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The Charioteer [Read] ➬ The Charioteer Author Mary Renault – After enduring an injury at Dunkirk during World War II, Laurie Odell is sent to a rural veterans’ hospital in England to convalesce There he befriends the young, bright Andrew, a conscientious obje After enduring an injury at Dunkirk during World War II, Laurie Odell is sent to a rural veterans’ hospital in England to convalesce There he befriends the young, bright Andrew, a conscientious objector serving as an orderly As they find solace and companionship together in the idyllic surroundings of the hospital, their friendship blooms into a discreet, chaste romance Then one day, Ralph Lanyon, a mentor from Laurie’s schoolboy days, suddenly reappears in Laurie’s life, and draws him into a tightknit social circle of worldweary gay men Laurie is forced to choose between the sweet ideals of innocence and the distinct pleasures of experience originally published in the United States in , The Charioteer is a bold, unapologetic portrayal of male homosexuality during World War II that stands with Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar and Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories as a monumental work in gay literature.

10 thoughts on “The Charioteer

  1. Jessica Jessica says:

    My least favorite thing about this book reporting business is choosing the star rating. I seriously get ulcers trying to quantify my personal, subjective response to each book I've read. Was it just okay? Did I like it or really like it? Part of my problem is that I've resolved from the beginning to be incredibly stingy with my five-star ratings. I've only given five stars to books that I feel have affected my sense of self and relation to the world on some profound and fundamental level, which has created the problem that my four-star category now is the broadest and least meaningful. My rule in distinguishing between a three-star and four-star book is how urgently I feel the need to return to reading it while I am not. Anything I actively crave earns the fourth star: four-star books make me look forward to subway rides, cause me to resent social obligations.... But The Charioteer made me rethink my commitment to the four star system. This was a book that I flung down at midnight on a Tuesday, beating my breast, cursing my fate, and crying out to the gods, Why must I work? because it broke my heart that I couldn't stay up all night long finishing it. I did debate postponing Thanksgiving, and there were times while reading that I actually had to stop, put the book down in my lap, and just freak out for a minute about how good it was. This was a book I found myself reading while walking down a crowded street at midday in Chinatown, a childhood behavior to which I rarely revert... Anyway, all of this did, for me, emphasize the limitations of the four-star rating. Shouldn't I just give books five stars if I think they're amazing? I guess I will try it, and see how I feel.

    This book was amazing! Remember how great and romantic Farewell to Arms was, except that the female character was sort of a misogynistically drawn 2D fuckdoll, and the protagonist was a bit of an inarticulate, hypermasculine alcoholic brute? Well, imagine that book only British, not American, with a sensitive refined young wounded soldier and adorable cute boy orderlies instead of Hemingway's somewhat ridiculous female characters... Okay, this really wasn't anything like Farewell to Arms, and the comparison doesn't do justice to either book. They just both had romances in hospitals between wounded soldiers and hospital staff: I guess it's a genre, and not just those two... it's very romantic, all this wounding and nursing! Well, it is in the books. I don't know about real life.

    The Charioteer was like some kind of dream birthday dinner of all my favorite foods. Instead of stuffed tomatoes and coffee ice cream, it had England during World War II, gay romance, and some of the most stunningly skillful writing I think I've ever read. I can't remember many books that more successfully conveyed private emotional states, a description of the physical world, complex and convincingly human characters and their interactions, and all the rest of that stuff that contributes to making up a really class-A, five-star novel. While reading this, I remembered that novels are an art form. As I personally read just for pleasure and judge books exclusively on their merits as entertainment, when I'm forced to confront this artwork thing it feels like a revelation. The Charioteer accomplishes so much of what it is I believe successful literature should do: that is, it conveys the fine and subtle specificity of a certain time, place, and character, while tying this individual story to the broad human experience. Anyone who can hang her novel on some Plato, as Renault does, and make it work so beautifully that a girl like me actually spends time poking at the Phaedrus online, deserves some sort of prize -- perhaps an extra star!

