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Denton Welch: Doomed to Perennial Rediscovery

“Working is stepping into the dark and making each tiny happening into a sign.”

These are the words of Denton Welch (1915-1948), taken from his published (lamentably out of print) Journals. Some writers are great journal keepers, like Kafka; and others, like Melville, are not. Welch’s journals are only lightly and subtly distinguishable from his novels. I have recommended Welch to every person who has asked me what’s good to read, and now I use this bully pulpit to add my voice to that of William S. Burroughs (as I so often do), whose own advocacy of Welch’s work led me, and presumably many others, to him. If he is to be consigned to the ranks of cult writers, then let his cult be a big one.
He was born in Shanghai; his father was a prosperous English businessman there, and his mother was American, a Christian Scientist. They had plenty of money, and Welch received the usual boy’s school education at Repton, where Roald Dahl bullied him. He chose to study art in London, and became an accomplished painter and illustrator, although his style was largely nomadic, and wandered at length in derivative, though not unimpressive, work.
I present the following fact under protest, because it is a very tempting mistake to read all of Welch’s writing as dictated to him by this experience, as is commonly the case with those artists who are associated with suffering by those who like to imagine that only anguish can buy talent or that the only real art is a kind of highly ornamented cry of pain. On June 9th, 1935, while walking his bicycle along the side of a country road in Surrey, Welch was hit by a car. There were no explaining circumstances, like fog or mechanical trouble, or inebriation – the accident was simply the consequence of carelessness on the part of the driver, and Welch’s spine was fractured. While he avoided paralysis, he never fully recovered from the injury, endured recurring, severe pain, and was prone throughout his life to incapacitating attacks of spinal tuberculosis. Inameliorably weakened, he perished young, at the age of thirty-three.
While he originally channelled the better part of his energies into painting, in 1938, when he was still casting about for something to do with himself, he thought to try his hand at writing for publication. He burned all of his juvenilia, and so there is no way of knowing how much he had written up to that time; much of it, evidently, was verse. In 1940, he began work on Maiden Voyage, an autobiographical novel relating events of his childhood in China, and how he ran away from Repton. The book was well received, and he was taken up by established English literary edifices like Edith Sitwell and E. M. Forster.
His second novel, In Youth Is Pleasure, is simply an account of a walking tour taken by a young man alone – himself, thinly disguised as “Orvil.” Welch’s writing has nothing in it of plots, his characters are lightly sketched; setting is correspondingly magnified. His point of view is entirely distinct from that of the omniscient narrator; there is nothing sweeping or general in Welch’s writing. The world he describes emerges in an exactingly precise description of details, fleeting impressions and comparisons. He is a conservative in the same way that Proust is conservative; they both strictly speaking seize upon and conserve time in its smallest experienced morsels. World War II is unfolding in Europe throughout the Journals, but there isn’t a single moment in which Welch’s vantage point shifts in the direction of universal history. He describes only what is present to him; flying German bombs crashing into the landscape around him, the prisoners of war along the roads, rationing, listening to the radio. The result is both entirely personal and vividly historical.
What emerges is a kind of pastoral prose, in which the drama is not invested in situations, but in moments of intense feeling, and there is no distinction between the more familiar dramatic moments that arise between persons, and another kind of drama, in which Welch is alone with something beautiful, an object or a scene, and expands dramatically within his impression. Whatever affects him vividly will be renewed and made available in descriptive passages that either embody the tensions of that moment or refract them like this:

His dreams had been even more terrifying and wonderful than usual. He found himself lying full-length in an enormous open wound. The exposed, gently bubbling, cushiony flesh was very comfortable; but he knew that if he moved even his eyelid he would inflict terrible pain on the giant in whose wounded red bosom he lay. In another dream, grotesquely enlarged diamonds waved about on long gold wires. They were contrived to look like sunflowers in a garden bed. Orvil was a very small child lost under the artificial leaves of these flowers. The wind blew; the diamonds rocked madly, backwards and forewards, banging their cruel facets against Orvil’s face. Like glittering, vicious footballs of ice, the huge diamonds struck his head, tearing the flesh till his eyes were filled with blood and he could feel the points of adamant ringing on white bone.

That’s from In Youth Is Pleasure. Thematically, this is a highly characteristic passage. Welch’s writing is filled with beautiful things, and the beauty seems always to be associated with power, either a power to harm with overwhelming sensation, or a fragility and susceptibility to power. While he was intrigued by antiques and old buildings, Welch seldom refers in particular to their age as an attraction; he is apparently struck more by the strangeness and unfamiliarity of old things than their aura of age, and their vulnerability to being swept heedlessly away by time.
When Welch’s attention shifts from description of what lies around him to fix on himself and his feelings, behavior, there is no corresponding shift in tone. He is just as careful to preserve himself, and, especially in describing the accident that permanently ruined his health (in A Voice Through A Cloud), there is neither sentimentality nor any exaggerated severity. Still more impressive, there is no resentment or recrimination.
“In the middle of the furnace inside me there was a clear thought like a text in cross-stitch. I wanted to warn the nurses, to tell them that nothing was real but torture. Nobody seemed to realize that this was the only thing on earth. People didn’t know that it was waiting for them quietly, patiently.”
Welch records, without being merely passive. He is not a reactive transmitter. He expresses a great power to be affected. The accident is not made into a decisive event, appearing with its complete meaning all at once, but it is rather an abiding subject for evaluation. A Voice Through A Cloud was the last and perhaps most protracted project Welch undertook; all his earlier works are set in days before the accident. There is no neurotic repetition. The accident is not the single great subject or determinant of Welch’s writing, rather it is a background element, among many. Welch’s work is not monopolar. On the contrary, it unfolds in an extended multiplicity of peculiar moments. I think that this many-polar, plural approach is what we want in what we read. I think it’s one of the values we find least often, and properly cherish the most.

Michael Cisco
30 June 2004

Additional Information

Exact Change – The Modern Word recently spotlighted Exact Change, the US publisher of Denton Welch’s three novels.


Michael Cisco is the author of The Divinity Student, which received the International Horror Guild’s award for Best First Novel of 1999, as well as The Tyrant (2004), and a number of other forthcoming novels. He’s just finished his PhD at New York University, and considers himself “The Melville Guy.” His column “Jungle Mind” appears monthly on The Modern Word.

For Michael Cisco’s previous columns, visit the “Jungle Mind” Archive.

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