On Maiden Voyage

05Feb08

It was difficult to read Maiden Voyage, the 1943 novel by Denton Welch, although not in any of the usual ways. For starters, the prose is relatively simple, marked by compact sentences — very much in keeping with the voice of a sixteen-year-old — but deceptively elegant; sincere and direct without ever being vulgar or blunt; nor, in the great English tradition, is Welch afraid of adverbs. (“In post-war American fiction,” we sigh heavily, “adverbs are ‘gay’.”) Language aside, there is a spirit to this book that makes us think of Holden Caulfield, and we regret that it is not nearly as well known as Catcher in the Rye; in any world but our own, it would be.

The story follows a somewhat troubled (but good-natured) British student who leaves school to spend a year with his father in colonial China (this in the 1930s). We are led by the narrator through a series of adventures as he leaves England, sails to China, travels inland with an antiques collector, and makes friends (and enemies) with some of his fellow colonialists. Through all of this, Welch perfectly captures the mix of hatred, passion and longing that lurks just beneath the surface of the adolescent heart, ready to be expressed in a given situation. We are aware that he is not disposed toward girls but is rather attracted to certain men who fall outside of his social sphere: a sailor, a soldier, and one or two others are introduced with the same lack of remorse or inhibition the author uses to describe say, his hatred for a garish item of clothing or his love of an antique watch.

None of these episodes involve anything more than a few drinks or a conversation, but nevertheless make clear the place from which the adult Welch is writing. It’s ultimately this ebullience that makes the book difficult to read, particularly — and it’s almost unavoidable — as we ponder the more tortured scenes from our own youth. How we wish we could have more more like Welch: artistic, uninhibited, questioning (but never presumptuous or arrogant)! How we wish we could have brushed off the conformity of adults instead of engaging in such tortured attempts to please them all! But at least when we read Denton Welch, we can put aside the more brutal memories and replace them with ones more spontaneous and alive, as if we had magically entered the pages of this perfect story.

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