    I couldn't stop wondering, as I read this, why I tend so often to love novels about mid-twentieth-century gay men so much. I think I must enjoy the inherent romance and painfully secret subtlety surrounding homosexual relationships in the pre-Stonewall era: there are few things as romantic as a forbidden, secret love that persists amidst strong social prohibitions, plus these books often avoid the tired cliches of heterosexual romances, and therefore seem more fresh. I also really enjoy the unsaid, unspelled-out nature of these relationships. There were so many conversations in this book that I had to read a few times before I caught the meaning implicit between the lines. A lot of that is probably its being British, on top of being gay, but the kind of careful and cryptic, thickly-coded social interaction which is what makes earlier, nineteenth-century novels about upper-crusty types so fascinating, survives longer in gay fiction. I love reading this stuff. It's like doing a crossword puzzle, trying to figure out what it means, only a crossword puzzle with a payoff beyond just the process.

    I think another reason I like reading older books about gay men is that I'm so exhausted by depictions of women as objects of desire and of female sexuality, that it's a huge relief to get the romance without having to think about that stuff. There's something so relaxing about it, to me, dodging all those feminist issues, yet still getting the kind of novel I want. There are actually quite a few well-drawn female characters in The Charioteer, and this was one area where it seemed unsurprising that the author was a woman. I am really interested now in Mary Renault. I want to read everything else she wrote, and though I'm not sure how I feel about historical fiction set in Ancient Greece, if it's anything like this, I am sure I will love it.

    I really can't say I'd recommend this unreservedly to everyone, though if you're interested in historical fiction about gays in the military, it's hard to imagine that you could do better. I also recommend this to people who love the Novel, especially the life-during-wartime British Novel, which I have to say, I should think would be a lot of you.

  2. Julio Genao Julio Genao says:

    significantly excellent.

    in some passages so stunningly real and identifiable i found myself experiencing things that had happened to me in nearly the same way, as if for the first time.

    i feel like i already knew everyone i met in this book.

    definitive. absolutely definitive.

    discussion with author alexis hall:

  3. Josh Josh says:

    Probably the single most influential book I ever read. Beautifully written, evocative, haunting, powerful.

  4. Anna Luce Anna Luce says:

    ★★★★★ 5 stars

    “He was filled with a vast sense of the momentous, of unknown mysteries. He did not know what he should demand of himself, nor did it seem to matter, for he had not chosen this music he moved to, it had chosen him.”

    This is the fourth time I’ve read The Charioteer and once again I’ve been swept away by it. The Charioteer is quite likely my favourite novel of all time as there are few books that I care as much about.
    There is something comforting about The Charioteer, which is strange given that Mary Renault’s impenetrable prose demands her readers’ full attention. There are the coded conversations, thoughts and feelings are often only obliquely hinted at, the pages are full of slang, and there are constant allusions to the Classics. Yet, her writing also has a languid quality, perhaps reflective of her protagonist’s convalescence.
    In an almost Bildungsroman fashion The Charioteer introduces us to Laurie as a child. This first chapter recounts a significant moment of his childhood and is followed by a chapter of him at school where he has a memorable encounter with the Head of the School, Ralph Lanyon. The subsequent chapters follow Laurie as he’s recovering from a war injury at a hospital. Here he meets and falls for Andrew, a conscientious objector who is now working as an orderly.
    While Laurie is aware of his sexuality, and believes that Andrew reciprocates his feelings, he’s unwilling to reveal to Andrew the true depth of his emotions. By chance Laurie ends up re-connecting with Ralph. As the title of the novel suggests, Laurie’s story can be likened to the myth of the charioteer from Phaedrus.
    Now, I know that my summary doesn’t do this novel justice. I don’t wish to reveal too much about the story or its characters. Still, I can say that The Charioteer presents us with a beautiful narrative, one that captures a particular moment in time. The characters’ days are punctuated by Imminent Danger sirens, air raids, shortages. Laurie, alongside other patients, has to obey the hospital’s strict rules. Under Renault’s hand, the war seems almost ‘normal’, and characters will often discuss it as they would any other topic.
    Renault’s portrayal of the gay community feels both intimate and compelling. While Laurie himself feels uneasy towards those he deems as ‘flamboyant’ or ‘effeminate’, the narrative doesn’t share his prejudices. Renault’s characters often engage themselves in conversations relating to their role in society, often professing contrasting beliefs. Their discussion on ethics and morality were riveting, and I soon lost myself in the rhythm of their back and forth.
    The novel is as interested in what the characters say as it is with what they don’t say, whether this is due to self-censoring or self-denial. Although Laurie is the story’s protagonist, much of what he feels remains off page. Renault will often only allude to Laurie’s most innermost feelings. Because of this Laurie, and other characters, often seem like unsolvable puzzles.
    Laurie’s story is also one that is concerned with connection. Although he becomes fast friends with another patient, he fears being ‘known’. Yet, in spite of this sense of loneliness, he is reticent about ‘embracing’ his community (“He kept telling me I was queer, and I’d never heard it called that before and didn’t like it. The word, I mean. Shutting you away, somehow; roping you off with a lot of people you don’t feel much in common with […]”).

