(or maybe it’s just me)
The Charioteer is the kind of book that asks you to bring yourself to it. It’s full of spaces—little ellipses, fade-to-blacks, subtle implications, incomplete sentences, enigmatic images, veiled references. The easiest explanation is of course the most obvious—it’s the 50s. It’s already up for censorship simply because it’s about gay men, and military men no less. Let’s not push it. But I don’t think that’s really why those spaces are there. I think they’re there because of what we, the readers, will fill them with. What we provide helps this book consider a question—the same question posed in the rhetorical demonstration of the Phaedrus about the nature of love, and the tension between the mind and the body therein.
From the early stages of the narrative, we are asked to supply vital elements of the story. Consider the closing of Laurie’s meeting with Ralph in his study at school. Laurie is sixteen, Ralph nineteen, at a cusp that will shape their lives in profoundly different ways.
‘That’s all, goodbye. What is it, then? Come here a moment… Now you see what I mean, Spud. It would never have done, would it? Well, goodbye.’
‘But when can we—’
After a moment Laurie said, ‘Goodbye, Lanyon. Good luck.’
‘I don’t believe in luck,’ said Lanyon as they parted. (33)
How many gaps can be found in this short passage? “What is it, then?” What does Ralph see here in Laurie’s face? What does that ellipsis conceal? The dash? “It would never have done, would it?” What is ‘it’? “After a moment”—what’s happening for Laurie in this moment? There are two undefined ‘moments’ here, both vital. One moment is about the body, the other about the mind—the two elements of love The Charioteer will explore.
“Come here a moment…”
What goes there? The answer may seem straightforward, but each reader will bring something slightly different to that, and consider: this is Laurie’s first reciprocal sexual experience. Combined with the Phaedrus Ralph has just gifted him—at first mistaken for “a crib”, a symbol of thought, over which he will layer bodily responses—it will establish the foundation for Laurie’s understanding of romantic love. It’s critical—and the form of it is up to us. We complete it, and carry it forward.
That has power, the power to send this story so deeply into your mind you might never get it out. The structure of the book, which is almost overwhelmingly intricate, supports that too, directs us subtly but never controls us really, a matrix of parallels, reflections and returns. Laurie is going to have another conversation like the one he’s just had with Ralph, in the kitchen with Andrew after Charlot is taken away. In the first, Ralph is about to be forced to leave the institution that has become his home, and in the second, Laurie is. These two moments mirror each other, and in the ward kitchen, “With a simplicity which this knowledge made to seem quite natural, he leaned over and kissed him” (245). This is Andrew’s first kiss, only here the action is described, leading us to interpret his response not as a gap to be filled—as Laurie’s is in the study—but as an actual lack of response. Laurie interprets this as a shared sense of recognition, but the familiarity he feels is his alone, a reflection. That moment in the study is embedded in Laurie’s subconscious; the memory that we have of it was created by ours. But Laurie and Andrew have very different reactions to these first physical revelations, and after their kiss in the kitchen Laurie has “the feeling of carrying out some brutal operation without anaesthetics”(245), his patient passive and without choice or facility. He feels the responsibility of it then, a responsibility Ralph couldn’t take back in the study, about to head off to an unknown future with the one he had planned all in ruins.
“But when can we—”
What goes there?
While Andrew’s response to physical love is always passive, Laurie’s is from the beginning a desire for more, and that desire is reciprocal and inclusive—‘we’, not ‘I’. From here on we have a craving for physical connection fixed as part of Laurie’s subconscious, and this is reinforced as Laurie emerges from his anaesthetic in the following chapter. At that time his inhibitions are entirely absent, his subconscious completely exposed. He says to Nurse Adrian: “Don’t go back over there. I want to hold your hand”, “I should like to kiss you”, “I suppose you wouldn’t kiss me, just quickly?” (39). The conversation between them in the sideward, Nurse Adrian protected by her innocence and Laurie by the effects of the anaesthetic, outlines Laurie’s sexuality and experience. He attempts to reassure her that he is eligible for the physical comfort he craves, being neither a threat (due to his preference for men), nor compromised (due to his lack of practical experience). In a time of vulnerability and distress, his defences entirely stripped, Laurie wants nothing more than physical contact. Physicality is a vital extension of his emotional life.
