|Mary Renault's 'The Charioteer' Reviewed
This is not only my favourite book of all time; it's also one of the best written I've ever read, to the extent that when I first read it at seventeen, I thought Renault had written it for me. Not only as an example of exceptional writing, but also as something I could believe in and set my personal standards to accordingly.
I do remember not caring whether or not she was a woman, though I do admit I was puzzled by her insight into my hidden self. I would later learn that she was in a lifelong relationship with Julie Mullard, a woman with whom she attended Oxford with her when few did; and after I read her biography by David Sweetman, I gathered that she had personally met the prototypes of the characters she would write of in The Charioteer, during her stint as a nurse in WWII.
The principal character is Laurie Odell. We meet him when he's in public school as a young man. He finds out that the prefect of his house is about to be sacked for an indiscretion with another boy. Laurie prepares to lead his entire school into a rebellion on behalf of his hero, Ralph Lanyon, until Lanyon himself summons him to his office. "He was lifted into a kind of exalted dream, part loyalty, part hero-worship, all romance."
After a protracted argument about ethics, which Laurie loses once Ralph owns up to the crime he's been accused of, the elder gives the younger a leather-covered version of Plato's Phaedrus (or Phaedo); a treatise on rhetoric, but also a discourse on love and its aims.
When we next meet Laurie he is twenty-three at a makeshift soldier's hospital in England, recovering from a wound in the knee. It is here that he meets Andrew Raynes, a Quaker, and conscientious objector, and realizes that the love he imagined for himself while reading the Phaedrus can be real.
There's only one problem: Andrew is nineteen and unsure of his sexuality. Laurie realizes this after he drops certain hints that go unperceived by his new friend, such as a reference to Tchaikovsky being queer, to which Andrew replies: "Was he? He was never actually shut up, was he?" Regardless, the two begin to spend all their free time together and become thoughtful, intimate friends.
Why the need for caution? The year that The Charioteer was published in England was the same year that the actor John Gielgud was arrested for sodomy. In the U.S., the McCarthy era ended with President Eisenhower branding 'perverts' as communists and banning them from government posts.
Once out on a pass with Reg, after the two take in a Technicolor show, Laurie becomes separated from his companion during a raid, and is rescued from the underground by an intern whose enquiring gaze he met back at the hospital with a flashy grin meant to embarrass. The former introduces himself as Sandy and drags Laurie with him to a couple of bars, heading to a gay party at his flat. Laurie attempts to wriggle out of it and is almost successful until Sandy mentions the name Ralph Lanyon.
After I'd attended a few such parties myself, going back to Renault's description of the gay party in The Charioteer astounded me - it was as if she'd mapped out a blueprint of such parties, to be placed anywhere and at any time; the requisite characters arriving of their own accord.
As Laurie himself refers to it in retrospect, it is like the meeting of a lonely hearts' club and a brothel, or in today's idiom, a place to cruise, or flaunt what your cruising has got you. Until his former friend arrives, Laurie is alone at the party, surrounded by bitchy 'queens' in pairs and desperate lone men.
At a certain point, late into the night, after he's reunited with Lanyon and one of his old friend's acquaintances has just made a drunken fool of himself, Alec, a doctor and Sandy's partner explains to Laurie, "He gets a bit lonely, I think. He always hates the thought of a party breaking up." Lanyon replies, crisply, "I don't blame him. It must be tiresome to find that one's broken up along with it."
As Lanyon leaves him to get more drinks, Laurie looks around him at the party's dregs and realizes what it is he's been running away from since his days at Oxford: "It was the trouble, he perceived, with nine-tenths of the people here tonight. They were specialists. They had not merely accepted their limitations, as Laurie was ready to accept his, loyal to his humanity if not to his sex, and bringing an extra humility to the hard study of human experience. They had identified themselves with their limitations; they were making a career of them. They had turned from all other reality, and had curled up in them snugly, as in a womb."
I've sensed this in The Charioteer before, something I wasn't able to name exactly until this reading, and it is a warning to gay men, that we should not close ourselves off from, or allow ourselves to be closed off by, society at large. It is clear in the analogy about making wine that Lanyon uses in halfway into the story, that you can't make good wine in a bathtub in a cellar. "You need sun and air and rain, and a pride in the job that you can tell the world about. Only you can live without drink if you have to, but you can't live without love."
So while Renault is imparting advice to her fellow homosexuals, she is also condemning society for its closed mindedness. And that is beyond the call of duty for a fiction writer, as well as another reason I feel indebted to Renault. Fortunately The Charioteer was the first 'gay' book I ever read, which led me to regard the next few, rightly, as trash. I used it as a test for my future boyfriends, only to find that most of them didn't enjoy reading.