    Miscommunications abound in this novel. At times the characters make tentative attempts to form more meaningful relationships but they often betray themselves by not saying what they want to say or by saying the wrong things.
    Renault renders sadness, anxiety, self-denial, awkwardness, tenderness, longing, ambiguity, confusion, honour, passion, and hope. Her characters reveal her piercing understanding of human nature. Through her expressive and elegant writing Renault demonstrates her inside knowledge of the society she depicted (Renault was both a lesbian and a nurse, which is possibly why she can so conjure up both queer parties and the daily routines of a hospital).
    I love everything about this novel. Laurie's quest for identity, the struggle between his desires and his ideals, is as moving as it is thought-provoking.
    A truly complex and multi-layered masterpiece that is both heart-rending and intelligent.
    Impenetrable, subtle, beautiful, touching. I can't recommend this novel strongly enough.

    Some of my favourite quotes/passages

    “The absolute impotence of childhood crushed him like the weight of the pyramids. ”

    “In the dense sunlight, an inkstain on the table showed up in impasto, an iridescent peacock green. Between it and the window suspended dust shaped the path of the light; Laurie, who had written nothing for five minutes, wondered why of these seemingly weightless particles some should elect to rise and others to fall.”

    “An awful sense of inadequacy appeared ahead of him, like a gulf into which he would have to step.”

    “In the Dark Ages, he thought, they only cropped your ears, or branded you in the forehead, or stood you in the pillory. They hadn’t the resources of civilization.”

    “She loved him; but she was apt to offer or withhold her love in a system of rewards and punishments, as she had during his childhood. He scarcely concealed from himself the fact that what she called looking on the bright side was what he would have called wishful thinking in anyone else. But among his own uncertainties, all these settled attitudes of hers gave him a sense of stability and rest.”

    “At twenty-three, one is not frightened off a conversation merely by the fear of its becoming intense. But intensity can be a powerful solvent of thin and brittle protective surfaces, and at twenty-three one is well aware of this.”

    “He saw how it is possible to idealize people for one’s own delight, while treading on their human weaknesses like dirt. ”

    “He felt absolute, filled; he could have died then content, empty-handed and free. All gifts he had ever wished for seemed only traps, now, to dim him and make him less. This, he thought with perfect certainty, this after all is to be young, it is for this. Now we have the strength to make our memories, out of hard stuff, out of steel and crystal.”

    “There is only one kind of shock worse than the totally unexpected: the expected for which one has refused to prepare.”

    “His loneliness had preserved in him a good deal of inadvertent innocence; there was much of life for which he had no formula; it had never even occurred to him that he involved himself in various kinds of effort which, by ruling a few lines around himself, he could have avoided.”

    “Why, he wondered, was it the people one held in the most innocent affection who so often demanded from one the most atrocious treachery?”

    “Laurie felt that the only comfort would be found in full-time, party-line, nondeviationist hatred. One could warm oneself with a good thick hate by shutting all the windows and doors; but he knew, unfortunately, beforehand, that the snugness would not last, and the fug would drive him out into the cold again, gasping for air.”

    “He thought about Andrew. He solved no problems, nor attempted it; he made no plans. He was twenty-three: he received infinite consolation and joy merely from the contemplation of Andrew’s being.”

    “Then which of these people have you met before?”
    “Only you.”
    He hadn’t meant to give this simple statement of fact any special significance. For some reason which he couldn’t understand it seemed to go on ringing, like glass picking up a note.”

    “They were specialists. They had not merely accepted their limitations, as Laurie was ready to accept his, loyal to his humanity if not to his sex, and bringing an extra humility to the hard study of human experience. They had identified themselves with their limitations; they were making a career of them. They had turned from all other reality, and curled up in them snugly, as in a womb.”

