The Journals of Denton Welch Essay - Critical Context

Denton Welch

Critical Context

The apparent realism of the journals and of Welch’s largely autobiographical novels and short stories deserves to be understood in the context not of the realist tradition, as one may at first think, but of literary modernism. More specifically, Welch’s writings bear comparison with Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu (1913-1927; Remembrance of Things Past, 1922-1931, 1981). Both writers are to a certain degree guilty of the preciousness, narcissistic self-indulgence, and art-for-art’s-sake decadence with which a number of critics have charged them. More important, however, is the fact that both writers perfected styles in which the greatest importance was placed upon the smallest details and upon their finding in these details the seeds for their larger narrative structures.

Of greater interest, Welch, like Proust, wrote what may loosely be described as autobiographical fiction. In the case of Welch’s journals, considerable emphasis is placed upon the characteristic modernist problem of the relationship between art and life. The journals ought not to be approached, however, as either a commentary on or a sourcebook for Welch’s stories and novels but, instead, as a variation on a modernist theme. The autobiographical nature of Welch’s writing has made his work attractive to Freudian readers. The vulnerability and self-consciousness of his autobiographical protagonists have caused some critics to link him with the existentialist movement that began coming into vogue during the decade (the 1940’s) when Welch did all of his writing. The rediscovery of Welch in the 1980’s may owe something to the frankness with which he deals with his own homosexuality.

Mention should be made of one affinity that has gone unnoticed, between Welch and Louis-Ferdinand Celine. Despite obvious differences in style and ostensible subject matter, one similarity remains particularly significant: their mutually obsessive concern for the individual’s doomed efforts to stop the process of dying and to make the present passing moment freeze in a deep and deathless now not unlike the painted image that captures time and in this way transcends it, as Welch invariably sought to do.