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Maiden Voyage Book Review - -
Maiden Voyage
Reviewed by
David Robert
Maiden Voyage Review. In Maiden Voyage the emphasis was on hope; hope, as it turned out, for a future that never came.  It’s a brilliant and unforgettable book, and one that deserves to be rediscovered by a new generation of readers.
Denton Welch

Review Information

Reviewer: David Robert
Review Date: Nov 2012

Book Information

Publisher: Faber Finds
RRP: $24.95


out of 10

Faber imprint Faber Finds is the self-styled ‘place for lost books,’ rescuing long out of print worthies from the trash heap of obscurity, and in the case of British author Denton Welch (1915 - 1948) their attentions could not be better directed. 

The son of a wealthy businessman, Welch split his childhood between England and his adoptive hometown of Shanghai.  He was aware at an early age of his homosexuality, and in his later life as an author took advantage of his ‘outsider’ status to pen some of the most original and startlingly evocative prose of the mid-20th century. 

Having dismissed the Second World War as ‘another example of the horrible devil-worship of grownups,’ he turned his literary attentions to the more worthy topics of eccentric acquaintances (‘his face looked like a very large, scrubbed, kind potato’), a lifelong obsession with the minutiae of daily existence (‘I felt the soft, silky dust grating between the soles of my feet and the polished boards’) and the endless frustrations of unrequited love (‘when you long with all your heart for someone to love you, a madness grows there that shakes all sense from the trees and the water and the earth’). 

Welch spent most of his adult life as a semi-invalid, having been struck by a car whilst bicycling at the age of 20 - among the injuries which would eventually lead to his death thirteen years later were a fractured spine and several irreparably damaged internal organs.  Though in his later years he was bedridden for days or even weeks at a time (‘all life seems an agony of sickness’) so skilled was he in the art of subterfuge that many amongst his acquaintances and admirers were unaware he was even ill.  And although the wretchedness of his physical state occasionally left him peevish and despondent, more often than not his largely autobiographical writings are alive with the poetry of one who sees (and feels) the world more keenly than most. 

Describing a woman he had seen eyeing him askance at a public bath, for instance, he writes ‘I wondered why she disliked me so much.  Perhaps she realised that I thought her buttocks looked like full wine-skins.’  Of the eyeglass innocently dangling at the waistcoat of an elderly associate: ‘It reminded me of one of those little windows that vivisectionists let into the stomachs of animals.’  And on his impressions as a boarding school student after having received a caning from the headmaster: ‘The room was quite different when I opened my eyes.  The light was thick like milk and it seemed to float cloudily about the room.’  Whereas the characters of lesser novelists might merely grin, those of Welch’s periphery are inclined to give a ‘wide, mechanical, ballerina’s smile’ as they go about the ‘settled reverie’ of their lives.  Quite simply, there has never been a writer quite like him, before or since.  As one biographer aptly opined:, ‘I can think of no writer who has described the extremes of physical and mental agony with more appalling vividness than Denton Welch.’ 

Though this trend is somewhat understated in Maiden Voyage, his first published work, all the stylistic and thematic hallmarks that would later come to be associated with his writing are nonetheless evident in spades; Denton did not live long enough to suffer through any artistic troughs, and the overwhelming bulk of his output is of the same sublime standard.    

The book is an account of his sixteenth year, when he briefly ran away from his English public school and later spent a year living with his father in Shanghai.  The scenes themselves are largely unremarkable - he hides out in hotels for a few days, describes moments of timid, thwarted sexuality, and later on travels to Nanking with a business associate of his father.  Yet the manner in which he paints these otherwise trivial vignettes, as well as the people and objects which populate them, is a thing of rare, resplendent beauty.  Scenes come entirely alive, characters of the most fleeting significance are evoked with startling clarity, and his precise, analytical and unsparing eye recreates the foibles of his fellow travellers in a way that is a marvel of contrasts, somehow managing to be simultaneously charming and precious, funny and sad, ethereal and yet wholly lucid.   

Later, owing largely to the extent of his injuries and his own impending sense of mortality, a gentle undercurrent of sorrow ran through much of his work, imbuing even the simplest of scenes with tenderness and urgency.  He writes of an outwardly serene 1947 picnic with Eric, for instance, that it ‘was too sad to forget,’ and elsewhere attempts to reconcile his considerable ambitions with his piteous health: ‘I want to get something done, and shall do, I hope, if I don’t die.’  In Maiden Voyage the emphasis was on hope; hope, as it turned out, for a future that never came.  It’s a brilliant and unforgettable book, and one that deserves to be rediscovered by a new generation of readers.


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