    “It’s the Odyssey all right. It’s the one where the man comes back from the war and finds the flash boys on his pitch, and runs them out.”

    “More than anything till now, the smile evoked a host of memories. For that casual accolade, cutthroat little competitions, all the shrewder for being tacit and undiscussed, had gone on all over the School. ”

    “All yesterday evening Laurie had been, consciously and subconsciously, using his eyes, and noticing little things; and now, when he looked at Andrew, it seemed written all over him.”

    “In seven years, thought Laurie, every cell in one’s body has been replaced, even our memories live in a new brain. That is not the face I saw, and these are not the eyes I saw with. Even our selves are not the same, but only a consequence of the selves we had then. Yet I was there and I am here; and this man, who is sometimes what I remember and sometimes a stranger I met at a party the other day, is also to himself the I who was there: his mind in its different skull has travelled back to a place his living feet never visited; and the pain he felt then he can feel again.”

    “Odd, thought Laurie, that whatever one’s contempt for the hater this news is never quite without its sting.”

    “He sat there for a moment, his head beside Ralph’s knees, and this sharp sense of life’s cruelty trembling in him like an arrow that has just struck.”

    “He saw the startled grief on Andrew’s face, and, without letting it come clearly into his mind, felt a secret primitive satisfaction; insecurity wants always to make its mark.”

    “They only talked for a couple of minutes, idle stuff to be overheard. But when Laurie came out again, he felt rather less like a citizen of nowhere.”

    “Brisk firm feet rang on the steps; Ralph ran down smiling. It was like the sight of something green on a burnt moor. Laurie knew that his face showed it.”

    “For the last hour he had tried to think of nothing, and in the end had almost succeeded. But nature abhors a vacuum, and it was impossible to empty the mind entirely. So at last he thought of what was next to nothing, the recollection of a dream, which tomorrow need not be remembered.”

    “He had heard in Ralph’s voice that secret overtone only half of which is created by the one who speaks, the other half by the one who listens and which says in any language, “By and by all these people will have gone.”

    “The glance, so quickly caught away, lingered on like a smell; it had been a glance of classification. Laurie sensed, without comprehending, the dull application of unspeakable terms of reference; the motiveless calculation proceeding, a broken mechanism jogged on its dump by a passing foot.”

    “It can be good to be given what you want; it can be better, in the end, never to have it proved to you that this was what you wanted.”

    “Laurie stood casting his long shadow on the room behind him, silent in a grief and wonder too deep for tears, that life was so divided and irreconcilable, and the good so implacably the enemy of the best.”

    “Spud,” said Ralph softly, “you break me up when you look like that. What are we fighting over? What nonsense it all is.”

    “ After these long retrospective confidences, exchanged under the conditions best suited of all to unreserve, the feeling that they were deeply rooted in each other’s lives seemed to Laurie as old as the events they had been reviving.”

    “ Knowledge was cruelty. The moment he had used it, he threw away the discovery he had made, that he had waited at the door of a house without defenses.”

    Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

  5. Whitaker Whitaker says:

    Shame on me! When I first heard of Mary Renault and her gay novels, I immediately assumed that because they were written in the 1950’s and by a woman that they were bound to be bad. Shame, shame, shame!

    I stand duly chastised. And somewhat in awe of Mary Renault. She really gets the whole living in fear and shame thing, the way it distorts your life, causes you to doubt yourself, the overly sensitive panic that “They” somehow know. She never comes out to hit us on the head with this. She just describes Laurie’s emotions and thoughts, often indirectly. She’s discreet and restrained, and it’s a stellar example of how less can be more.

    There were some parts that gave me pause. In one scene, Laurie says to an exhausted friend, “You’ll be all right because you’re more a doctor than you are a queer.” One reading would see it as encapsulating all that 50’s homosexual self-loathing that we are so familiar with. On another reading--the one I prefer--it's a statement that gay men and women are not just their sexuality, in the same way that straight men and women are not just their sexuality. The trouble comes when it’s all that you define about yourself when we are all so much more than that. And I would like to believe that that is what she meant, because in so many other ways, she really nailed it.

  6. K.M. Soehnlein K.M. Soehnlein says:

    I knew nothing about this novel when I began reading it. By the time I was done, I was convinced it belonged near the top of the list of the best novels ever written about gay characters.