What we bring to those two seemingly tiny omissions from the study scene—an ellipsis and a dash—ourselves is far more effective than anything Renault could have written there, because it is supplied by our own subconscious. When she leaves things unsaid, we say them for her according to our own thinking, and what better way to make the feelings, thoughts and experiences of these characters real, as real as our own, than to actually make them . . . well, our own. Throughout the novel Renault asks us to construct the relationship between the mind and physical love and touch through a series of omissions, some clearly marked by punctuation like the ones in the study, and others not.
Alone in his childhood home the night before his mother’s wedding, Laurie himself acknowledges that “nature abhors a vacuum, and it was impossible to empty the mind entirely.” The vacuum must be filled, and we do fill it. We complete this story, and the gaps are so numerous we end up on every page. What Laurie fills the vacuum with in that instance is “the recollection of a dream, which tomorrow need not be remembered” (334). It’s not described, but we’ve filled this gap before, here:
. . . he slept deeply, and when he began to dream, it was about none of the things which had filled his mind when he fell asleep. It was a vivid dream, and too direct to fascinate an analyst. After he woke he thought it surprising; but he knew that at the time it had been full of familiar recognition, and that he had seemed to come home to it all with longing and deep release, after an unbearably long absence which must never be allowed to happen again. It was the kind of thing one can make a joke of next morning, if one can find some uninhibited friend to listen: but that would be impossible for some days, and in any case one could hardly relate such a dream to the person concerned in it. (295)
What form and content did you give this dream? Who is the confidant he refers to here, the person with whom he feels he can share his thoughts without inhibition? This the only dream we colour in for Laurie in full (he has others, but they are described for us) and we recall it with him that night by his childhood fireside. He remembers it lying on the divan mattress by the hearth in a “cold pool of moonlight” and drifts off to sleep, “his eyes pressed down on the pillow, and one arm thrown over it in a gesture which, even in the relaxation of sleep, looked abrupt and possessive” (334), his body recognising belonging while his mind is still catching up. And indeed the following day he has no need to remember this dream again, because it comes true, in yet another gap. Look at the echo of the night before in the aftermath:
He felt that his body had grown bitterly cold, and wondered how he had ignored its protests for so long. Returning by the track of the moonlight, he lay down again. Ralph had turned on his side, his closed eyes still smoothed by sleep. Turned by the light to the colour of some pale palladian metal, the fair hair, which Laurie had seen for so long only in order and discipline, lay tumbled like a boy’s. A secret thrill of triumph, none the less strong for being mixed with gentler things, drew Laurie irresistibly; he reached out stealthily and touched it. When he moved away, Ralph’s eyes had opened. They were smiling, and with fear Laurie saw in how deep a happiness, too silent and too deep, eating like rust the core of his defences” (p. 351).
This time, it is Ralph’s arm outstretched, and the empty space there is Laurie’s place. Ralph has said during the night “You belong with me. As long as we’re both alive, this will always be your place before anyone else’s. That’s a promise” (291).
We have now illustrated a consummation of physical love between them three times, and I think the fact that the first two take the form of a dream, transposed into Laurie’s mind by our own, is critical to the final argument: the mind and the body intertwined. This third time the reciprocity of it is complete as we see the depth of its meaning for Ralph; he is physically present, the dream a reality, the physical love they have shared “a palliative of present pain”, inextricably tangled with their feelings.
The spaces in The Charioteer use our own empathy and subconscious as rhetoric, and there is definitely an argument being put forward here. The question behind that argument is posed in that scene in the Head Prefect’s study, in a conversation through which Laurie feels “like someone who tries to read a book when the pages are being turned a little too quickly” (33). Laurie’s consciousness does, indeed, seem to spend the entire book trying to catch up with his subconscious. Ralph gifts him The Phaedrus of Plato and says “It doesn’t exist anywhere in real life, so don’t let it give you illusions. It’s just a nice idea” (32). Despite his assertion it doesn’t exist, Ralph is about to search the world for it, and Laurie, unconsciously and on a smaller map, will do the same. It’s undefined—another gap. What is ‘it’? Using spaces and incompletes, The Charioteer will ask us to help answer that question.
My copy of The Charioteer is a Harvest edition from 1993, published in America, and the blurb on the back completely misrepresents this book and what it really stands for. It’s about “Laurie’s difficult journey between two communities—that of the soldier and that of the gay man—and the delicate task of navigating the precarious waters that flow between them” apparently; “a stunning work of historical fiction.” The blurb suggests that this book will track Laurie’s journey through discovery of a problematic sexuality, and a struggle to reconcile that sexuality with the strictures that surround him in the historical setting. That’s not it at all.
