The Charioteer by Mary Renault — book review

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“He was filled with a vast sense of the momentous, of unknown mysteries. He did not know what he should demand of himself, nor did it seem to matter, for he had not chosen this music he moved to, it had chosen him.”

This is the fifth time I’ve read The Charioteer and once again I’ve been swept away by it. The Charioteer is quite likely my favourite novel of all time as there are few books that I care as much about.
There is something comforting about The Charioteer, which is strange given that Mary Renault’s impenetrable prose demands her readers’ full attention. There are the coded conversations, thoughts and feelings are often only obliquely hinted at, the pages are full of 40s slang, and there are constant allusions to the ancient classics. Yet, her writing also has a languid quality, perhaps reflective of her protagonist’s convalescence, which I found truly enthralling.
In an almost Bildungsroman fashion The Charioteer introduces us to Laurie as a child. This first chapter recounts a significant moment of his childhood and is followed by a chapter of him at school where he has a memorable encounter with the Head of the School, Ralph Lanyon. The subsequent chapters follow Laurie as he’s recovering from a war injury at a hospital. Here he meets and falls for Andrew, a conscientious objector who is now working as an orderly.
While Laurie is aware of his sexuality, and believes that Andrew reciprocates his feelings, he’s unwilling to reveal to Andrew the true depth of his emotions. By chance Laurie ends up re-connecting with Ralph. As the title of the novel suggests, Laurie’s story can be likened to the myth of the charioteer from Phaedrus.
Now, I know that my summary doesn’t do this novel justice. I don’t wish to reveal too much about the story or its characters. Still, I can say that The Charioteer presents us with a beautiful narrative, one that captures a particular moment in time. The characters’ days are punctuated by Imminent Danger sirens, air raids, shortages. Laurie, alongside other patients, has to obey the hospital’s strict rules. Under Renault’s hand, the war seems almost ‘normal’, and characters will often discuss it as they would any other topic.
Renault’s portrayal of the gay community feels both intimate and compelling. While Laurie himself feels uneasy towards those he deems as ‘flamboyant’ or ‘effeminate’, the narrative doesn’t share his prejudices. Renault’s characters often engage themselves in conversations relating to their role in society, often professing contrasting beliefs. The views they express may ruffle some readers, as they often speak about their sexuality as a limitation or they seem dismissive towards other gay men (partly because both Laurie and Ralph are private individuals and do not wish to be a source of gossip). Their discussion on ethics and morality were riveting, and I soon lost myself in the rhythm of their back and forth.
The novel is as interested in what the characters say as it is with what they don’t say, whether this is due to self-censoring or self-denial. Although Laurie is the story’s protagonist, much of what he feels remains off page. Renault will often only allude to Laurie’s most innermost feelings. Because of this Laurie, and other characters, often seem like unsolvable puzzles. This is quite fitting given that self-knowledge and self-deception are central themes within this narrative.
Laurie’s story is also one that is concerned with connection. Although he becomes fast friends with another patient, he fears being ‘known’. Yet, in spite of this sense of loneliness, he is reticent about ‘embracing’ his community (“He kept telling me I was queer, and I’d never heard it called that before and didn’t like it. The word, I mean. Shutting you away, somehow; roping you off with a lot of people you don’t feel much in common with […]”).
Miscommunications abound in this novel. At times the characters make tentative attempts to form more meaningful relationships but they often betray themselves by not saying what they want to say or by saying the wrong things.

Renault captures with poignancy sadness, anxiety, self-divide, awkwardness, tenderness, longing, ambiguity, confusion, honour, passion, and hope. Her characters reveal her piercing understanding of human nature. Through her expressive and elegant writing Renault demonstrates her inside knowledge of the society she depicted (Renault was both a lesbian and a nurse, which is possibly why she can so conjure up both queer parties and the daily routines of a hospital).
I love everything about this novel. Laurie’s quest for identity, the struggle between his desires and his ideals, is as moving as it is thought-provoking.
A truly complex and multi-layered masterpiece that is both heart-rending and intelligent.
Impenetrable, subtle, beautiful, touching. I can’t recommend this novel strongly enough.
If you are a fan of gay classics (such as MauriceCarolGiovanni’s Room, and the underrated Olivia ), you should definitely give Renault a try. I don’t think I will ever get tired of re-reading this novel. Each time my understanding for the characters, their inner-struggles and relationships, deepens (although i own a copy of this, this time around i read a kindle copy from overdrive…and i ended up making nearly 500 highlights….which, yeah, that’s how much i love this story).

