Prism Book Alliance would like to welcome back special guest columnist Alexis J Hall for Tea Time with Alexis J Hall & Friends. We would like to extend a special welcome to today’s roundtable guest: Julio Alexi Genao
The Charioteer by Mary Renault
Hello, and welcome to the second Thursday Teatime. A quiet one today, so put the kettle on, as J and I are going to be talking about Mary Renault’s The Charioteer.
Just as a warning, this is is a discussion not a review, so it assumes you’ve read it, or at are least familiar with it. If not, it might be a little hard to follow, but if nothing else, I hope it’ll inspire you to maybe check it out. It’s one of my favourite books of all time.
The Charioteer is one of Mary Renault’s few “contemporary” novels. She’s most famous for her classical stories, many of which feature frank explorations of homosexual love and desire. Set at the tail end of the second world war, the book focuses on Laurie Odell, who is recovering in hospital from injuries he received at Dunkirk. While there, he falls in love with the quaker and conscientious objector, Andrew Raynes, and coincidentally re-unites with an old school friend, Ralph Lanyon – who was expelled following a scandal with another boy.
AJH: So I’ve read this about three times now – once as a teenager, when I was about thirteen, once at university and once now so I could talk about it with you. It’s one of those books … I don’t think I’ll ever need to not read it. It’s one of those books you come back to.
JAG: yeah, it is infinitely rewarding. i’ve only read it one and a quarter times, and i find things to highlight and marvel at and pontificate about in nearly every paragraph. i’m saying—whatever else mary renault may have been, as a writer she is simply beyond. it was almost as exciting to lose myself in the story as it was to admire the absolute ruthlessness, the… the… relentless, economical brutality of her words. in a line or two, the truth of a thing is filleted, spread for you on a plate—for you to savor, and understand and admire. it’s scary good.
AJH: I agree, it never fails to strip me raw. I pretty much cry every time I read it. I think she’s a sculptor of prose, you know? Like every sentence is this complete artefact It’s quite a cold thing, in a way, but it feels almost … tangible to me, the way she writes. Like marble. So she takes a thing, an idea, and presents it to you with such astonishing clarity that you can almost walk round and round, just looking at it, and cutting yourself open on the sharp edges. Like there’s this bit about the wounded coming back from front lines:
Many of them had arrived in rags, some half naked, or draped in the wayside gifts of shocked civilians; and few of them had not retained from this experience some traces of a savage, primitive humiliation.
JAG: that’s just… i mean… look at that shit, homie. that’s the ultimate definition of the personal cost of war, beyond physical disfigurement and pain and suffering and death, and well into what those things do to a human being: war makes you small. it… re-calibrates your expectations and your opinion of your place in the universe. and it happens in just the way she said. almost everyone comes home humiliated. aware of how little their will matters in the face of events beyond their control. it is an apt parallel, i think, to what it means to be a gay man. her idea of what it means, rather. subject to forces that are beyond your will. beyond your control. beyond your desires.
AJH: Yes, I think you’re absolutely right. I think a lot of those themes blend together really effectively: it’s all about the individual in the wider context, and the things that alienate us and bring us down. In the same way that war (and class, gender, queerness, whatever) create these arbitrary distinctions, subject people to cruelty and loss, so does the remorseless expectation of loneliness within Laurie, and nearly all of the other queer characters he encounters. It’s terrifying to me, really, the intensity of that loneliness. Perhaps because there’s an extent to which it’s familiar. I don’t mean on the day to day and I like to hope the world is changing, but I know very few queers of my generation at least (and now I feel old) who haven’t at some point in their life felt helplessly and irreconcilably set apart.
JAG: i think the novel takes this as its premise. and the story is what one might do, having arrived at this knowledge of oneself. it presents a binary decision: bitter, cynical pragmatism, versus aggressively subscribed naivete. the choice is embodied in the two love interests ralph, and andrew. opposite ends of the spectrum. and laurie, between them, in love with them both, but not really understanding why or how.