Leaving aside the fact that it is not a “work of historical fiction” but a contemporary novel, written almost immediately after and probably conceived during the years in which it is set, the reality is that this is not a book about sexuality and society—although those things are present and important in it. Laurie never really questions his sexuality. At school, his talk with Ralph fits the puzzle pieces into place without a struggle:
Scarcely aware of continuing the unheard, instead of the heard, conversation, he said, ‘Jeepers is just a dirty old man. People like that don’t know.’
‘Do you?’ asked Lanyon, watching his face.
‘Anyway,’ said Laurie, ‘I do now.’ (31)
In the sideward, babbling under the influence of the ether, Laurie confirms his sexuality as an accepted and integral part of himself: “Going through a phase is different, I mean people do. It isn’t anything. You never met Charles, did you?” (39). When he writes in his imagined letter to his mother—a coming out letter, we would say through our lense—“I know now that what kept me fighting it so long was the fear that what I was looking for didn’t exist. Lanyon said it didn’t”(57), the ‘it’ he has been fighting is not his sexuality, but more the idea that his sexuality might mean a life without the ‘it’ Ralph had warned wasn’t real. The ‘it’ that he has found is love.
As a book about men in love, set when the social straightjacket was unbuckled a little due to there being a war going on but actually published at a time when such books were likely to be censored or banned (indeed although it was published after some struggle in the UK in 1953 the US would not allow it until 1959) and homosexuality was subject to legal prosecution, this work is courageous. It accepts automatically the fact that men fall in love with men, and that that love is as real and legitimate as any other. It also accepts the fact that sexuality is not a choice or a defect. And it conveys a deep sense of despair and waste in its depiction of the position forced on homosexual men by society, and how that impacted on their minds, their lives, and their freedoms. The contemporary setting is perfect for this, the waste of youth and the mindless devastation inflicted by war both a sharp reflection and an opportunity for easement as the censure and shame inflicted by society is redirected onto those who don’t join the fight. A defence of conscientious objection runs alongside one of homosexuality throughout, but it is made very clear—one of these is a choice, the other is not. Both require courage.
This being a book about the nature of love, and the author having chosen to demonstrate an exploration of the nature of love primarily through relationships between men, leads us now quite naturally to conclude that the ‘love is love’ clarion is a driving force behind the story of Laurie, Andrew and Ralph. And it does ring out very clearly to us—after all, we’ve filled in much of the characters’ emotions ourselves, we can hardly then think they’re not legitimate even if we were so inclined. The first time I read this book, it was the loudest of all its messages, but that’s where I was in my life right then. It felt like a political statement, exquisitely beautiful and emotionally devastating in its presentation. But over time and repeated readings, I’ve come to feel that for the author, ‘love is love’ required no argument or acceptance. It simply was, like a fixed and ancient piece of built-in furniture in the room of her mind, largely unnoticed day to day. Perhaps it was even the floor.
I like that idea—that she felt, like I do, that no form of sexuality should need defending. That all simply are, and are equal; that that is just so obvious a truth it shouldn’t even need to be articulated. It is articulated, of course, many times—like here, with Laurie’s characteristic sort of courage:
Now look, Reg, there’s nothing fancy about this, I know what you feel, like anyone else. It’s people that matter; if not, what are you worrying about, what’s Madge got that you can’t have for a bob against the railings? You care about someone and they let you down. It can happen to anyone; where’s the difference?” (212)
It had to be articulated, of course. It still does. But Ralph reminds Laurie as the book nears its close that “The pagans did recognize our existence, at least. They even allowed us a few standards and a bit of human dignity, just like real people.” To me this sometimes seems more sardonic than self-loathing, but put alongside his drunken rant in Bunny’s lurid living room, we can see that Ralph is at the edge of his endurance. His life has been defined by homophobia, to the extent that he fears exposure more than the bombs and machinegun fire passing over his ship at Dunkirk; in fact when he tells Laurie the story of finding him half dead on the deck of his ship, he says that “a Stuka came over a few seconds later and machine-gunned us. I was a great deal more frightened of you” (122). Nearly all homophobia overtly expressed in the novel comes from Ralph himself, but so do the strongest counterarguments. He sees true nobility in the love he feels, but as he and Laurie agreed way back, on his last day as Head of School, “They [that is, society in general] don’t know.” Ignorance dictates that ‘they’ don’t see that nobility, only shame. It’s a struggle, to live with that, a battle to be fought. One that Ralph believes can only be fought honourably in true partnership, partnership that inspires the courage and faith to continue against the odds. He recites to Laurie, from memory:
If a city or an army could be made up only of lovers and their beloved, it would excel all others. For they would refrain from everything shameful, rivalling one another in honour; and men like these, fighting at each other’s side, might well conquer the world. For the lover would rather be seen by anyone than by his beloved, flying or throwing away his arms; rather he would be ready a thousand times to die. (301)
If they were all free, acknowledged and accepted, able to fight alongside each other openly, what an asset they could be. What they could achieve if they were allowed to be their fullest selves. The Sacred Band. This is from the speech of Phaedrus in Symposium, and I think it provides a stronger argument than political statement for why Renault made her band out of boys in this book: Plato. The political statement is secondary: that this should need no apology.
