19. Denton Welch – In Youth is Pleasure (1945)

Denton Welch was one of Burroughs’ late obsessions. A young, gay, English public-schoolboy type who died young and never received much recognition for his work, whether pre- or post-mortem.

He is nevertheless an excellent writer, provided one knows how to take him. Nothing much happens in his work, which is full of Blytonesque summer holiday adventures. It is his style that makes the work.

His prose is exquisite and delectable (to use Welchian terms); a mix of shimmering, slightly-overworked description alongside moments of curious (and, for the outside reader, very very funny) disgust.

Burroughs had a particular passage from In Youth is Pleasure memorised:

“I had not ridden since I was ten when my horrible little black pony had at last been given away. How I hated it!  Once it had broken out of the stable and had galloped through the roses and over the lawns showing its awful yellow teeth.”

It’s a perfect sentence for capturing the surprising nature of Welch’s various disgusts.

The contrast between the otherwise idyllic life he depicts and these moments of horror provide endless opportunities for invention. “No one else could write a sentence like that,” as Burroughs put it.

We are introduced to the novel through the appearance of our protagonist’s father at the hotel. Why our protagonist, who is clearly quite a young lad, is staying at a hotel alone is not explained. Presumably it’s to do with his beloved dead mother.

His father treats him to dinner. The serving of duck a l’orange, mashed potato and creamed spinach produces a moment of revery:

“Spinach done this way always reminded Orvil of something. He could not help it; although he tried to rid his mind of the image, it sprang up again with each new sight of the dish. Once in a field full of buttercups he had trodden in a cow-pat. He had looked down at this foot which had broken through the hardened outer crust. It lay in a trough lined with darkest richest green. ‘What a wonderful colour!’ he’d thought; ‘it’s just like velvet or jade, or creamed spinach’.

“Now, as the waiter put the soft spoonfuls on his plate, the image was with him again. ‘I’m eating cow-pat! I’m eating cow-pat!’ he said to himself as he dug his fork in.”

The indecision about whether a cow-pat reminds him of velvet, jade, or creamed spinach, is pure Welch. The pleasure in the thought of eating that cow-pat is a bit much even for him.

As his father enjoys a post-prandial snooze, Orvil (the roman a clef version of Welch) eyes up the golden desserts trolley:

“the phallic chocolate and coffee eclairs oozing fat worms of cream, the squares of sponge cake dressed with wicked green beauty spots of pistachio nuts.”

The cow-pat incident clearly only heightened Orvil’s hunger. A hunger both for food and aesthetic experience; the pleasure of his description perhaps suggesting more of the first than the second.

Every event of the novel is dealt with in this manner. The entirely original mode of description, his curious inner monologue, bring life to otherwise mundane moments. The stuff of banal nostalgia is suddenly alive with joy, horror, and a simpering sensitivity to life.

Burroughs apparently met Welch while passing through London in the 1940s. He hadn’t thought much of him then, nor of his novels.

Later, in the 1980s, he would return to them and find all the originality and charm he’d missed the first time around. The fact that Welch had died young, and thus gained a romantic aura, no doubt helped. As did Burroughs’ own cooling off; his increasing preference for reflection over action, and memory over prophecy.

He placed Welch into The Place of Dead Road (1983) as Kim Carsons, the cowboy lawman who stinks of death and hates horses. The style of The Western Lands (1987) he credited entirely to Welch.

He even hinted at some kind of supernatural relationship between the two of them. As if Welch were a past-life incarnation of Burroughs, despite the fact that Welch was born a year after him.

Having lived a storied life, young writers would often complain to Burroughs that, compared to him, they felt like they had nothing to write about. He always recommended them Welch, and particularly In Youth is Pleasure.

There is a lot that could be said about Welch and Burroughs in terms of stylistic influence. Their books don’t appear the natural bedfellows that Burroughs thinks they are. His Kim Carsons character bares an imperfect resemblance to Welch’s Orvil.

Welch’s work likely does more transparently what Burroughs’ work intends to do, however. As a keen reader of polite fiction and poetry, Burroughs likely saw his more satirical writing existing in the same vane as a Dorothy Parker or a Jane Austen, only his included more “modern” obscenity.

Yet his prose is too clipped, too American. Burroughs bears too many of the marks of Hemingway, pulp, and the other Beats, for his delicacy and refinement of taste to be clearly visible.

I suspect that Denton Welch’s writing – simultaneously polite and grotesque – is how Burroughs reads his own work. His Missourian plain talking, however, makes him incapable of actually writing in this manner. Welch, nevertheless, is the meeting point. Half-Swift, half-Austen.

There is also much to be said about Burroughs as critic, and a critic championing forgotten texts. As the picture above demonstrates, my copy of the work is a reissue brought out on the strength of Burroughs’ own recommendation. He contributes a foreword to the work and packages it with a section of the Journals – a very minor text of this very minor author, which Burroughs nevertheless thought a classic work.

Every critic can list off the writers they think should get more kudos. Burroughs, in his essays, interviews, lectures and conversations, seems genuinely to push for Welch’s recognition. He does the same for Paul and Jane Bowles, for Jack Black, and of course for Brion Gysin.

This is my first Denton Welch book and I have to say, he’s not wrong. Welch’s unique world view is so captivating that I both can’t wait to read more and dread having read all of it. There is, after all, very little of it.