I think The Charioteer might be too intellectual for some people, or too demanding. One thing it isn't is an international bestseller. My first boyfriend had his roommate read it for him, and I discussed it with him, but it turned out to be a useless argument, since it hadn't been the roommate's opinion I wanted. I should have taken that for my answer, but I went with the black horse, and ended up hurt and disappointed in the end (some four years later).
The way that Renault wrote this novel has lingered in my mind since age 17. I've tried to emulate it in my own writing, always coming short. She thoroughly fleshes out her characters, and describes them in an entirely unique way.
Of Ralph's sex partner, Bunny, she writes, from Laurie's point of view, after Bunny has got Ralph too drunk to drive him back to the hospital, and offers to drive him home himself in order to be able to make a pass at him, "He's just a chancer... What can you do about these people? The terrible thing is, there are such a lot of them. There are so many, they expect to meet each other wherever they go... Not wicked, he thought, that's sentimentality. They are just runts. Souls with congenitally short necks and receding brows. They don't sin in the sight of heaven and feel despair: they only throw lighted cigarettes away on Exmoor, and go on holidays leaving the cat to starve, and drive on after accidents without stopping. A wicked man can set millions of them in motion, and when he's gone howling mad from looking at his own face, they'll be marching still with their mouths open and their hands hanging by their knees, on and on and on... No, Andrew wouldn't like that."
Renault also furthered my burgeoning interest in ancient Greece. She refers to it throughout The Charioteer, not using it as a setting until her next novel, The Last of the Wine, and in every book she wrote after that; some of them with homosexual characters, when they were historically acknowledged as such; most without.
When Ralph, Laurie, Bunny, Alec and Sandy are gathered together in an apartment discussing the latest black mail case, Ralph protests against the others' indignation that one of their own is being blackmailed by saying, "Well for Christ's sake, don't let's make blasted ostriches of ourselves. Anyone would think, to hear you and Alec talk, that being normal was immaterial, like whether you like your eggs scrambled or not."
"I didn't say that," said Alec temperately.
"That's how you expect to be treated. Even civilized people had better hang on to a few biological instincts."
"It's time they learnt to be a bit more tolerant," Sandy said.
"They've got children and they want grandchildren. Make you sick, the dirty bastards. So what? They've learned to leave us in peace unless we make public exhibitions of ourselves, but that's not enough, you expect a medal. Hell, can't we even face the fact that if our fathers had been like us, we wouldn't have been born?"
"Well, I don't know," said Laurie. "In Athens, we could have been."
"Good old Spud," said Ralph, slowly and distinctly. He leaned forward and tapped Laurie solemnly on the knee. "A lot of bull is talked about Greece by people who'd just have been a dirty laugh there. Not you, Spuddy. I'm not talking about you, you'd have got by... All right, they were tolerant in Greece and it worked. But Christ, there was something a bit different to tolerate. There was a standard; they showed the normal citizen something. There was Aristogeiton... and the Sacred Band. In fact they took on the obligations of men in their friendships instead of looking for bluebirds at a fun-fair; and if they didn't, they bloody well weren't tolerated, and a good job too."
Laurie and Andrew come to know each other so well that they often don't need to speak at all. On the other hand, Andrew doesn't suspect that the love Laurie feels for him is anything more than platonic. I had a relationship like that too, in which I was madly in love with a friend but didn't tell him, for certain reasons; mainly because I thought it would ruin the purity and beauty of our friendship, which for the most part was unconditional.
This time I tried to apply what I had learnt from reading The Charioteer: to be patient, to earn trust and understanding first before sex. I could and did have sex on the side. The problem was that he knew I did and most likely took the fact that I never tried to seduce him as a lack of interest on my part-which couldn't have been farther from the truth. After his mother's wedding to a priest, Laurie and Ralph have sex in his house. Andrew finds out about it in a way that makes him react violently and forces him to withdraw, back to his Quaker obligations, away from the hospital.
While unerringly subtle, the plot of The Charioteer has the requisite dramatic points to keep any earnest reader hooked. In fact, since it is so subtle for the most part, the tense scenes struck me as inordinately nerve wracking, being mainly comprised of description and speech rather than action. At the end of it, I for one was heartbroken, although other readers with whom I've discussed the book didn't see it the same way; sometimes the opposite.
Except for Renault's blatantly obvious (and timely) interest in psychoanalysis, (she nursed with a brain surgeon) the novel is faultless and very much worth a read, whether you are attracted to members of your own sex, or not.
As for me, I continue to wait patiently for my Theban partner in war.
Alex Gomez is an award-winning writer. he's written numerous short stories, hundreds of non-fiction articles and two serious novels. Writing makes him happy and nothing can kill him now.
Click HERE to read more articles by Alex Gomez.
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