    Mary Renault is known for her historical fiction set in ancient Greece, but The Charioteer takes place during World War II, mostly inside a British hospital where Laurie (Laurence), whose kneecap was blasted away at the Battle of Dunkirk, is recuperating. Laurie becomes enamored with a hospital orderly named Andrew, a conscientious objector who is scorned by the other wounded veterans in the hospital. Later, visiting London on a one-day pass, Laurie gets swept into a circle of cosmopolitan gay men, among them Ralph, whom Laurie had a hero-worship-crush on when they were in school together. The novel’s plot might be boiled down to the love triangle that grows out of these relationships, but there’s a lot more going on here: a timeless exploration of the nature of homosexuality and the essence of love; a depiction of the struggle queers experience navigating between their families of origin and the social families they create; and the daily challenges of disability, as both Laurie and Ralph have been mutilated in the course of their military service.

    So why isn't The Charioteer as well known as other mid-20th century masterworks like Giovanni’s Room and A Single Man? Is it because Renault was a woman writing about men, which somehow invalidates her point of view? (As a lesbian in a lifelong relationship, she certainly understood the position of queer people in contemporary society.) Is it because her portrait of Ralph's social circle is loaded with supporting characters who display a stereotypical backstabbing bitchiness? (But no one she presents here is as villainous as the queens in Giovanni’s Room; plus, I’d argue that Renault’s portraiture illuminates how homophobia warps human behavior and turns the victims into victimizers.)

    It may also be that The Charioteer is obscure because it’s a challenging work of literature. The contemporary American reader has to fight through layers of British references to public schools, the military, the geography of London neighborhoods, and so on. Characters talk in a naturalistic style wherein subjects of conversations are referred to but not always named; some subjects (like homosexuality) simply couldn’t be spoken about directly at the time, so the reader wades through inference and suggestion to get to what’s at stake. And then there’s Renault’s knowing, often ironic prose style, which doesn’t offer easy exposition, doesn’t “explain.” We are thrust into scenes and have to figure out where we are and what’s changed since the previous chapter. I frequently found myself flipping back to reread moments whose meaning had eluded me.

    In a lesser novel all of that would have been frustrating, but Renault is such a good writer, and her characters are so fleshed out and compelling, that the book made me want to work hard for its pleasures. Laurie’s conflict between his chaste crush on Andrew and his more complicated relationship to Ralph generates a lot of suspense in the novel’s second half. The harrowing picture of life during the London Blitz, with its air raid sirens and blackout curtains and sudden bursts of gunfire, created a backdrop of uncertainty and danger. The slow awakening of the central character to self-determination, at the core of which is his love for other men, was set against a reading of Plato’s Phaedrus, which contains the myth of the charioteer that gives the novel its title, and points the way to Renault’s more famous books, written after this.

    Whatever the reason for its relative obscurity, The Charioteer strikes me as ripe for rediscovery.

  7. monika monika says:

    It’s a world record! I’ve got 53 notes and 204 highlights! I had to reread many passages a few times!?!?! And it was not enough.
    I’m still in awe, how is this even possible for a ”bookish, suburban woman” in 1953 to write such a complex book about gay men?

    story - 10 ⭐️

    audio by Joe Jameson - 5 ⭐️

  8. David David says:

    Mary Renault is one of those authors for whom I was tempted to give 5 stars to all of her books, because I enjoyed them so much. But in the interests of maintaining standards (Hi Betsy!), I will give 5 stars to The Charioteer, a book probably 50 years ahead of its time, but go ahead and recommend all of her historical fiction anyway. With perhaps The Mask of Apollo and The King must Die being my favorites among her remaining books.

  9. Christy B Christy B says:

    My heart. Is it still there? Because I feel like someone tore it out and stomped on it.

    I stayed up way later than I usually do, last night, to finish this, because I couldn't wait any longer. The intense and emotional turmoil inside of me started with Andrew's letter and followed through to the end.

    It wasn't until I finished, and turned off the lights to go to sleep, that I realized what I had been holding in. And I cried for a few minutes: for the story, for the beautiful writing, for the characters.

    The story was subtle and slow-moving; romantic and emotional. I can't stop thinking about it.

  10. Xia Xia Xia Xia says:

    I need to build Mary Renault a worship shrine. And maybe one for Ralph Lanyon as well.

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