The Charioteer


Title: The Charioteer
Author: Mary Renault
Publisher: Open Road Media
Buy link: Amazon.com
Genre: M/M Historical (World War 2) Romance
Length: 347 pages
Rating: 4.75 stars out of 5

A guest review by Jenre

THE BLURB

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 REVIEW

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.

20 comments

  • This is what I call “Essential Reading” for anyone interested in writing the genre, particularly historical fiction. The genius of the book lies (imho) much in what is NOT written. The scene with Ralph at school where he says “come here” and then “you see, it really wouldn’t do” (or something like that) is an entire missing portion, and it’s when you start to see the gaps that you realise what’s going on. i assume that he kissed Laurie and startled him. I read somewhere that someone asked Renault if she would have written her love scenes with more detail if she had written them in later times, and she replied (quite rightly I say) that they were exactly as they were and she wouldn’t change them.

    An absolutely unmissable book.

    Reply
  • I read a lot of her books but not this one. Most likely because it is set in WWII and I like ancient Greece much better.
    Like Jen I felt the need to read Charioteer after reading Dark horse but I still haven’t done so.

    Reply
    • Hi Ingrid
      I rather like books set in time of war, especially if they are dealing with something other than just fighting. Laurie’s injury took him away from the front line so he still had the memories of combat but as a reader we get to see what life is like for those who are not on the front line. I thought it very interesting that Andrew is a conscientious objector and the way that he is treated as a result of that. It’s not something I’d ever really thought about before.

      Reply
  • It’s good to see this review, Jenre. The Charioteer was one of the first gay books I read, and it remains one of my favourites, even though it wasn’t the easiest book for me to understand. I’m like you in not knowing many of the classical allusions, but I found the writing itself beautiful to read, and I often stopped and re-read certain passages, because they affected me so much.
    *
    I understood the book much better after taking part in some chapter by chapter discussions on Live Journal. They were really helpful and added to my enjoyment of the story. I discovered all sorts of things I’d missed first time around.
    *
    I’d also recommend The Persian Boy. It’s the middle book of the trilogy, and is another wonderfully written story.

    Reply
    • Hi Gaye
      It sounds like the LJ discussion was very useful. That’s not something you get to do very often is it – analyse a book chapter by chapter? Certainly for a book like this one which isn’t as accessible for some readers that would be a worthwhile exercise.

      Reply
      • Aww, I just lost my response to you, Jenre. Doesn’t that make you mad?! I’ll try to remember what I said. — The discussion was very useful to me, because a lot of The Charioteer takes place “behind the scenes” so to speak, and other readers had different thoughts about what happened. For example, in the study scene early on in the book, where Ralph’s packing to leave – many people had different thoughts about what actually happened.
        *
        I tend to read quickly, and hadn’t given much thought to lots of points that were brought up throughout the whole discussion.
        *
        If you (or anyone else) is interested, the tags for discussion about the book can be found here, under “tc”:

        http://community.livejournal.com/maryrenaultfics/tag/

        Reply
        • Thanks for the link, Gaye. I agree that the study scene is very ambiguous. I read it through several times before I got it straight in my head. 🙂

          Reply
  • Lovely and very reasoned review! I do love this book – I think it was one of the first gay books I ever read. I had no idea any of them existed until then. It was a revelation! And Renault does write like a dream – her descriptions are first class. Happy memories indeed …

    Axxx

    Reply
    • Thanks Anne
      I think I found the scenes where characters just talked to each other the most affecting. Laurie’s friendship with the other hospital inmates, the stilted visits with his Mother who he loved so much and just the occasional scenes with other minor characters helped to build up such a vivid picture of life in wartime Britain. It was masterful.

      Reply
  • I have to say that Josh Lanyon introduced me to this book through his Dark Horse/White Knight books. But then I’m not very well versed in “classic” literature period, straight or gay. If it comes to the desire to slap characters upside the head that can really turn me off, but perhaps I need to expand my horizons a bit and read something different. Maybe I’ll check my public library. Great review Jen.

    Reply
    • Hi Tam
      I read this book after reading ‘The Dark Horse’ because I wanted to *get* the references that TDH makes to The Charioteer and also because JL has mentioned it a number of times as one of his favourite books. I’m glad I did, not just because it gave me a better understanding of Josh Lanyon’s book, but also that The Charioteer is worth reading as a piece of classic literature in its own right.

      Reply
  • Lovely review Jen. I agree with you about the characterizations and wanted to slap Laurie and Andrew upside the head, but as you said, this book was indicative of its time and the way that gays were perceived back in the day.

    BTW The Persian Boy is part of a trilogy.

    Reply
  • I just loved this book, so I’m glad you reviewed it! I found it quite moving, in part because of the melancholy tone, I think. I need to read more Mary Renault.

    Reply
    • Hi Joely
      You are right, it is a moving book. I also need to read more by this author. I ought to read The Persian Boy as I’ve heard that’s another great book.

      Reply

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