You don’t have to look too hard at this book to see that the intelligence behind it is formidable. The intricacy of its structure is astonishing, and the grace and skill of its rhetoric, the way it meditates on the Phaedrus to present its own argument about perfect (in its imperfections) love. The language it uses, the style, the writing complex, dense and gorgeous, but with a brevity that forces the reader to fill in the gaps with their own feelings, plunging it deeply into our subconscious selves. It follows the structure and content of the Phaedrus, all the turns of the arguments, and recreates its many mirrors. All the different kinds of love and lover found in the Phaedrus are there, found in modern life and evoked on the page, but in the end, it has been making its own argument the whole time. And being a translation and extension of Phaedrus into modern life, by a writer to whom I think ‘love is love’ must have been a fundamental truth, this book simply had to be about love between men. Anything else would have been a sort of sanitisation I think the author would have found beyond repulsive. And so would I. For Plato in the Phaedrus—and indeed elsewhere, the Symposium most notably—the greatest and noblest form of love was a love between men.
And love supersedes everything in this book. Fundamental to life, as Ralph simply says: “You can’t live without love” (301). But there are questions around it, of course. A large part of the structure of the narrative is a dialogue between Laurie and Ralph about what really constitutes love in the world in which they find themselves—not only what it is or should be, but also how it can survive. When Ralph quotes the Symposium by his fireside, Laurie stilling his restless hand, he’s not lamenting the cruelties of social convention and the injustice of the law, or at least not only that. He’s working through an argument that says love can’t survive if it can’t be truly shared, and taken pride in, by both parties. Between the lover and his beloved, that relationship is the city to be privately defended—he’s said that already: “There it is, Spud. When all’s said and done, the best way to be independent is to have all you need at home” (179). But what is it you “need”?
Plato argued in Phaedrus that the greatest and noblest love was essentially chaste—not without sexual feeling, but with that sexual drive wrestled under control, nobility lying in the resistance of it in favour of intellectual connection. The point of The Charioteer is, I think, to argue that perfect love is a reconciliation of the mind and the body in which each receives equal recognition, a melding of emotional and intellectual understanding and physical communion. The speech of Socrates in which he describes at last the ideal nature of love argues that desire would be present in it only when such drive becomes overwhelming, and that the beloved would accept it and forgive it, but the core of the connection would be separate from it. This is how I’ve come to see the relationship between Laurie and Andrew—any romantic physicality we see between them comes from Laurie alone. The stolen kiss in the kitchen, the taking of Andrew’s hand, the touches to his wrist. Andrew accepts these, but he doesn’t offer such physical affection himself. His connection to Laurie seems purely of the mind, of thought and emotion, and in the end the idea of a physical relationship destroys any chance they might have had to be happy together. As Laurie knew from the start it would. This is Plato’s ideal—a passionate meeting of minds, physical desire strictly bridled—proven unfeasible.
The Charioteer moves past this ideal to a reality of love that sees the mind and the body taking equal share, accommodating each other. The shared significance of the Phaedrus to Ralph and Laurie is our first indication of their intellectual and emotional compatibility. Their attachment to each other is deeply rooted in their respective emotional landscapes, and is very old, realised by Ralph at least way back at Laurie’s fifth form performance of Laertes, and by Hazell perhaps even before that given his hatred of Laurie (but again, the source of that hatred is a gap we fill ourselves). Their physical relationship doesn’t compromise the meeting of their minds; if anything it makes it more honest, although Ralph is as always more aware of this. For him that night after the wedding the search is finally over, physicality completing and augmenting feelings which remain pure and true.
