Denton Welch was on my radar for some years; I owned a copy of “In Youth Is Pleasure” because I’d heard John Waters praise it on a Fresh Air interview, but hadn’t read it. The episode of the Backlisted Podcast that discussed Welch and his first book “Maiden Voyage” piqued my interest. It tells, in memoir form — though some of it seems heavily fictionalized to me — about how Denton ran away from his English boarding school at 16, spending some days living rough until his resources run out, and was eventually sent off to join his father, a businessman in China, at the time (1930s) when the British empire was still rampant. The Pekin and Shanghai that Denton experiences are colonized places where the English live as arrogant sitters-upon, the Chinese servants are all called Boy, and Westerners who like “pretty things” are buying up antiques and objets d’art at a furious pace to ship them back to England.
The charm of the book is in its teenage narrator’s presentation of his emotions and judgments of other people as he moves through a series of small or momentous human situations — dinner parties, a boating accident, a collecting trip in the provinces, a boxing lesson, evening encounters with English soldiers based nearby, the misunderstandings ensuing between Chinese servants and the expats they serve. He’s frequently funny in the subtle, dry English way, not afraid to make the reader aware of his own ridiculousness, and the word portraits of the people he encounters are succinct, deft, and often amusingly nasty. (I wouldn’t want to know he’d describe me; I can surmise.) The narrator is a young gay man, but his gayness isn’t explicit, it’s there in his impressions, interests and judgments, as something latent; either not yet grasped or suppressed in the writing.
Just now finished reading “Hotel du Lac” by Anita Brookner. Read it years ago when it was new, and I was very young, and had forgotten everything about it. Now I find it’s a beautiful tight little novel of the kind I especially like–a small-scale cast of characters, a deep dive into an inner life. I squirmed a lot, reading it, as the dilemma the novel turns on is the problem of being a middle-aged unattached woman, a position Brookner presents as essentially impossible — whether this was her own true opinion or not, it’s the worldview of the book, at least most of the way through. It could almost be titled “How Should A Woman Be?”, and most of the possibilities illustrated by the characters are in way or another, ghastly. As the noose of the plot tightens, one’s throat tightens too; is there no way out of this pitiless paradigm of needing a man in order to fit in, to be treated fully as a person?
As I write this, it’s early autumn in New York City, where unlike vast swathes are the country experienced quasi-apocalyptic weather, we’ve been having a long run of perfect late-summer days. I’m sitting on my balcony looking out across the tops of a lot maple trees whose green leaves are losing their vibrancy, some already browning at the edges, beneath a sketchy sky of cloud wisps that don’t seem to want to come together into anything properly fluffy. From here I can see four rooftop wooden water barrels, three American flags flying fairly briskly, the top of the Freedom Tower, and the facade of London Terrace which always makes me feel as if two elegant ocean liners are pulled up at a pier.
Changes of season always make me pensive. This year has been unusual. I’m an only child, and relations with my parents have, over the course of the years, weighed a lot heavier in the unpleasant/fraught side of the scales. In spring they reached the point of no return; mom had a hospitalization, after which we recognized that dad’s dementia was such that they couldn’t go on living independently in their apartment on Long Island. My main occupation from April through the summer was helping them hire the right consultants in order to make all the things happen — and work on getting dad into assisted living, moving mom from the suburbs into their city pied-a-terre, now her permanent home, selling the suburban apartment, and more more more. All emotional, detail-exacting, slow and frustrating and then fast and stressful. Now mid-way through September, dad’s gone from assisted living to a nursing home; his decline over the summer astonished everyone who saw him. It’s been my focus to support my mother through all this traumatic change; we’ve always been prickly with each other, and haven’t had so much proximity since I was in elementary school; even with the best will I find myself getting into tangles with her that I completely didn’t intend. In the midst of all this upheaval I’ve been reading very intensely. That’s to say, I’m always reading, but these last few months the role of books in my life became a kind of project of applying balm, of having a place to retreat to, that feels different than ever before. Reading has helped situate me in taking this level of involvement with my difficult parents; and made me feel less alone, through being able to see the multifariousness of human experience in every novel or nonfiction book I visit.