First published in Australia in 1937 when Kenneth Mackenzie was in his early 20s, “The Young Desire It” is a book to set beside James Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” Alain-Fournier’s “The Lost Domain” and . . . well, I don’t know what else. In his excellent, though plot-spoiler-rich introduction to this Text Classics edition, David Malouf adds Raymond Radiguet’s “The Devil in the Flesh,” but mainly because its author was a comparably gifted prodigy (Radiguet died at 20). There’s nothing worldly or Gallic about Mackenzie’s beautiful — no other word will do — depiction of school life, loneliness and sexual yearning. It is the best novel I’ve read in a long, long time.
Charles Fox has spent his childhood with his widowed mother on a station in Australia, living a carefree, Edenic life. But now at 14, he is being sent, unhappily, to a prestigious private boarding school. He feels utterly out of place: “Among the mass of boys there, he was in fact like a person from some remote land that had been civilized without sophistication. He was a visitor from the very real country of childhood, and from that innocent demesne in it which all others of his age there had left, long ago.”
Things begin badly at the school. A pretty boy, Charles is taunted, partly stripped and groped on his first day by a gang of older students. Mackenzie painfully evokes the boy’s shame, but also his anger and resilience. For Charles, though gentle-hearted and angelic in appearance, is tougher than he looks, and he defends himself pretty well against further onslaughts. Moreover, he soon discovers that “the desire to know was coming to life like a fire in his heart. He wanted to learn.”
That joy of learning is largely fostered by a sympathetic English and classics teacher. A 25-year-old Oxford graduate, the complicated Penworth is also lonely, missing England desperately and feeling a mixture of contempt and pity for most of his students. “To him they were, and would always remain, crude, unchangeable young animals, who had never seen an English spring or an Oxford dusk; they were looking forward, but he looked back, for ever.” Penworth plays Bach on the violin to calm his nerves, but also sometimes reads an elegant edition of Plato’s dangerously exciting “Phaedrus.” For even though the Englishman keeps a picture of a young woman on his dresser, he soon finds himself troubled by Charles. Nonetheless, Penworth “was careful, rather for his own sake than for the sake of the boy, to prevent himself from showing any unnatural interest in him.”
During the short Easter holiday, Charles returns home. One day, he sets out to pick mushrooms. Caught by a thunderstorm, he runs to a copse of trees for shelter. There he discovers that he isn’t alone and, unobserved, quietly watches a young girl who is also escaping the downpour. The niece of an elderly couple living nearby, Margaret is initially frightened when the boy finally reveals himself. But then they begin to talk about their lives. Nothing happens; everything happens.
When Charles returns to school, he carries the memory of that afternoon in his heart.
As the academic year progresses, Mackenzie delicately evokes Charles’s sexual development, a new sense of his body, his embarrassing dreams. Of course, Penworth continues to mentor the boy, who “did not notice that Penworth’s hand more often touched his, or was liable to caress his head or his knee in moments when the air in the little white study was fierce and tense and attentive. He knew only that he was learning, as he had never learned before, the beauties of his own language and of that from which so much of it had grown.”
As Charles daydreams of Margaret, so Penworth more and more longs for Charles. This quiet evocation of the teacher’s growing desire is tenderly, non-judgmentally delineated. In many ways, Penworth is the most complex, the most anguished character in the book — unless it is the school’s elderly, physically suffering headmaster. The model of a humane educator, he alerts Charles’s friend Mawley to love’s dangers:
“Once, when I was young, someone said to me in reproof for some thoughtlessness, ‘You must learn how easy it is to hurt those you love . . . ’ Then, I believed that; afterward I found that it was not true, for it is easiest to hurt those who love you — those you yourself love may not be open to harm from you, according to the measure of their regard for you. But if they in turn love you, then beware. Everything you do will have tremendous meaning for them.”
Meanwhile, Charles continues to rejoice in learning all he can, happy to share Penworth’s civilized but sometimes troubling company and increasingly eager to visit Margaret during his next holiday. Now 15, he recalls again and again the fire he had built to warm them that rainy afternoon, “the white fullness of her two knees, where the stretched skin shone dully over the flesh beneath,” the “unbelievable nakedness of such outstretched hands,” “the dry, healthy paleness of her lips.” When Charles fantasizes about those lips, he passes into erotic reverie, until “all he could see was their upward urgency and softness, as they would be beneath his own when she desired him to kiss her.”
And then this innocent boy, so full of love, is tricked into telling Penworth about Margaret.
Among the marvels of this semi-autobiographical novel are its evocations of the heat and languor of the Australian landscape and of Nature’s voluptuous, complicit sensuality (“The roses were as hot as the faces of amorous girls”). When Charles and Margaret finally meet again, and then still again, Mackenzie’s prose grows lyrical, dithyrambic. D.H. Lawrence comes to mind, but also Zola’s youthful classic “The Sin of Father Mouret,” in which an amnesiac young priest and a childlike young woman consummate their love in an enclosed garden called Le Paradou. Here, the Australian heat, the coolness of shady pools and groves, the parched ground’s thirst for rain, the aching for release from the long tyranny of desire — all these counterpoint the bustling scenes at school, adding a feverish, urgent poetry to the novel’s overall tone of strangely wise benevolence.
“The Young Desire It” possesses a relentless interiority and seldom veers for long from the consciousness of Charles or Penworth. But, with exceptional discernment, Mackenzie also charts the developing unease between Charles and his mother, as Mrs. Fox realizes that she is, slowly, inevitably, losing the son she adores. As for Margaret: Like Shakespeare’s Juliet, she is beyond compare. This is, among other things, one of the great stories of first love.
In the end, though, there is no real end. Life continues, in the sad, chastened way of maturity. How could it be otherwise? Nonetheless, one mystery remains about “The Young Desire It”: Why isn’t this stunning novel famous?
Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.
THE YOUNG DESIRE IT
By Kenneth Mackenzie
Text Classics. 345 pp. Paperback, $14.95