Your novel The Charioteer (1953) is crossed over by what it seems to be a tense string, a rein held so tightly by opposing forces that we feel it is about to break. Drawing us into an atmosphere of war, blackouts, raids, transient relationships, urgent loves and forced secrecy – in short, an atmosphere of things that are about to fall apart -, you force your novel into this narrow in-between moment that takes place just before something inevitably has to break and burst out into the open.
The novel is set during World War II in a military hospital, where the main character, Laurie Odell (“Spud”), is being treated. A soldier in his early twenties, he had been wounded at Dunkirk. In the hospital, he falls in love with the young Quaker Andrew Raynes, a conscientious objector working as a medical orderly. Shortly thereafter, Laurie meets an old acquaintance, Ralph Lanyon, the former head of house at his boarding school, who had been threatened with expulsion for “misbehaving with a younger boy.” Ralph, also wounded in the war, is now a naval officer and an established member of the homosexual “lonely hearts club” in the city.
You set your book at the core of a love triangle which is interwoven with a moral dilemma: Laurie realizes that he loves both men, and is torn by his responsibility towards Andrew, and his attraction for Ralph. This inner conflict is mirrored back by the eponymous figure of the charioteer. Shortly after being expelled from school, Ralph had entrusted Laurie with his copy of Plato’s Phaedrus: “It doesn’t exist anywhere in real life, so don’t let it give you illusions. It’s just a nice idea.” Laurie, however, clings to this idea, and, against Ralph’s warning, decides to take it seriously.
In Plato’s Phaedrus, the charioteer must handle a mismatched pair of horses that behave as two opposing forces: one headstrong, vicious and unruly, the other upright, virtuous and obedient. The charioteer is in charge of pulling them together and making them run smoothly forward. The Chariot Allegory serves many purposes in your novel: the clash between socially accepted sexual behaviour, transgressive behaviour and sexual oppression; Laurie’s conflict between platonic love and sexual attraction; the disagreement about wo different personal stances on war – the soldier and the conscientious objector; the opposing forces of Andrew’s innocence and Ralph’s worldliness; the two different aspects of love they represent – lust and altruism – which the soul – the charioteer – must learn to control; and, finally, Laurie’s relationship with his mother and his coming to terms with his own sexuality.
The allegory also mirrors the moral dilemmas that pervade the book. For the three main characters, questions of love and sex are inevitably bound up with questions about morality and ethics – questions about how a man ought to conduct his life to render it honourable, and how a man must reconcile the contradictory forces of moral obligation and sheer desire. “‘It can be hell while it lasts, though, can’t it?’” Living in a time and place oppressed by lies and conformity, the three main characters are torn between the integrity of assuming their sexuality and the necessity of concealing it – “the hard logic of love”. Moreover, Laurie is torn between disclosing his love to Andrew, and forcing him into conflict with his religious beliefs; between redeeming Ralph, and being controlled by him; and, finally, between the personal and moral need of disclosing his sexuality and being true to himself, and the fear of being branded, forced into living in a ghetto: “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, half of whom hate the other half anyway, and just keep together so that they can lean up against each other for support.”
The highlight of the book for me is the way you write dialogue: allusive, nuanced, coded, full of unfinished sentences. You make very clear when and how there is a sex scene, without ever mentioning it directly. The characters seem to be permanently sounding out one another, to know how far they can go or disclose, in an atmosphere where even small gestures can seem clandestine. “He looked as if he were anxiously balancing a large handful of tact, without quite knowing where to put it down.” Sometimes, we have dialogues where, despite talking with each other, the characters are clearly misunderstanding what is being said – they are having a conversation, but not the same one. You open wide the double meaning like a blooming flower.
Although embedded in moral discussions (as many of the books published shortly after the war were), your novel is never moralizing. On the contrary, it is straightforward in its defence of male homosexual love. Moreover, your book strays far away from the two opposing literary trends in dealing with homosexual love in the 50’s: The Charioteer is neither stereotypical nor tragical or defeatist. On the contrary, it is a celebration of love and its hard logic: the hard moral questions with which love is inescapably connected. As in Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (1956), The Charioteer portrays the ways in which intolerance gives way to the emergence of a somewhat self-predatory sub-culture. However, differently from Baldwin’s novel, your book breaks with the conventional plots in gay fiction of the mid-twentieth century: in The Charioteer, deviation from what is considered the norm is not punished nor defeated. It is simply there, in the midst of everything else; a force of nature like two running horses, lively and strong, no guilt attached.
“There is only one kind of shock worse than the totally unexpected: the expected for which one has refused to prepare.” ― Mary Renault,
“After some years of muddled thinking on the subject, he suddenly saw quite clearly what it was he had been running away from; why he had refused Sandy’s first invitation, and what the trouble had been with Charles. It was also the trouble, he perceived, with nine-tenths or 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 curled up in them snugly, as in a womb.” ― Mary Renault,
“In seven years, thought Laurie, every cell in one’s body has been replaced, even our memories live in a new brain. That is not the face I saw, and these are not the eyes I saw with. Even our selves are not the same, but only a consequence of the selves we had then. Yet I was there and I am here; and this man, who is sometimes what I remember and sometimes a stranger I met at a party the other day, is also to himself the I who was there: his mind in its different skull has travelled back to a place his living feet never visited; and the pain he felt then he can feel again.” ― Mary Renault,
“If you know about yourself, presumably you know about at least one other person.” ― Mary Renault,
“The lovers of the innocent must protect them above all from the knowledge of their own cruelty.” ― Mary Renault,
“His methods of defying convention were as a rule so conventional that they passed unnoticed by most people, including himself.” ― Mary Renault,
“I did two years of women, when I first went to sea.’ He said it very much as sailors say they have done two years in tankers, or two years in sail. ‘Did you?’ said Laurie. ‘Why?’ ‘Oh, for almost every reason except the real one. (…) ‘Did it make any difference?’ Laurie asked him. ‘Well, yes, it did in a sense, of course. It’s bound to do something for one’s self-confidence, if nothing else. I think one year would have been enough. Funny thing, you know, it didn’t feel at all like going straight. More like trying to cultivate some fashionable vice that never quite becomes a habit.”― Mary Renault,
“Involuntarily he felt at the leg-pocket of his battle-dress; he had got into the way of keeping the Phaedrus there again, as he had in the south coast training camp and afterwards in France. Now it no longer stood for something rounded off and complete, but for confusion and uncertainty and pain and compassion, and all the tangle of man’s mortality. And yet, he thought again, it was for such a world that it had been written.” ― Mary Renault,
About the book
- Virago Modern Classics, 2013, 432 p. Goodreads
- Open Road Media, 2013, 352 p. Goodreads
- Vintage Books, 2003, 347 p. Goodreads
- First published in1953
- My rating: 4 stars
- This book was read in June for The Virago Modern Classics Book Club & 20 Books of Summer