andrew, a Quaker and a conscientious objector, he begins to question whether sexual freedom is actually all that good. What is more, he questions whether charging one's sexuality with defining one's identity is at all right. Laurie fears this to be a 'parochial' attitude and he is wary of letting his homoerotic desire define him.

From the scanty bit of research I have done, Renault, who spent most of her life in a committed lesbian relationship, ended up rejecting the basic tenets of identity politics. Her treatment of homosexuality in this novel is indeed explicitly ambivalent. Ralph himself, who was expelled from school for being involved in a sexual scandal with another boy, gives a strange explanation of the degenaration of sexual mores amongst the gays, with a mixture of contempt and pity, as this unusual comparison shows:

‘It’s only since it’s been made impossible that it’s been made so damned easy. It’s got like prohibition, with the bums and crooks making fortunes out of hooch, everyone who might have had a palate losing it, nobody caring how you hold your liquor, you’ve been smart enough if you get it at all. You can’t make good wine in a bathtub in the cellar, you need sun and rain and fresh air, you need a pride in the job you can tell the world about. Only you can live without drink if you have to, but you can’t live without love.’

Ralph is trying to justify his conduct to Laurie but ends up implicitly censoring that of his other gay friends, the ones who organise parties in 'amateur brothel' style. Ralph's ideal society is that of Greek times, when love among men followed an exemplary regulated code of behaviour, though in practice Ralph is an active player in the libertinism he seems to disdain.

Renault was later to become renowned for her historical novels set in antiquity and already in this earlier work Plato's dialogue Phaedrus provides an important contrapuntal reference. The title itself refers to Socrates's presentation of the soul as a chariot led by two horses, a black and a white one, which are seemingly impossible to drive in the same direction. Ralph gives Laurie this book just before leaving school and their unfulfilled romance behind, and that same copy is also the goodbye gift Laurie leaves for Andrew, thus turning it perhaps unwittingly into a symbol of the impossibility of a love fed only of idealism and self-denial. The black and the white horse of the myth could easily be identified with Ralph and Andrew respectively, but this in my opinion would be a simplification, as in fact the conflicting desires of body and mind, need and want, are experienced by almost all characters in the novel. Indeed, the challenges faced by Ralph and Laurie take us very far from 4th century BC Athens into a world where finding one's bearings for those who stray from the heteronormative path seems nearly impossible.

Living as I do in a society still riddled with homophobic prejudices, the passages where homosexuality is compared to a neurosis (Laurie's parents had an unhappy marriage and his father died when he was young, Ralph's mother was emasculating of what she perceived as his sinful and too early sexual awakening) made me feel slightly uncomfortable, perhaps because the logic behind them rang all too familiar. What I did feel was that I could empathise with Laurie's idea that human relationships should not be circumscribed by sexuality, and also that there is a risk of running from one dictatorial way of seeing identity to another. Yet, Laurie himself is forced to face the difficulties of establishing friendships within difference. The arch of Laurie's friendship with Reg, a very straight working-class bloke, is testament to this seemingly inevitable boundary. Reg is Laurie's best friend in hospital, despite their belonging to very different social classes, and they support and help each other beautifully throughout most of the novel. Reg even delivers some perceptive lines about love, and helps us readers see a different side to Laurie's personality and his best quality - his gentle empathy. Even such a genuine bond, however, falters after Reg discloses to Laurie that he knew all along about his sexual orientation, because, even though straight blokes know queers and about queers, they do not like to talk about queerness, and ultimately the two grow apart. In this particular instance at least the novel openly points its finger against the hypocrisy and obtuseness of so-called normal society.

Although the novel is primarily concerned with homosexual relations, it is actually the very nature of love that is discussed time and again, and which in turn made me ponder it. Ralph and Laurie engage in very animated discussions on the topic, almost an agon, whilst trying to assess their mutual attraction and affection in contrast to Laurie's ideal of love centred in Andrew. Andrew is actually the only character in the novel that remains hazy in my mind, possibly because he is a figment of Laurie's fancy and not as fully developed and understood as the other characters, even the minor ones. Laurie spends most of the narrative in abstract love with him, because he believes him to be made paradoxically weak by the strength of his convictions - he is a conscientious objector not out of cowardice but because of his faith as a Christian Quaker. This same faith prevents him from recognising his homosexual tendencies, and in Laurie's view even if he did see and acknowledge them he would never be able to act on them and live as Laurie discovers he wants to live (thanks to Ralph, or rather thanks to the deeper-seated instinct that draws him to Ralph).

It is this lack of trust, this fundamental difference in Laurie's and Andrew's set of beliefs and values that ultimately makes it impossible for them to continue their relationship, even more so than its asexuality. This said, the novel openly discusses the role played by sex in a partnership. Even though Andrew does care for Laurie, Ralph helps Laurie see that by staying by Andrew's side Laurie's imposed self-denial would turn into a useless form of torture, because his nature - his needs and desires - run too contrary to Andrew's. The moment of self-knowledge causes Laurie pain, but ultimately allows him to take responsibility and embrace a path in life that is true to himself.

Ralph and Laurie's relationship almost comes to a breaking point, however, when Ralph's scorned lover Bunny teases Andrew under the pretence of being Ralph. Laurie, who falls for the trick, gives in to a resentment against Ralph that had been slowly building. Even though Laurie is aware of the benefits that Ralph's sexual experience affords him, he still revolts against Ralph's blasé attitude towards sex; he finds Ralph and Bunny's relationship disturbing, since it cannot spring from respect and love; ultimately even Ralph's first proposition, to live together as a couple but allowing Laurie to retain his friendship with Andrew, elicits in Laurie a sense of moral disgust. Laurie finally accuses Ralph of having lost all his sense of morality, because, he concludes, he has known too many Bunnies, out of lust more than love. Ralph is no longer the god he remembered from school, but an individual with a degraded sensibility. Laurie's accusations sting Ralph to the quick, in a crescendo that makes Ralph realise his degradation and nearly prompts him to take his own life. Both Ralph and Laurie condemn promiscuity for promiscuity's sake.

Whether they are reasonable or prudish is an interesting question. Morality nowadays has almost disappeared from our everyday vocabulary, and when brought up it often seems to me to be treated as a pariah word by most, which is why in my opinion this novel offers the opportunity for some timely introspection into our own view of life and love. Personally, although the ending felt slightly rushed, I was elated at Laurie and Ralph finding their way back together, both compromising something and taking a hard look at themselves but finally salvaging the precious bond, the rare happiness they have found in each other.

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