In Youth is Pleasure was first published in 1945, and has recently been re-published by Penguin Classics. It is an autobiographical novella (originally sub-titled ‘A Fragment of Life Story with Changed Names‘) about a skinny, awkward, upper-middle-class teenage boy named Orvil Pym. Orvil has a dreadful family, comprising two macho older brothers and a neglectful, permanently slightly drunk, opium-using father (who refers to Orvil as ‘Microbe’, due to his short stature) and who spends most of his time in China on business. Orvil’s mother has been dead for three years, but he is not permitted to mention her to his father, and his repressed grief permeates the text. Orvil passes the summer with his family at a country hotel, and dreads with a sort of existential horror the return to boarding school at the end of the holidays. Welch’s own biographical details match Orvil’s.
There’s something destabilizing, hallucinatory and surreal about Orvil’s escapades and encounters during his holidays. He has a vivid fantasy life and has over-excited and faintly inappropriate responses to all of his experiences, while a hum of inchoate eroticism underlies everything: Orvil derives intense pleasure from wearing a secondhand, heavily sweat-stained cricketers box over his genitals, even though he’s not intent on playing cricket, and on another occasion surreptitiously paints his face and nipples with stolen lipstick, which he has to hastily remove when his brother returns to their shared room. The book can be very funny at times.
Orvil, then, has a feminine side, which contrasts with his brothers’ aggressive heteronormativity. The Happy Reader‘s monthly newsletter (a copy of which sent me off to seek out a copy of In Youth is Pleasure in the first place) notes that Winston Churchill’s private secretary wrote of Welch’s memoir Maiden Voyage: ‘I have been told that it reeks of homosexuality … I think I must get it,’ suggesting the closeted appeal of Welch’s writing at a time when homosexuality was still illegal.
Orvil forms an uncomfortable bond with a man who is staying in a nearby hut, some kind of definitely-a-bit-pervy youth leader/schoolmaster, who asks Orvil to remove his soaked outdoor clothes before briefly tying him up (“I want to show you these knots”), and then encourages Orvil to return the favour – which he does. Orvil buys random antiques, goes out on a rowing boat before stripping naked in the summer air, and sneaks into a church and sniffs the cassocks and examines the crypt.
‘He stood, looking down at the lady in her fantastic horned headdress. Kneeling on the stone, he tried to read her name and the date…
…Suddenly, without knowing why, he lay down at full length on the cold slab and put his lips to the brass lady’s face. He kissed her juicily. When he lifted his head, the smell and taste of the brass still hung about his nose and mouth. He looked down from a few inches away and saw the wet imprint of his lips planted in the dulled, frosted area his breath had made.
“You haven’t been kissed for five hundred years, I bet”, he droned in a low chanting voice.’
Orvil is like no character I have ever come across before in fiction or elsewhere. Sensitive, sensuous, impetuous and a bit creepy, I was gripped by his episodic narrative, even though the book is pretty much devoid of any semblance of plot. But who needs plot when the writing is so compelling.
After boarding school, Denton Welch attended Goldsmith’s School of Art, during which time a cycling accident resulted in temporary paralysis, permanent injury and his subsequent early death in 1948 at the age of 33. However, being bedridden for long periods seems to have provided an impetus for his writing, although he had largely dropped off the radar until this re-issue. The book’s title comes from a 16th-century poem of the same name by Robert Wever.