First published in 1953, Mary Renault’s lyrical novel The Charioteer is the story of Laurie “Spud” Odell’s coming-of-age, set against the backdrop of the Second World War. That Renault was informed by the works of Freud is apparent from the very first chapter, when five-year-old Laurie’s father walks out.
Laurie is in bed, but not asleep. Ten o’clock has come and gone — “Nine was the wild outpost of an unknown continent. Ten was the mountains of the moon, the burial-place of elephants: white on the map.” Understanding that he only remained awake past bedtime when he was sick, Laurie decides that he must be going to die.
A known fact had become real to him for the first time, that sooner or later everyone died: not only old people like Grannie, but Laurie, Laurie Odell, I.
Thus, in the plainest terms, we see the birth of Laurie’s ego, his sense of himself as a unique and independent being. The little boy, still afraid of the dark, understands and confronts his own mortality.
Of course, Laurie doesn’t die. He gets out of bed and finds his father, a figure from whom Laurie is already rather estranged, packing to leave. We never discover why his parents separated, learning only “his father had done something wicked while he was away from home”, something which had “violated” his mother’s trust.
It is tempting to draw a correlation between Laurie’s adult sexuality and the mysterious reason his father left. Although “Laurie loved and admired, without respecting, his father”, that lack of respect came from Laurie’s perceived affinity with a man who, in truth, he barely knew. They were “too often in trouble together”, “his father had to obey his mother just as he had, under penalty of exile from love.” Yet when his father is finally cast out, Laurie finds his position secured: his mother, “Tonight and always… belonged to him.”
Thus within the opening chapter Renault’s Oedipal narrative of Laurie’s boyhood is complete. In less than an hour, Laurie’s new-fledged ego has overseen his effective replacement of his father in his mother’s life (posited by Freud as the ultimate aim of the undeveloped child), but left him absent a paternal figure with whom to identify, and without whom his emerging sexuality cannot (under a Freudian model) develop.
Evidence of Laurie’s otherness is provided in the second chapter. The narrative leaps forward to show sixteen-year-old Laurie in school. An older boy, Ralph Lanyon, whom Laurie greatly admires, is being expelled for having an inappropriate relationship with another student. The boys are scandalised more by Lanyon’s being sent down than his crime, although when Laurie insists they should take action to prevent it from happening, they quickly shut him down.
The telepathic message Carter was straining to convey was, “Lanyon likes you, and other people have noticed it if you haven’t.” But Spud must know this, he wasn’t a fool: since he would talk, it seemed, about anything, why couldn’t he think?
Shortly after Laurie’s outburst, he’s summoned to Lanyon’s room. Although willing to stand up for the older boy and swear himself guilty of Lanyon’s crime if it would save him (despite not really understanding what exactly Lanyon had been accused of; and being mistakenly convinced of his innocence), the idea of being confronted by Lanyon was terrifying. When he gets to his room, Lanyon demands that Laurie stop with his foolishness and let him leave quietly. When Laurie refuses to heed the instruction, Lanyon invokes the one figure Laurie cannot disappoint: “He had a sudden, horribly clear vision of his mother’s face.”
The conflict between Laurie’s desires, and the hold his mother has over his sexuality, are the main themes of The Charioteer. At sixteen, Laurie has failed to develop beyond the epiphany he had ten years earlier. His innocence is absolute: even when the other boys try to spell out for him what is going on, Laurie is blind to their hints; deaf to innuendo. He has yet to understand for himself that Lanyon likes him, or even the ways in which he likes Lanyon. “His admiration of Lanyon had soared to the point of worship”, but the Lanyon he’s created in his head is a false idol, as innocent and sexless as Laurie himself.
That isn’t to say Lanyon doesn’t try to open Laurie’s eyes. As Lanyon dismisses him for the last time, he cannot resist stealing a kiss.
“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.”
The narrative jumps again in the third chapter: the year is 1940, and Laurie is now twenty-three, recuperating in a military hospital having been injured at Dunkirk. From this point on the narrative is linear, as Laurie slowly heals and begins to adapt to life with a permanent disability.
Although still profoundly innocent in many ways, Laurie does at least understand his desires by the time he goes to war. The shadowy figure of Charles, a university friend, is mentioned — “If you know about yourself, that means you must know about at least one other” — but Laurie makes clear to those who ask that his association with Charles was brief and didn’t end well.
Laurie becomes smitten with Andrew, a young Quaker given a job at the hospital after refusing to fight. Andrew seems more innocent even than Laurie, and even as the two grow closer, bonding over Plato’s Phaedrus, a gift to Laurie from Lanyon on the day he was sent down, Laurie finds himself fearful of doing anything to disturb that innocence. Then Laurie meets a young doctor-in-training, obviously queer, who identifies Laurie as a kindred spirit and invites him to a party. One of the attendees he casually mentions is Ralph Lanyon.