AJH: This is where I run into a minor amount of trouble because … and I realise this is Modern Me talking, and thus I’m being a bit of a philistine, but I do not GET Andrew. I mean, I get him, I get what he’s supposed to represent. But he’s a pill, dude.
JAG: duuuuuude… i know i sound like some american college student who just discovered german philosophers five minutes ago—but i think she was writing about the closeted homo. i think andrew represents the kind of compromises you have to make to be that oblivious to your own nature. and he’s fucking annoying because of it.
AJH: Yep, I do understand that. And obviously I’m not judging him … with no disrespect to the genre … in what you might call romance novel terms – i.e. requiring him to be emotionally accessible as a love interest. But he’s such a cowardly, tepid little oink that … it feels unbalanced to me.
JAG: oh, i have no trouble at all judging him. he is on the surface this incredibly attractive paragon of purity, but it’s really some dishwater ideal of innocence, and what he needs to be in order to maintain his bland denial of who he is and who he loves is so blind as to be impossible to interact with honestly. as in, being with him would require a man who knows himself to… to lie. to help him lie to himself. it’s a pretty clear indictment of that choice.
AJH: Maybe the problem is that Renault spends less time on Andrew’s hair than she does on Ralph’s. Okay, that was a frivolous point but maybe there’s something in it.
JAG: au contraire. coiffure is a perfectly viable line of enquiry in RILLY SIRRSS LITERARY CRITICISM.
AJH: Hehe. But actually although we’re allowed to know Andrew is hot in some way that Laurie clearly wants to put his dick into but doesn’t feel able to put his dick into because IDEALS … Ralph has a physicality to him that renders him real, as a human, I mean, not just sexually.
JAG: it’s really a very clever character, speaking as a writer who admires the cleverness of another writer well out of my league. everything that makes andrew attractive is the very same as what makes him impossible to be with. you can’t desire him without ruining him. and that seems to me a very clear indication of renault’s thinking: it’s an unsustainable and unhealthy state of being. denial. what good is golden purity if you never get your dick sucked?
AJH: Oh Mary Renault, my dick thanks you. But I wonder if it goes even further than that. Ralph would argue, for example, that his ideal of purity is … nonsense anyway. Meaningless. He’s the one to point out that Andrew has a right to actually know who he is, and what it means. Clearly the novel is concerned with the limitations of queerness in social context (and we can talk a bit about this later if you like) and the inherent loneliness of that … but I think there’s an extent to which the very foundations on which these ideas are based are, well, at the very least nudged at. I mean, WHY is it better for Andrew to live in ignorance? HOW is it good for Laurie to support that and essentially deny this chap he’s supposed to love above all else the reality of real love, of the sort that Ralph offers Laurie. That’s messed up.
JAG: i think you’ve defined a key theme of the novel. it’s very much a comparison of two ways to live as gay men. on the one hand, you have andrew, whose sexuality is so subsumed as to be a kind of shocking void in nearly every scene he’s in—from his apparent ignorance of his own beauty to his very apparent ignorance of his helpless attraction to laurie. he lives in oblivion; in some pastoral idyll where he can tend to wounded soldiers without really having to examine why he is not one of them himself. and the price of that kind of self deception is… i think renault argues effectively, far too costly. it requires people lie to you, so you can go on lying to yourself. and when he is not permitted this self deception, as when wounded soldiers recovering under his care challenge him for not fighting alongside them, it is demonstrably a very real form of cowardice. and i thought it was crazy impressive, how renault deployed this idea of cowardice, framed as it was by his philosophical objection to war—which code of honor many would call cowardice, and do—but which requires its own incredible bravery to adhere to. in other words, for all the impressive strength of character it required for him to become a conscientious objector in defiance of his family and everyone alive, apparently, it was still, in the end, just another kind of cowardice, with its own consequences.
AJH: I wonder, actually, if it’s partially to do with the Christian and classical traditions? I mean, Renault retreated into the classical world as a setting, because it allowed her to depict male-male love without the unpleasantness of a condemning social context. And she clearly admired the living hell out of classical values. And, like, duh the book is called The Charioteer. But Ralph is the absolute embodiment of classical ideals: he’s beautiful, self-disciplined, powerful, unyielding, almost warlike. Andrew, by contrast, is all about Christian ideals of self-denial and pacifism – I just feel with Renault’s own preoccupations, there was no way the sort of ideas Andrew represents could stand up to Ralph in this book.