The closing of the book is framed to feel like a quotation, like the many Laurie, Ralph and even Andrew have given us before, but it isn’t—it’s the resolution of this book’s own rhetoric about the nature of love. A representation of the two horses of the charioteer myth, the mind and the body, finally resting together in peace:
Staying each his hunger on what pasture the place affords them, neither the white horse nor the black reproaches his fellow for drawing their master out of the way. They are far, both of them, from home, and lonely, and lengthened by their strife the way has been hard. Now their heads droop side by side till their long manes mingle; and when the voice of the charioteer falls silent they are reconciled for a night in sleep. (347)
The question of what happens next for Laurie and Ralph haunted me after the first reading. Now I realise it’s up to us to answer that question, another gap to fill with what we bring to it, like all the other spaces that seem sometimes like discretion, or maybe reticence, but are actually you. We know that the charioteer and his horses are on a journey, and that in the morning when they wake from their shared sleep they will need to go on. Ralph says that true independence is having everything you need at home, but they aren’t home yet. For me, this time, when they wake the white horse will lay it’s neck over the black, and they will lean more heavily together, huffing shared breath. When the charioteer comes with his harness they won’t want to part. During the day they might struggle, impede each other, become frustrated. The chariot may make little progress, or a lot, it doesn’t matter. At the end of each day’s journey they will share what they have and rest, easing and comforting each other. After all, the chariot of the soul can’t be divided. As Dave says, reporting a lesson taught by a lover long ago, “love is indivisible” (329). Laurie tries to divide it, for Andrew. After their spell together in the Eden of Mrs Chivers’ garden, Laurie sees “two great horses” on their way home after a day of toil and “felt absolute, filled; he could have died then content, empty-handed and free” (80). But these horses are matched; those of the human soul are not, and to still one horse is to stop the other from moving forward. Laurie understands that more and more as his connection to Ralph evolves:
Staring into the fire, Laurie remembered wishing that his love for Andrew could be divided, leaving only the part Andrew could happily share. The fire, settling, threw up a dim transparent flame; there was a faint resurgence of light on the fair hair beside him. It was a Delphic answer, he thought, to an impossible petition; you could see the smile behind the smoke. (320)
The imagery of Delphi here is characteristically enigmatic—a symbol of interpretation. It asks you to interpret.
Over the course of the narrative it becomes clear to me that in each other, Ralph and Laurie have found a perfect reconciliation of thought and desire, all the more perfect for its imperfections. Eventually they will reach home; what happens on the journey, even the route they take, is immaterial—as Laurie realises, “All the rest would have to be thought about later” (347). Laurie has told himself this before—the action closes with another mirror image, right down to Ralph’s strained expression. In the head prefect’s study all those years ago:
. . . Lanyon’s steady gaze was being held up with tightened muscles, like a weight. At the higher-barbarian phase of adolescence, it comes as unwanted, dismaying news that the gods feel pain. But it seemed to Laurie that something had to be done, and no one else was here to do it. All the rest would have to be thought about later.
‘All right,’ he said. ‘I’ll promise not to do anything, if you like. (31)
Laurie lets him go, that time. At the end, Ralph is at the exit door again, only this time—in the reflection of that undefined moment back in the study—Laurie gives him a reason to stay, and they go on together.
In his oldest dream of Ralph, Laurie “looked up and said, ‘Next time you go away, I’m going with you’; and Ralph, who hadn’t had a first name in those days, had looked down all the same and answered, ‘Of course.’” (229-30). I imagine them sometimes, retiring together after a life of maritime adventure to Laurie’s little cottage, his mother and her horrible vicar long gone and time moved on enough, the garden an overgrown paradise, the books unpacked. In a shaft of moonlight in front of the fire, at rest.
The final argument seems to me to be that reason can’t be applied to love. That attempting to control it, to make it what you think it should be, or to force it to be different in yourself or another than what it is, is a pointless struggle. The balance and nature of its components is up to you, revealed gradually as you read but a reflection of your innermost understanding. The Charioteer uses your mind to complete itself and draws things out of you that you might not have acknowledged to yourself before. Your understanding of it evolves over time and according to your experience, your state of mind. It’s different for everyone, and different to each person each time they read it, and that’s how this book was built—to draw the answers from your subconscious, without the control of reason. When at the end the reins are dropped and the charioteer’s horses are left without his control, they come together of their own accord, and their own desire, in harmony and succour. As the journey is ongoing, they will continue to do this, whenever they are allowed to just . . . be.
Renault, Mary. The Charioteer. NY: Harcourt Brace, 1993. First Harvest Edition.