That Rare Being, a Born Writer: DENTON WELCH

The stories of Denton Welcj

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Such work resists categories. In theory, Welch could be placed on the gay studies shelf: he was a homosexual, and his female characters are sometimes men in literary drag. But there is nothing erotically explicit in these stories, no precious attempts at special pleading. He could belong with the invalid writers, like Marcel Proust and Flannery O'Connor, whose illnesses gave them a vital solitude. But unlike them, Welch had little interest in society. As his biographer, Michael De-la-Noy, notes, "Politics, literature, indeed the entire world outside his bedroom window, scarcely existed."

The indifference is understandable. The man diagnosed himself accurately as "almost a corpse." It is miraculous that he had the wit and energy to remember, much less to create. Welch's world is barely larger than a sickroom, but its travel books intrigued some famous tourists, including Edith Sitwell and W.H. Auden, Elizabeth Bowen and E.M. Forster, who praised the author's "sensitiveness, visual and tactile." The style-struck critic Cyril Connolly described Welch's prose as ripening "like an October pear that measures every hour of sunshine against the inevitable frost."

Welch had his own way with similes: he described people "like bottles walking; their heads as inexpressive as round stoppers. What if some god or giant should bend down and take several of the stoppers out? I thought. Inside there would be black churning depths like bile, or bitter medicine." But it is his wary view of the adult world that lingers. Even a Punch and Judy show has an ominous significance: when Punch "began hitting the baby with hard wooden thuds I felt its skull crack and knew that none of us were safe while grown-ups thought that this sort of thing was funny."

Rediscovered, Welch is more likely to be influential than popular. His undeceived tone, coupled with wide-eyed looks backward, gives him the air of a boy in the costume of a judge. That sort of grotesquerie is not to everyone's taste. But there has been no one like that boy before or since, and adults who hope to understand children ought to be on reading terms with their strange, stunted laureate. --By Stefan Kanfer

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