JAG: no, certainly not—and i think this is another example of her craftiness. because in the beginning i think we are very clearly meant to admire andrew as some paragon of purity, much in the way christians venerate virginity. but in the end we come to understand what the price of such ostentatious purity is, and that he is, after all is said and done, just a pretty guy who doesn’t get laid. and who the hell can admire that?
AJH: For me, and again modern prejudices at work here, it’s something of a weakness in the text (which I love, by the way, with all the passion in my queer little heart). It never feels like fair fight, and Laurie looks like a bit of a knob for being so invested. Or possibly it was never meant to be – maybe the whole point was to go “hey, isn’t this stupid, guys”. But if there’s to be a struggle, as a reader, I want it to be a struggle I can understand. And I can see it all rationally, but I don’t get much out of it emotionally. Which isn’t helped by all the slightly tedious conversations Laurie and Andrew have about, like, ethics and crap. And Andrew being all like “look, I brought us a blanket for us to snuggle in because I am clearly gagging for it” and Laurie being like “oh no, my dear, think of your PURITY.”
JAG: i wonder if this idea that it wasn’t a fair fight, that andrew was the clearly inferior option, is a conclusion you drew as early as 13. because for me it was a legitimate conflict—that laurie had legitimate reason to be attracted to such a limp dishcloth of a man—because of the very same things you mentioned: he embodies so many ideals judeo-christian societies value. and i wonder if you were able to reject those illusory, troublesome ideals as early as then, or if it’s your adult, er, jaded and done-with-rubbish-religions self that recoils so strongly now.
AJH: I’m aware it’s interpretation, rather than a reality of the text. But texts are to be enjoyed as well as analysed and I do bog down in Andrew being Andrew when I’m reading. (Like, there’s a bit where Laurie is sad his mother is re-marrying and he’s like “how would you feel about that Andrew” and Andrew is like “I’D FEEL FINE BECAUSE IT WOULD MEANT SHE WASN’T DEAD!!!!”. Prick)
JAG: this is you being too shy to tell me that yes, yes you were, in fact, clever enough to recognize andrew for the shitstain he was as early as 13?
AJH: Okay, okay, I’ll stop weaselling.
JAG: [pauses to admire you utterly] like, i read this book when i was 37 and i still found andrew appealing until you shit all over him in a private chat recently—as he plainly deserved. i admire your freedom from… i guess… the fundamentalist christian values that (apparently) still live up my ass. goddammit.
AJH: I think it’s a bit of both actually. When we read books that are too old for us we read them sometimes more truly, I think. And while it’s a love story it’s not a romance, but – as a young AJH – I fell in love with Ralph Laynon from the moment he showed up on page. And half the stuff going on in that book, I didn’t understand, but I understood that Ralph was deeply decent and good and strong.
JAG: i was lanyon’s creature at once. i felt hostility for everyone, everywhere, ever, who contributed to his unhappiness. like, if this were a movie we were discussing, i would insert three lanyon gifs here and coo at them while you go on with the business of seriously (SRRSSLY) analyzing this book.
AJH: Actually I was looking for the line that proves he’s shit hot in the sack.
JAG: allow me to assist you, sir. smut-location is my specialty.
AJH: race you…
JAG: bring it, homie.
Ralph had been concerned to notice him thinking, so early in the night, with the empty room upstairs. It hadn’t taken Ralph long to put a stop to that. He had considerable skill and experience, and his heart was in it.
AJH: Reading this at 13 or whatever, I had no notion what Ralph had considerable skill and experience at, but I was up for it. I really was. There’s such a wonderful sensuality at times to a book that can often be quite detached. Like the touches, when they happen, are devastating because they’re so rare. The moment Ralph touches the back of Laurie’s neck literally makes me shudder.
