Wednesday, April 28, 2010

In Youth Is Pleasure, by Denton Welch

In Youth Is Pleasure may or may not be a misleading title.  It's one of the most atmospheric books I've ever read - in fact, it is nearly 100% atmosphere - and In Youth Is Pleasure is one of the most atmospheric book titles I've ever run across, tender and bittersweet as the book itself.  On the other hand, the title might suggest hedonism, an indulgent tour through the pleasures of youth.  In Youth Is Pleasure is anxious, fraught, above all teeming - it contains not a hint of that luxe, calme et volupt√© which, now that I think of it, might be the hallmark of a somewhat riper age.

In any case, it is the brief tale of a fifteen year old boy - Orvil - on vacation from boarding school.  He's young, weedy, dreamy, a little feminine - the sort of boy who suffers a lot in an all-male boarding school, and doesn't feel much more comfortable in the bosom of his family.  His mother is dead, his father is a gruff, successful businessman who doesn't have much patience for Orvil's odd fancies, and his two brothers are hale and hearty near-adults who find Orvil mystifying. 

You might guess that In Youth Is Pleasure is a sexual awakening - after all, Orvil is the right age for it and that seems to be what young people do on vacation in literary novels (Bonjour Tristesse is an obvious parallel - and, on the film side, so is Fat Girl) - and in a way, that's an accurate statement.  But it's a sexual awakening without any sex. There's no flirting, no fumbling, no one object of his desires.  What we get is Orvil's state of mind - so highly sensitized that the whole world seems to throb and ache around him.  He's alone in a luxurious, bucolic setting and every gravel path, river canoe, and empty ballroom is a blank space he can populate with his odd imaginings.  Like I said before, this is a book that is all atmosphere - there is no story to speak of, no real character development, I don't even think there's a message.  It's pure slice of life - and, as such, it's absolutely brilliant.  I don't think I've read another book that captures so pitch-perfectly the awful, exquisite feeling of being a teenager.

It's a lovely book, easy to read, and the period detail is remarkable as well - early 20th century upper-class England on holiday (as Orvil is driving away from his hated boarding school in his father's big black Daimler: "'I did not need so large a car for my Escape,' he thought, 'but Magic would never niggle, never send a Baby Austin.'")  It's fairly quotable, and Orvil has an occasionally cruel, acid sense of humor which is the only thing that saves him from being a complete sissy (while dining at the hotel, he sits next to an old woman and observes to himself, "On one of her fingers she wore a half-hoop of very large diamonds; the sort of ring that harmonizes with white suites of bedroom furniture, wreaths of composition roses, inset panels of cane-work, silver shoe-horns and button-hooks, and Reynolds's angel faces on the oxidized lids of powder-pots.")  On the other hand, without the forward momentum of a plot or a point, it takes a bit of patience to push through.  I'd put it down, then have to remind myself to pick it back up.  With that caveat, I recommend it highly.

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