THE STORIES OF DENTON WELCH. Edited by Robert Phillips. Dutton. 377 pp. $24.95.
DENTON WELCH'S career as a writer is coincident with his life as an invalid. Born in Shanghai, raised in China and England, at the age of 20 Welch was thrown from his bicycle by a motorist. He fractured his spine, and thereafter suffered from inflammations of his kidney and bladder, hemorrhaging, partial impotence, and, eventually, tuberculosis of the spine. Under the pressure of his pain, Welch gave up his ambition to become a painter and turned to writing. He died in 1948 at the age of 33, having produced three highly autobiographical novels, six years of fascinating journals, and a large number of short stories. His work was well known in the early 1950s but has remained out of print until the recent revival of interest in hiand his fiction.
Welch's personal story arouses one's sympathetic curiosity, but it also can deflect attention from the works to an admiration for the extraordinary discipline and passion required to create them. But as a writer, Welch is uneven at best. He is a phenomenon more than an accomplished artist, someone whose writings we savor as much for their frustrated promise as for their literary skill and polish. His best works, like his posthumous novel, A Voice Through a Cloud and his Journals, are autobiography with poetic license, peculiar mixes of fact, self-pity, sentimentality and the brilliant rendering of the circumstantiality of everyday life.
Welch is not a fiction writer in the ordinary sense. There is little in the way of narrative structure or tension in his work. Instead, he concentrates on the texture of social rituals and the psychological weight of personal possessions. The stories amble rather than develop, moving from observation to observation, incident to incident. Welch relishes the minor encounters and objects of the world, but in consequence also abandons himself to extraneous asides and the unselective recording of conversations simply, it seems, because they occurred. He often seems indiscriminate: we learn in great detail of the taste of tea and scones, while the climaxes of the tales frequently seem truncated, as if there's a hidden story in Welch's mind which hasn't quite made it into the prose. You read him not for character revelation so much as to experience his sensibility.
In barely veiled form, the 26 stories in this volume report on Welch's years in China as a child, his brief art studies, his months of convalescence, and his semi-reclusive life in the English countryside after his accident. A large number of them come through the hypersensitive eyes of a boy finding his way among strange adults. Sometimes, as in "In the Vast House" and "Constance, Lady Willet," it's not evenclear what the boy is doing inside the story at all, since the dramatic energy is completely dissipated by his presence. But Welch seems willing to sacrifice everything to record his impressionable point of view.
The pastoral, if often pathetic, world Welch creates in these tales helps define a chapter in the history of English taste. We enter a leisured society of small villages and country roads. People bicycle where they need to go, and live surrounded by woodlands and fields and creeks perfect for picnics. The characters take their good clothes and good manners and good books for granted, and spend their days doing little else than nurturing their rather snobbish views. They often seem more passionately concerned about the quality of the sandwiches served at high tea than about the people they break bread with.
Almost all the stories concern a confused outsider seeking (frequently unsuccessfully) security and love. In fact, the basic pattern of the narratives is unappeased longing. The quiet life of the upper middle-class citizens of Welch's world is almost desperate, a long lonely misery broken into intermittently by startling incidents of passion. A few of the love affairs are consummated; most end in a teasing frustration.
Though some of the more overtly passionate stories are told by a woman, there is enough homoerotic tension in the others to suggest that the choice of a female protagonist is the result of pressures of convention more than the internal necessities of art. Lower-class workers and wandering vagabonds invade the landscape on occasion, but as characters from another realm. The women in the stories are often drawn to these ruffians as harsh lovers who might deliver them from their dull, sexless lethargy. In one tale, a woman artist convinces a woodsman to pose for her; in another, a reclusive woman has a night of passion with a wanderer seeking shelter; in a third, a shy waif promises to marry a supposed lorry driver. In all these situations, we're at the edge of Lawrentian sexual exploitation of class difference for psychic resurrection.
ROBERT PHILLIPS has chosen to organize the volume by theme and counterpoint rather than chronologically, so it is impossible to do more than guess at which stories were written when. (Phillips, by the way, has done a peculiarly inept job of editing; the long, often superb, concluding novella, "Brave and Cruel," includes unfinished sentences, paragraphs out of order, pages that don't follow, and so on.) It is, however, safe to say that Welch's writing remaineds wildly inconsistent throughout his life. He can write in clich,es, of "tassels" of hair and people who leave their cottages with a "light heart." Then, a page or two later, you'll read a lovely line about a singing voice that is "sad and keen and sweet, like some fruit vinegar," or see Welch delicately describe a boy licking the brass trim of a porthole. In some instances, Welch's use of symbols is ludicrous (a frustrated woman who kisses a woodsman's axe); in others, such as a complex tale of an admirer's visit to a crippled artist, Welch is extraordinarily effective in drawing meaning from a diamond brooch.
Almost every tale is notable for its asides, the observations of bric-a-brac and costume, the sensuous pleasure in food. Few stories stand out, however, as finished performances. One, "Narcissus Bay," is a haunting vision of childhood in China which combines the awkward jealousies involved in boyhood friendship with being an onlooker in a strange land to create a solemn, convincing portrait of youthful gloom and revelation. Another, "Brave and Cruel," is a curious tale of class conflicts and cultural disruption that shows Welch more aware of the costs of snobbish civility than he usually appears to be. Five or six others are almost as good, or have sections that are moving and original.
In one of the strangest and most inconclusive of the stories, an invalid designs his own little world in his garden, complete with a trout stream stocked with fish. One feels Welch has done much the same thing in his fiction, turning each tale into a private world he can contemplate, a miniature kingdom which reflects the life remembered and the future lost to Welch through his accident. More memoir than fantasy, the Stories have that distracted, wandering feel of someone dusting his familiar household belongings one last time before they're gone for good.