JAG: i think this line in particular is an example of the way renault paints pictures in your mind. because really, the line ‘he had considerable skill and experience’ is as plain and direct as can be—but in the context of the scene, it is… to put it baldly, incineratingly sexy.
AJH: Ralph just is. It’s a remarkably explicit book for a non-explicit one, if that makes any sense at all. I really admire that. Laurie is quite sexually prudish – despite being a puddle of want for Ralph he does freak out and run away back to the safety of No Hands Please I’m Quaker – but desire is indicated so very frankly. Even if it has to be elliptical sometimes.
JAG: no! i totally had the same thought! i was like… 1953? and i haz boner and whatnot? why don’t i notice any compromises in the language? any sly, winking little jokes (of which there were plenty, of course)? how was this so uncompromisingly visual and… well, visceral—and still get published?
AJH: A lot of it does happen in the gaps. I think the word queer pops up only twice in the whole book. And until Laurie actually goes to the homo!party, there’s just this … saturating awareness of queerness that fills up all the spaces but doesn’t take any words.
JAG: i was going to say earlier, that the binary renault sets up for you is between the false purity of andrew and the cynical, vicious society of the chaps at the queer!party. and i think you’re meant to recoil in horror, comparing them to andrew, and laurie, certainly, but especially—especially—ralph. which is important, because ralph, i think almost… with almost certainty, represents the healthiest navigation between the two extremes. he represents the guy laurie should be with and aspire to and everything. he’s supposed to be the answer to the question: is there no other way? nothing other than abject denial and toxic bitterness and savagery? there is. his name is ralph lanyon, dumbass, and he wants to haz sexorz with you.
AJH: But Ralph is also … borderline alcoholic, I think, at the point Laurie finds him again. And, like Laurie, he makes quite a few mistakes over the course of the story. But I suppose where he redeems himself is that he commits himself to love and vulnerability with a conviction that, err, makes my knees weak. And other parts of me just the opposite.
JAG: his mistakes, it seems to me now, are nothing to either andrew or laurie’s. ralph’s mistakes inform his character. when laurie comes to him intending to announce that he’s gagging for quaker cock, he finds—looking at lanyon’s grave precognition of what is happening, his terrible, terrible dignity in facing it anyway— finds that all the stupid things he’d prepared to say have completely left his mind. lanyon is the answer. lanyon is the clear-eyed understanding of who and what and how, and part of that, i reckon, he’s come by via the intense scrutiny of the bottom of a bottle of whiskey. he’s come by it honestly, in other words. he’s come by his ideas through experience, not self deception, or defensiveness.
AJH: Yeah, we’ve all banged a Bunny in our time, I’m sure. Can’t really hold that against a man. You know, the thing I find kind of … shaky-making about The Charioteer is, God, this book was in 195-sommat and it still feels so absolutely relevant. So absolutely necessary and compassionate and true.
JAG: it’s—and, i mean, i know it’s facile and cliche, but i was thinking: stuff like that —the borderline alcoholism—was sorta vital to the the overall effect of his character on the reader. renault actually introduces him in his first moment of great defeat: being sent down from school. if he were too perfect, if he always knew what to do and what to say and was in command everywhere he went, he’d be irritating. and false, somehow. instead, renault gives him a bunny to humiliate him, and whisky to roughen him, and laurie… laurie to mangle his heart.
AJH: [cries] I meant to ask you, actually, what did you think of the scene right in the middle of the book, where Laurie goes to this queer party? I always find it really devastating.
JAG: in a word: scintillating. in two: grimly scintillating. the thing is all jagged edges and brittle façades and the slow, soft slump into… into the very sort of moral and social decay everyone is always ascribing to homosexuality. it’s meant to freak you the fuck out in the same way it freaks laurie out, and it sets the stage for his associating all that turpitude and defensive bitterness with our poor ralph.
AJH: It’s the great paradox, though, isn’t it? Of community. Because not only do you have to orientate with a society that always threatens to reject you (I find Laurie’s relationships with his friend Reg, and the nurse who falls in love with him really heartbreaking), but also people who are supposedly “like you.” Like how far queerness is what you do and how far it’s who you are. I can remember suffering a similar sort of shock when I first got to university and LGB (as it was in those days) was a thing … and I felt like I had nothing in common with any of them.