Realising he must mean the Lanyon, Laurie leaps at the chance of a reunion. Ralph is astonished to see him alive: at Dunkirk, Ralph was sailing the navy ship which rescued Laurie. He wrote to him at the hospital afterwards, but in a mix-up was informed that Laurie had died. Now reunited, the two lose no time in catching up. With Ralph, Laurie can be himself, can speak of being queer and what it means to him without fear of judgment.
As Laurie’s friendship with Ralph deepens, he finds himself caught between his affections for him and Andrew. The Phaedrus contains a story about a charioteer, for which this novel is named, trying to drive two horses.
“[Plato] likens the soul to a charioteer, driving two winged horses harnessed abreast…. Each of the gods has a pair of divine white horses, but the soul only has one. The other is black and scruffy, with a thick neck, flat face, hairy fetlocks, gray bloodshot eyes, and shaggy ears. He’s hard of hearing, thick-skinned, and given to bolting whenever he sees something he wants. So the two beasts rarely see eye to eye, but the charioteer has to keep them on the road together.”
Andrew, of course, represents the white horse, while Ralph is the black. Laurie’s struggle to reconcile his attraction to the two men becomes a metaphor for a greater struggle between purity and carnality; between innocence and experience. Then his mother remarrys, freeing him of her Oedipal influence. It is no coincidence that it is on her wedding night Laurie loses his virginity to Ralph.
Despite this development, Laurie still cannot bring himself to let go of Andrew. Ralph tells him he doesn’t have to, promising that if they live together, as he wants, he won’t object to Laurie spending time visiting Andrew. Laurie, however, knows the solution is not an ideal one: he’ll only end up hurting both men with his indecisiveness. Then Ralph’s jealous ex-boyfriend Bunny, incensed that Ralph and Laurie are now together, pays Andrew a visit (posing as Ralph) and tells him everything.
Andrew responds, rather surprisingly, by hitting Bunny. He confesses what he did in a letter to Laurie, which also carries the news that he has returned to London to volunteer with the ambulance service. Laurie immediately goes AWOL and travels to London in a bid to make things right. He finds the house where Andrew is staying, but is prevented from seeing him by an older Quaker, who has taken a paternal interest in Andrew. He knows what happened between Andrew and Laurie, and while he’s sympathetic, he believes things are best left as they are. Laurie accepts his advice, and vents his anger instead on Ralph, whom he believed was the one to visit Andrew.
That evening, Ralph’s best friend confronts Laurie, demanding to know if he’s heard from him since their argument. He tells Laurie that it wasn’t Ralph who visited Andrew, but Bunny, and since Ralph worked it out nobody’s been able to locate him. Filled with foreboding, Laurie rushes to Ralph’s lodgings. He finds the room empty, a letter addressed to him sitting on the table. Laurie opens it and discovers to his horror it’s a suicide note.
Just lately I have been happier than I ever had the right to expect, and as one goes round the world one sees that happiness is hard to come by and seldom lasts for long. Good luck to you, Spud. We always agreed that right, left, or centre, it is still necessary to make out as a human being. I haven’t done it, but you will. Goodbye.
Just as Laurie replaces the letter in the envelope, Ralph returns, and Laurie apologises for all the things he said when he blamed Ralph for Andrew leaving.
Ralph didn’t move forward. His eyes were dragged down at the corners, as if with lack of sleep: he contracted them strainingly. Behind them, like an almost exhausted runner, his pride seemed to pause, to sway and balance. “I suppose you found out?”
Remorse, even the greatest, has the nature of a debt: if we could only clear the books, we feel that we should be free. But a deep compassion has the nature of love, which keeps no balance sheet; we are no longer our own. So in the presence of this helpless forgiveness, Laurie seemed to himself to be doing only what was nearest in the absence of time to think. There was something here to be done which no one else could do. All the rest would have to be thought about later. He looked Ralph straight in the eyes, believing what he said.
“Afterwards. Alec told me. But I should have come anyway. I should have had to come back.”
Born on this day: Anne Burrell (46, American), TV chef; Luis Cernuda (1902-1963, Spanish), poet and member of the Generation of ’27; Scott Evans (32, American), actor and younger brother of actor Chris Evans; Fannie Flagg (71, American), actress best known for Fried Green Tomatoes; Philippe I, Duke of Orléans (1661-1701, French), royalty; Christopher Price (1967-2002, English), BBC journalist and broadcaster; Edgars Rinkēvičs (42, Latvian), current Minister for Foreign Affairs for Latvia, first openly gay Latvian lawmaker, and most prominent out politician in the Soviet Bloc; Alan G. Rogers (1976-2008, American), US Army Major and intelligence officer, first known gay combat fatality in Operation Iraqi Freedom; and Kay Ryan (70, American), Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, MacArthur Fellow and sixteenth United States Poet Laureate.