Fiction the charioteer

Published on December 8th, 2013


The Charioteer by Mary Renault

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Blurb: Injured at Dunkirk, Laurie Odell, a young corporal, is recovering at a rural veterans’ hospital. There he meets Andrew, a conscientious objector serving as an orderly, and the men find solace in their covert friendship. Then Ralph Lanyon appears, a mentor from Laurie’s schooldays. Through him, Laurie is drawn into a tight-knit circle of gay men for whom liaisons are fleeting and he is forced to choose between the ideals of a perfect friendship and the pleasures of experience. (Virago)

Rachel Cooke, The Observer

“Those who pick it up are unlikely to be disappointed. It’s true that there are moments when it has the sepia feel of a period piece, all aspidistras, linoleum and aunts called Olive; and like Renault’s Hellenic novels, it sometimes seems overly preoccupied with ethics, with high-minded considerations of how a man might live a good and honourable life. But The Charioteeris also one of the most singular and moving postwar novels I know, quiet passion and a certain awkwardness combining to striking effect.”

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Peter Parker, The Telegraph

The novel is now republished as “a landmark work in gay literature” to stand beside Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar (1948) and James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (1956). These two novels, however, shamefully opted – as Renault does not – for the then traditional ending of gay fiction, characterised by Christopher Isherwood as “tragedy, defeat and death”. That said, the pervasive high-mindedness of Renault’s novel seems old fashioned beside, say, Angus Wilson’s Hemlock and After, published the year before. It is also true that the austere nobility of her principal characters is rather crudely set against the raucous and bitchy (but well drawn) “queer” circles in which Ralph uneasily moves.

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Antonia Senior, The Times

“A cynical reader eavesdropping on Laurie’s preoccupations from a sexualised, modern world, may find his squeamishness and earnestness about sex quaint. For Laurie, there is something sacred about love and sex. The embarrassment, to modern eyes, comes from his twinning of love with honour, and his awareness of his soul. Cynics, take note. If you can read The Charioteer without contemplating your own soul, you will prove, definitively, that such a thing does not exist.”

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