JAG: i feel you, bro. for me it was… let’s see. hmm. well, NYC, 1990s, obnoxious AIDS advocacy culture… if you weren’t OUT and if you weren’t PROUD and if you weren’t WEARING A RUBBER RIGHT THE FUCK THAT SECOND you weren’t a kool kid. and then later it was walking into my first gay bar. i was so terrified and so excited i couldn’t even walk through the door. and once i did it was this enormous release, right, this feeling of safety, of, “i am inside and nobody can see me from outside and everybody in this room is like me.” but then it turns out they’re not. that i’m brown, and they’re not. that i’m fat, and they’re not. that i’m, like, 21, and they’re 38. which is of course a dynamic common to us all—but when your whole focus is finding acceptance, or community, or simple identification… it can be a terrible shock.
AJH: Well it stands to reason that when what binds you is pain and loss and rejection that the community you create is going to be … fucked up. Which is not to say that I think all queer spaces are toxic ruins, by any means. I need them, and I value them. But there’s something really harmful about cleaving to people solely because of something as arbitrary as sexuality. Or even the experiences forced upon you because of sexuality.
JAG: we should name our clubhouse TOXIC RUIN. no cleanz allowed.
JAG: it can be harmful to cleave to people because of sexuality, but i think what you said earlier is the meat of it: it’s easier because of shared pain. and as ruinously toxic (who’s in charge of designing tee shirts?) as those relationships often prove to be, like that party in the novel… i think it’s still worth giving it a go. especially if it’s all you have.
AJH: No, I agree. It’s just when it’s the … only option, or the default option.
JAG: in the book, renault frames it as a false choice. between toxicity and purity. and we know how that turned out.
AJH: Well, I think that’s perhaps one of the ways we’ve definitely moved on. I mean, relationships within and outside of queer circles are shown as almost inevitably doomed to failure, for Laurie. Not necessarily because of the people, but because of social cruelty. Like what breaks him and Reg is not Reg (Reg actually accepts him) but other people judging them both. Whereas, thank God, some of my best friends are heterosexual 😉
JAG: har har.
AJH: That’s one of those nice … ‘oh thank fuck, we’ve made some progress’ moments. Which seems a really good place to end.
JAG: agreed. thanks for having me, AJH. a pleasure, as always.
AJH: I’m, err, always delighted to have you, dear boy.
Please do join us in comments to talk about The Charioteer. It’s one of my heart-books but I promise not to go after you with a flamethrower if you don’t like it. Have you read it? Do you think it still has something meaningful to say about the lives and loves of queer people in the 21st century? What do you think about Andrew and Ralph, the twin horses of the title? Do you think this is a ‘fair fight?’ – and is it meant to be?
About Alexis J Hall
Alexis Hall was born in the early 1980s and still thinks the 21st century is the future. To this day, he feels cheated that he lived through a fin de siècle but inexplicably failed to drink a single glass of absinthe, dance with a single courtesan, or stay in a single garret.
He did the Oxbridge thing sometime in the 2000s and failed to learn anything of substance. He has had many jobs, including ice cream maker, fortune teller, lab technician, and professional gambler. He was fired from most of them.
He can neither cook nor sing, but he can handle a 17th century smallsword, punts from the proper end, and knows how to hotwire a car.
He lives in southeast England, with no cats and no children, and fully intends to keep it that way.
About our Guests
JULIO ALEXI GENAO lives in New York City with three cats and a preoccupation with post-mortem predation. He is also the author of the acclaimed ‘When you were Pixels’,’Taking the Long Way Home’ and ‘A Syntax of Memories’
I have a number of paperbacks, most of which are signed, to giveaway. Over the between now (11 Mar 2017) and 31 Mar 2017, every comment on the blog (this post and all other new posts), will be entered to win 1 of these paperbacks. There are also some misc swag items, so there will be a few packs of these to give away as well.
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