In Youth Is Pleasure deur Denton Welch resensie - helder glimp van 'n verlore bestaan

Ekn few writers are the life and the work so commingled as with Denton Welch – who died in 1948 op die ouderdom van 33 - of so tegelykertyd interessant en beperk. His life began as one of relative privilege and expansiveness: born in Shanghai to a family of merchants, he travelled widely in childhood but couldn’t read until he first attended school at the age of nine. Later, he attended Repton school, where in a Shakespeare reading he played Juliet to Roald Dahl’s Romeo.

But his defining experience, which shrank his life to the size of a grave, was a catastrophic cycling accident at the age of 20, which fractured his spine and left him bedridden for long periods. In 1942 he launched his writing career (as well as doing illustration work for Vogue), and in the following six years wrote three novels, almost 60 short stories and articles, en 200,000 words of a journal, all based on his own experiences. He was promoting his life to art even as the complications of his accident condemned him to death.

Welch was briefly in vogue in the 1980s when a biography was published, but the books drifted out of print until now, with Penguin Classics reissuing his short, leisurely second novel, In Youth Is Pleasure (1945), so that a new generation can appreciate probably the only author claimed as a key influence by both Alan Bennett and William S Burroughs.

In Youth Is Pleasure recalls a summer holiday in Surrey, and if it is indeed an inch from life, dan, as Geoff Dyer put it, all the art is in that inch. The Welch surrogate is Orvil Pym, a 15-year-old boy who, like his creator, is a fretful child, afraid that “he was beginning to lose his good looks”, and whose mother died young. His father calls him “Microbe” and thinks his wife’s death was “much the best thing” so that she did not become “an invalid”.

The plot is light. Orvil – even the name, shortened from its usual form, seems vulnerable and exposed – wanders the countryside, visits churches, rummages in antique shops, and encounters strange men to whom he is no doubt equally strange. What sets the story apart is the quality of Welch’s noticing and the intensity of Orvil’s fastidious aesthetic sensibility, which makes him feel sick at the sight of a kitsch bag fashioned from an armadillo, but revels in the “wonderful colour!” of a cowpat he steps in, “like velvet or jade, or creamed spinach”.

In this way Orvil highlights his difference from others, just as when he “lick[s] up his tears to savour and taste them”, or applies lipstick to his nipples and extremities. (His story sways in a gentle breeze of homoeroticism.) There is a certain bright comic aspect to this, but underpinning it is an exquisite balance of pain and beauty – an aspect of the sublime – as Welch brings to vivid life the existence lost to him for ever. At one point in the story, a friend tells him not to worry about other people: “One day you’ll surprise them.” And so he did. He is surprising us still.

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