A guest review by Jenre
After enduring an injury at Dunkirk during World War II, Laurie Odell is sent to a rural veteran’s hospital in England to convalesce. There he befriends the young, bright Andrew, a conscientious objector serving as an orderly. As they find solace and companionship together in the idyllic surroundings of the hospital, their friendship blooms into a discreet, chaste romance. Then one day, Ralph Lanyon, a mentor from Laurie’s schoolboy days, suddenly reappears in Laurie’s life, and draws him into a tight-knit social circle of world-weary gay men. Laurie is forced to choose between the sweet ideals of innocence and the distinct pleasures of experience.
Originally published in the United States in 1959, The Charioteer is a bold, unapologetic portrayal of male homosexuality during World War II that stands with Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar and Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories as a monumental work in gay literature.
The Charioteer is set in the 2nd World War and revolves around our hero, Laurie, who is injured during Dunkirk and is now recuperating in an army hospital in England. Whilst there he meets Andrew, a conscientious objector, who is working as an orderly. Laurie falls in love with Andrew, but doesn’t want to tell him as he views Andrew as being in some way ‘pure’ and doesn’t want to sully this idealistic love with carnality – which he feels would happen if he confesses to being gay and attracted to him. Into this mix comes Ralph, an old school acquaintance who awakened Laurie to his own sexuality when he was 16. Ralph is the complete opposite to Andrew. He is practical, likes to take charge and is unashamed of being gay. Laurie also loves Ralph but in a earthy, sexual way. Laurie has to make a choice: Does he choose the idealised love of Andrew or the sensual love of Ralph?
I have to admit straight away that I found Laurie infuriating at times. He was such a naive dreamer and had this completely unrealistic idea that being gay was somehow a higher state of being – mainly from reading too much Greek philosophy. He is repulsed by the gay lifestyle adopted by Ralph’s friends, refusing to believe that the coarseness and overt sexuality he sees with them should be part of being gay. He has no idea how Andrew feels about him and yet he idolises their friendship, putting Andrew on a pedestal and pushing Ralph away time after time – even after Ralph admits his love for Laurie. I just wanted to give him a shake and say ‘for goodness sake, pull yourself together! Look what you could have.’
We only ever see the other characters from Laurie’s POV, so it’s difficult to make judgements about them. Andrew seems very young, perhaps in awe of Laurie, but ultimately, lacking in any personality. I never actually could understand what Laurie saw in him, other than someone who has stuck to their principles despite the scorn and contempt it has brought. I liked the character of Ralph and could see that he has probably loved Laurie for a long time. He knows that he could probably influence Laurie in his choice, but chooses not to – an admirable quality. Despite this I was still able to sense Ralph’s frustration towards Laurie and the painfully intense scene where Laurie admits to Ralph that he has feelings for Andrew was marked more by what Ralph did not say, rather than what he did. Yet throughout the book Ralph treats Laurie with nothing but kindness and tenderness, to which Laurie seems completely oblivious as he is so wrapped up in his hopeless, idealistic love for Andrew
The overall tone of the book is quite melancholy with a sense of despair tinging many of the themes and characters. This is epitomised by the background of the war with the constant threats of bombings, the sirens and blackout blinds. Many of Laurie’s interactions with Ralph and the crowd of gay men he socialises with happen at night, behind those blacked out windows, in rooms packed with men. It lends that aspect of homosexuality a furtive, guilty air (which of course it was), but also contrasts with Laurie’s interactions with Andrew which take place during the day and sometimes outdoors, making it seem more acceptable and innocent than the relationship with Ralph.
In a way this book is very much of its time and this comes through clearest in its portrayal of certain ideas about homosexuality. Each one of the main characters has a ‘reason’ as to why they are gay and there is a pervasive theme of homosexuality being a choice rather than part of who a person is. Both these ideas seem very outdated now (or at least they should!). Also at the time it was written any sexual content in a mainstream novel would have lead to it being banned. This basically means that any reference to sex in the book is only alluded to, and alluded to so obliquely that I wasn’t sure it had actually happened at first! There is a lot left to your imagination. Even references to the sexuality of Laurie and Ralph at the beginning are masked in such a way that if you didn’t know they were gay then you might not even pick it up.
This was quite a difficult book to rate. The book is strongest in the portrayal of the various characters in the book. Each person has an individual ‘voice’ and Renault uses accent and dialect to accurately show how the different classes would have spoken. You can hear each accent clearly in your head as you are reading. The book is weakest in that you have to concentrate hard on the thoughts of Laurie which seem to flitter about and can sometimes be difficult to follow, especially when he makes constant reference to classical notions and texts which my Comprehensive School education never covered. It also doesn’t help that The Charioteer is a classic gay novel, loved by many. In the end, though, due to primarily my feelings for Laurie and his infuriating idealism and indecision, I haven’t given top marks for this book. I do, however, highly recommend that you read The Charioteer.