One of the most repeated thus influential maxims about reading is by the Baltimorean filmmaker, John Waters. ‘If you go home with somebody,’ it goes, ‘and they don’t have books, don’t fuck ’em’. This is a much-adopted rule, granting the reading tastes of the man who coined it a certain elevated status. So, when Waters says, ‘maybe there is no better novel in the world than Denton Welch’s In Youth is Pleasure,’ we should pay attention and find a copy. Or at least ask why.
Waters is getting ready for an 18-date speaking tour, so had no time to discuss In Youth is Pleasure on the phone, directing me instead to his own book Role Models, in which he describes how ‘just holding it in my hands, so precious, so beyond gay, so deliciously subversive, is enough to make illiteracy a worse social crime than hunger.’ He also offers this useful summary: ‘Published in the UK in 1945, ten years after the terrible accident in which the author, riding his bicycle, was hit by a car and permanently injured, this amazing (and thinly disguised) autobiographical novel is the graceful and astonishingly erotic tale of Orvil Pym, a creative child who has lost his mother to some mysterious disease.’
You heard it, Orvil Pym! The amazing thing is, as we get to know him over the space of a summer spent in various English settings (it’s around 1930, when men still wore jackets on the beach), we come to feel this unlikely name just really suits him or rather is him. It’s impossible to imagine Orvil Pym being called anything else, except perhaps Denton Welch. Something else to know is that the title In Youth is Pleasure comes from a poem by Robert Wever, who lived in the sixteenth century but about whom very little is known.
‘He is certainly a strange, perverse teenager,’ writes another Welch advocate, Edmund White, in his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition. Orvil breaks into a church, slinks around on a rowboat, and has various low-key homoerotic encounters. He wears lipstick and begins an intimate love-hate friendship with a man living in a hut. All this while Orvil is staying in a hotel with his father and a pair of macho brothers.
When a friend arrived at a restaurant where we were having dinner, she spotted the book out on the table, opened a page at random and recited what she found: ‘The pêche Melba arrived with its dripping veil of thick red Escoffier sauce. The two slices had been joined together so that the buttock-like shape of the fruit was again apparent.’ She immediately took a photo of the cover. As for pêche Melba, known more commonly (if even served any more) as peach Melba, the thick red sauce is made from raspberries. ‘The formula is too often altered,’ the dish’s inventor August Escoffier complained. ‘Peach melba consists of tender, ripe peaches, vanilla ice cream and sweet raspberry purée. Any deviation from this rule harms the finesse of this dessert.’
Another fan of In Youth is Pleasure is Richard Lester Mayers aka Richard Hell of American punk outfit The Voidoids. He calls Denton Welch a ‘British Proust’, but whereas the Proust books span seven volumes at a combined total of three or four thousand pages, In Youth is Pleasure is a far more compact 171. Welch is like Proust, says Hell, not in terms of volume but ‘in his astounding grasp of his own (usually “mundane”) experience’ and in the way that ‘nothing much happens in his books but the most wonderful writing’. Which makes one think of the claustrophobic mood of another of Hell’s favourites, which was Book of the Season in issue 14 of The Happy Reader, Joris-Karl Huysmans’ Against Nature.
This is what Denton Welch looked like to himself. For more background on the author, try this episode of the Backlisted podcast about Welch’s memoir Maiden Voyage. ‘I have been told that it reeks of homosexuality,’ Winston Churchill’s private secretary wrote, once Maiden Voyage had become famous. ‘I think I must get it.’
This year’s Prix de la Page 111, the French literary prize given to the novel with the best one hundred and eleventh page, has been awarded to La Semaine Perpétuelle (The Perpetual Week) by Laura Vazquez. The page concerns a man who hasn’t slept for forty-three years. Congratulations, Laura!
All the books featured in The Simpsons.
Salman Rushdie has been using a newsletter as an à la mode way of serialising his new novella, but occasionally he uses the platform for other things too. These include sharing anecdotes about fellow celebrity authors, reading out passages from Moby Dick, or reviewing popular movies such as No Time to Die, Dune or The French Dispatch. Readers will recall an early namecheck for the latter in The Happy Reader when Owen Wilson revealed he had a ‘small part’ in the film and had shot scenes with Wes Anderson in Angoulême near Bordeaux (a town otherwise famous for hosting the world’s biggest comic book festival). Lately Owen’s been reading the biography of Swiss writer Robert Walser, a book he received as a present from his biography-loving brother, Luke.
That’s it for this month. Please be in touch on [email protected]
[email protected]. If you enjoy these newsletters, we’d greatly appreciate you sharing the subscription link. See you in December for an issue dedicated to wintry Truman Capote stories, courtesy of the collection A Christmas Memory. Oh, and here is the always-omitted last part of that John Waters quote: ‘Don’t let them explore you until they’ve explored the secret universes of books. Don’t let them connect with you until they’ve walked between the lines on the pages. Books are cool, if you have to withhold yourself from someone for a bit in order for them to realise this then do so.’
Thank you for reading.
Editor-in-chief, The Happy Reader