ps: if you have anything negative so say about Ralph, I will fight you
(i’m only half-jesting)

My rating: ★★★★★ 5 stars

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Maurice by E.M. Forster — book review

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“No tradition overawed the boys. No convention settled what was poetic, what absurd. They were concerned with a passion that few English minds have admitted, and so created untrammelled. Something of exquisite beauty arose in the mind of each at last, something unforgettable and eternal, but built of the humblest scraps of speech and from the simplest emotions.”

There is much to be admired in E.M. Forster’s Maurice. While it saddening to think that although he wrote Maurice in the 1910s he was unable to publish the novel during his lifetime, Forster did at least share it with some of his closest friends.
Maurice follows the titular character of Maurice Hall from boyhood to adulthood. In the opening chapter a teacher, knowing that Maurice’s father was dead, feels the need to educate him on sex. Maurice however doesn’t find this conversation enlightening, if anything it cements his aversion towards women and marriage. It is perhaps this incident that makes Maurice begin to question his sexuality. Although he never does so explicitly, his otherwise privileged existence is marred by self-questioning and doubt. Throughout the narrative Forster depicts the way in which homosexuality was regarded in the early 20th century: Maurice himself doesn’t know what to make of his desire towards other men. The country’s general attitude towards “unspeakables of the Oscar Wilde sort” range from pure denial, so they will dismiss homosexuality as “nonsense”, or “condemn it as being the worst crime in the calendar”.
At university Maurice becomes acquainted with Clive Durham. Clive, unlike Maurice, is a scholar, and lover, of ancient Greek philosopher and is apt to quote their teachings. While Maurice is simply enamoured with Clive, Clive wishes to attain a higher form of ‘love’ (“love passionate but temperate, such as only finer natures can understand,”) and believes that by being with Maurice their “two imperfect souls might touch perfection”. Unlike Maurice, Clive finds the idea of their becoming physical intimate to be distasteful, implying that it would spoil their relationship.
When the two are no longer at university together the two no longer have many opportunities to spend time together. their physical in their relationship, Clive insists on adhering to his ideal of love. Later on, Maurice finds himself pursuing a relationship with Alec, Clive’s gamekeeper.
The first half of the novel brought to mind Brideshead Revisited. This is quite likely to the university setting and the various hierarchies there are at play there. Both Maurice and Clive come from wealthy families. They are fairly pretentious, prone to make snobbish remarks, and are fairly misogynistic. Forster himself points out all of their flaws and is unafraid of poking gentle fun at them. Because of this I felt less disinclined towards them, even if I didn’t strictly like them.
This isn’t a particularly happy novel. There is bigotry, self-loathing, heartbreak, and suicidal contemplation. At one point Maurice is diagnosed with ‘congenital homosexuality’ and even attempts to ‘cure’ himself by way of a hypnotist. Yet, Forster’s prose is full of beauty. There are plenty of stunning passages in which he discusses and contrasts romantic and platonic love (Clive/Apollonian vs. Maurice/Dionysian), physical and intellectual desire, or where he describes beautiful landscapes. Forster adds a poetic touch to negative emotions such anguish and despair, so that even when his narrative never really succumbs to the darkness experienced by Maurice and his moments of introspection carry definite beauty.
Perhaps the thing that kept from loving this as much as Forster’s A Room with a View is the lack of chemistry…Alec appears towards the end and in no time Maurice seems in love with him. Alec’s personality is somewhat reduced to his being of a lower class. Still, while Maurice may not join what I consider to be the holy trinity of classic LGBT literature (for those who are wondering: The Charioteer, Giovanni’s Room, and The Price of Salt/Carol) I still think that it is a brave and illuminating novel (Forster’s afterword alone is worth reading).

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.5 stars (rounded up)

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