I am not sure whether Denton Welch ever was widely read, but these days he seems to be mostly forgotten; most people (like myself, until recently) probably only know him by way of William Burroughs who called him an influence and dedicated The Place of Dead Roads to him. Welch died young (at Age 33 in 1948) and only wrote three novels of which Maiden Voyage is the first. Small British publisher Galley Beggar Press gratefully has re-released all three of them as affordable (if somewhat sloppily proofread) e-books and this is how Denton Welch ended up being more than a vaguely familiar name to me and became an author I have actually read – and, as it turned out, enjoyed rather a lot.
Maiden Voyage is a comparatively slim novel and a rather strange one. It is either a novel passing itself off as autobiography or autobiography masquerading as novel, or, most likely, a bit of both. Which was not all that unusual even though back in 1943 when the novel was first published nobody had heard of auto-fiction yet. What does make Maiden Voyage stand out is first all of its language, the way Welch observes and describes people, objects and landscapes – he has an infallible eye for the significant detail, capturing everything his gaze comes to rest on just so and then rendering it in a languid, dreamy way which drapes it in an aura of the fantastical.
Welch’s sentences are short and to the point, but possess a certain unearthly quality, a faint but persistent sense of irreality: There is a hallucinatory atmosphere pervading all of this novel, almost as if the narrator was running a fever that does not quite make it to the surface but still informs and distorts all of his perceptions, the effect reminding me somewhat of a gentle, mild-mannered Raskolnikov.
While it is a more (virtual) 264 pages long, Maiden Voyage feels like a much longer novel – not because it felt boring (which it emphatically did not) but because there is so much in it, such an immense wealth of observation and perception. I assume that the novel is based on journal entries which have been polished until they attained their peculiar, eerie shine and then placed into a rudimentary narrative framework whose sole purpose is to show them off to best effect. In consequence, not much really happens in the novel (the adolescent protagonist – called, of course “Denton” – making a rather clumsy attempt to run from school, then spending some time in Shanghai is pretty much the extent of the plot, if you even want to call it that) but I never felt the lack as I was strolling from precious miniature to striking vignette, as the glittering array of finely wrought showpieces kept my interest alive throughout.
Maiden Voyage is a novel which eschews anything grand and ostentatious, instead opting for the minute and seemingly insignificant, the small, tiny things which so often go by unnoticed. While the narrator’s feverishness imbues everything with an air of unreality, it also enhances his receptiveness, makes him more susceptible to even the slightest sensory impressions (and as different as the reading experience for both authors is, there is a certain resemblance to Marcel Proust concealed in this fever-induced hyper-sensitivity). Relinquishing his full attention to apparently trivial and trifling things and incidents, the narrator’s heightened perception traces their shape and texture to finally catch in each of them just that detail which makes them shine, solidifying their impact by rarefying their reality as he holds it up for our inspection bathed in the light of his febrile imagination – turns them into something magical for our wonder and delight.