The Charioteer, Mary Renault

Ah, yes, The Charioteer. By the matchless Mary Renault, my love for whom cannot be expressed in strong enough terms, the author of Fire from Heaven and The Persian Boy, which I read as a kid and have never stopped loving. The Charioteer is one of her earlier novels, set more in modern times (World War II), at an army hospital as it happens.

Basically the main character, Laurie (called Spud because his last name’s Odell, bless him) is wounded at Dunkirk and falls madly in love with a conscientious objector who is an orderly at his army hospital. And their chaste romance continues apace, because Laurie nobly fears that he will ruin everything for innocent Andrew if he tells him about homosexuality. I am not a big fan of Andrew’s, to be honest, because he gets all noble and offended about everything, which makes me tired, and plus it crushes me when Laurie’s all tense and snappy due to unrequited love. So meanwhile he is reunited with this guy he admired when they were in school together, before the guy got expelled for being a big gay, and they get along gorgeously and Ralph is rather sweetly gallant. P.S. I like Ralph better than Andrew, and if I were Laurie, I’d be like, Huh, now with Ralph I have a future that contains good conversations, good sex, and no hiding shit, whereas with Andrew it’s just the good conversations and endless mental torture, and the decision would be easy, but Laurie spends a lot of time agonizing over it.

I can’t explain what makes this book so appealing to me. One thing is that they really do have good conversations. Mary Renault writes these beautiful dialogue sequences that are just impossibly eloquent with the things they’re saying and the things they’re not saying. I go green with envy reading it because I will never, ever be able to pack that much meaning and intensity into a line of dialogue, ever. And overall, it’s just such an understated and melancholy book, and I really do like Ralph an awful lot. He’s such a dear and he loves Laurie so much.

I will add this caveat: There’s a fair bit of unpleasantness with the more effeminate gay characters. They all have idiotic names like Bim and Toto and Bunny, and they are all gossipy bitchy people trying to screw up everyone else’s lives by telling lies and reading diaries and making half-assed manipulative suicide attempts. Not very nice in Mary Renault and not incredibly defensible even though she was writing about people that actually existed in a certain environment to which she had been recently, and to her detriment, exposed.