An Unfinished Man

Denton Welch: The Making of a Writer

by Michael De-la-Noy
Viking, 303 pp., $20.00

Denton Welch
Denton Welch; drawing by David Levine

“Nothing but this small picture will be left of the day; many years after, people may be able to read, then say, ‘He was cold, he watched the sunset, he ate a chocolate,’ but nothing more will be left to them.” The English writer Denton Welch wrote this in the last year of his life, when he was thirty-three, in 1948. His sense of time always passing, of the fragility of things, was the result of an unsettled childhood and the death of his mother when he was eleven. But in the last years of his life, when he was dying from the aftereffects of a traffic accident, it was accentuated. Death had to be staved off, he grew more and more ill. Time had to be preserved in diaries (they were begun six years before his death), his three autobiographical books had to be written; “I must not be so ill that I cannot be famous,” he had written in 1942. In the end he was wrong to say that nothing more would be left for us but the cold and the sunset and the chocolate; he left behind the outline of his life and sensibility, in a few small works that are like the miniature antiques he loved so much—delicate, accurate.

His life, Welch wrote, fell into two parts, Old Life and New Life. He was a healthy art student when he was run over by a car, and he survived badly crippled for thirteen more years. From the moment he came to on a grass verge to hear a voice speaking to him through a cloud of pain everything was totally changed; he compares it ironically to a new birth. But it was not only a birth into invalidism; the accident may be the reason why we know of him now. It gave him the impetus to achieve (and writing was physically easier than painting) and gave him the subject for his best book.

A Voice Through a Cloud, written last, tells the story of his accident plainly, from the day he set out hopefully to cycle along a country road until many months later when he began to take up an inexorably crippled life. Before that he had written Maiden Voyage, about a year spent in China after leaving school, and In Youth Is Pleasure, going back to a summer vacation at fifteen. This is the least successful of the three; whimsicality is not kept in check by the ballast of fact that holds the other two books. Apart from the journals, letters (from which De-la-Noy quotes), and a handful of rather amateurish short stories, this is the complete achievement of Welch’s short life. In the Forties and Fifties he had something of a cult, perhaps because of the veiled homosexuality in his work, perhaps because of the tragedy of his death; now in his way he has…

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