To Dame Edith Sitwell, one of his earliest admirers, Maurice Denton Welch was “a born writer.” To Maurice Cranston, he was “a born solipsist,” to C. E. M. Joad, he was a latter-day decadent, and to Julian Symons, the harshest of his critics, he was “a pathetic rather than a tragic figure” whose writings betray the author’s “complete narcissistic self-absorption” and “the poverty of his subjects.” Welch saw himself as a monk dedicated to a single task, devoted to an art forged in his own image—an art that is not so much narcissistic as self-exploring, perhaps even self-creating. The intense and often sensuous subjectivity of his writing, especially of the later works, is its most distinguishing feature. Situated at the very center of his writing and his world, his “I” exists as the author’s attempt to reconstitute the self—both physical and psychological—that had been largely destroyed as a result of a near-fatal accident in 1935. His “I” exists less as a participant in the events described than as a spectator, as a presiding, recording consciousness. What distinguishes Welch’s subjectivity from mere narcissism and his gaze from mere voyeurism is the manner in which he manages to transform them to narrative advantage. His preoccupation with his own subjective self constitutes his attempt to fill the emptiness he felt within. As he wrote in his journal, “Now I am alone here in the afternoon, with freezing mist outside, and nothing in me.” Although his self-absorption may be traced to more or less specific physiological and psychological causes, the results extend well beyond the merely pathological to the forging of a decidedly new form of narrative art that is all the more surprising given just how derivative and unexceptional his poems and paintings are.
Welch was born on March 29, 1915, in Shanghai, China. Never close to his father, a well-to-do businessman, he was devoted to his American-born mother, from whose death in 1927 he never entirely recovered. In 1935, Welch sustained injuries in a bicycle crash; it would eventually cause his death thirteen years later. Trained as an artist, Welch soon turned to writing and in 1940 published an article about a visit to painter Walter Sickert in Cyril Connolly’s Horizon. In 1942, he began keeping a journal of considerable literary merit as well as biographical interest. His first novel appeared the following year. Maiden Voyage is, as are all Welch’s novels and many of his stories, autobiographical in subject and episodic in form. “After I had run away from school,” the novel begins, “no one knew what to do with...
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