Mary Renault,
The Charioteer
(Pantheon, 1959;
Harcourt Brace & Co./Harvest, 1993)

Those of us who read a lot find ourselves sometimes forgetting what a truly excellent novel feels like. Most of what we encounter is of a middle level, enjoyable but not exceptional, although any particular work may have one or two strong points that awaken enthusiasm. And then one reads a novel that is brilliant: elegantly crafted, flawlessly realized, subtle, sharp, with a kind of depth and power that transports it to that level we call "genius." The Charioteer hits that level.

The plot, like so much else in this book, is seemingly unremarkable. Laurie Odell, while recovering from wounds received at Dunkirk, meets Andrew Raynes, a young Quaker working as a hospital orderly in lieu of military service. On their first meeting, Laurie quietly and irrevocably falls in love. Then, through happenstance -- a chance meeting during an air raid, an impromptu invitation to a party, a dropped name -- he reconnects to Ralph Lanyon, the head of his school who was expelled for homosexuality.

The surface story, relating Laurie's experiences as a wounded veteran in a hospital outside London, and later, as his mobility increases and the time of his discharge from hospital draws near, in the town of Brixton, in London, and at his home amid the conflicts inherent in his mother's remarriage, is cast as a series of small events that push him more and more toward understanding himself, not in terms of accepting a definition, but toward accepting limits without letting them become a definition.

This is a book of images. The overarching metaphor that drives the story is the myth of the charioteer from Plato's Phaedrus. Ralph gives Laurie a copy of this dialogue as a parting gift in their final conversation before Ralph leaves the school, with the comment "read it when you have a minute. ... It doesn't exist anywhere in real life, so don't let it give you illusions. It's just a nice idea." The myth of the two horses, of vastly different temperaments and goals, is an apt metaphor for the balance that Laurie must find between defining his own standards of what he will be and the world's multitude of expectations. As Laurie himself describes it to Andrew, "Each of the gods has a pair of divine white horses, but the soul only has one. The other ... is black and scruffy, with a thick neck, a flat face, hairy fetlocks, gray bloodshot eyes, and shaggy ears. He's hard of hearing, thick-skinned, and given to bolting whenever he sees something he wants."

Laurie, ultimately, must decide between his love for Andrew, which is the ideal, spiritual love embodied in the white horse, and his love for Ralph, which is the earthly love of the black horse. Renault tranposes this conflict and the ideal itself into the 20th century in a way that lays bare the essential unreality of Plato's vision: she points this up quite simply, almost as a throwaway, as "the sensation of coming home again which is one of the more stable by-products of physical love," which builds into a kind of irony as events reveal that in its workings, Plato's ideal is much more akin to a romantic adolescent fantasy than anything else. The conflict is neatly summarized as Laurie realizes, after a night spent with Ralph, that "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." Ralph, finally, gave Laurie what he wanted, but in his introspection, Laurie comes up hard against the contrast with Andrew. "Andrew," he thinks, "was the only one who hadn't believed that one could be rescued from all one's troubles by being taken out of oneself. He had a certain natural instinct for the hard logic of love." And yet we realize that there is a certain unreality to Laurie's thoughts at this point, although ultimately, this is not a cause to dismiss the ideal: ideals have value as long as they remain ideals, I think is part of the message here. When we try to make them fit reality, or worse, try to make reality fit them, we are only asking for disaster. And perhaps that is the point of Plato's metaphor, in the final analysis -- to a modern mind, at least. Renault very neatly and quietly lays out the necessity for balance in our lives.

Renault's images deepen meanings in a way that is so deft and understated that it seems almost magical: Laurie and Andrew fall into the habit of meeting out of doors. Laurie had been going to an orchard owned by an elderly widow, a place where he can find quiet and a little room to be alone, where Andrew finds him one day quite by chance as he wanders in from the other direction. The widow, outraged that Laurie is associating with a conscientious objector, banishes them from the orchard. They continue to meet in the beech wood across the stream, where Laurie muses that one can see the apples of Eden, now forbidden. He christens the beech wood "Limbo," bringing into sharp relief the status of his relationship with Andrew, and in a larger sense, his status with himself.

The Charioteer has many of the hallmarks of the Greek tragedies: there is, for example, a kind of inevitability to the relationship between Ralph and Laurie, as though the seven years between school and their meeting again during the war had been no more than intermission. This same quality invests the relationship between Laurie and Andrew: in both cases, the universe has come out of joint, and balance must be restored. In the story of Laurie Odell, however, the answer is not the gods' retribution, but growth into maturity, which sometimes is enough of a tragedy.

That Renault is very aware of the ramifications of this is not in question, given the role innocence plays in this story. Laurie finds himself in the position of protecting Andrew's innocence, of restraining himself for fear of damaging something that he realizes is very rare and very precious, an awareness that grows in part from his respect for Andrew as a human being. In Laurie's universe, people make their own decisions and deserve respect for that, even if one wishes the decision could be otherwise. As he comes to realize, he is in the same position vis-a-vis Andrew as Ralph was with him many years before. Renault juxtaposes this against gay society as Ralph and Laurie know it, the society that they avoid as much as possible. As Ralph points out, it is a vertical society: everyone knows the top layer, and no one has yet found the bottom. And yet even here, Renault finds another facet of innocence: a birthday party for Alec, the lover of a young doctor whom Laurie had met quite by chance on the street, where Laurie first meets Ralph again, and a scene of the traditional blowing out of the candles, a group of hard, bitchy men become, if only for a moment, children making a wish, with the faith that a simple act will somehow change their world. It's a small scene, barely a not-very-long paragraph, and it resonates throughout the book: here, too, no matter how tawdry it has become, is something to be cherished, if only because it is a fragment of something of value that has been lost.

There is a core of innocence to Laurie and Ralph, as well. For Laurie's part, it is evidenced by his belief that he can live up to the ideal, that he can love Andrew in a way that Andrew can find acceptable, making that love into something pure and enduring. In Ralph, we see a slightly different version: it is the innocence of someone who is sure of his goal, who can afford to hold nothing back and so can give his love without restraint -- perhaps a slightly different kind of purity, and one with its own kind of weight in the world.

It becomes a story about moral choices and about the quest for a true basis for morality. There is anger in this book, reflected in dialogue that could be transposed to the present day without change. It is an anger directed against unthinking adherence to dicta without reference to the value of an individual human being, and it so perfectly reflects today's conflicts that it's hard to believe this book was written some 50 years ago, in a very different world. The anger comes from men who, given the reality of their lives, are trying to make moral choices in the face of a society that simply refuses to recognize that they can possibly be moral creatures. Renault comes at this from another direction, as well. The best take on the characters, and what brings the central focus of the story into the light, is Renault's own. It is Laurie's perception of Alec, but it applies equally to him, Ralph, and Andrew: "[H]e recognized a speaker of his own language; another solitary still making his own maps, his few certainties gripped with a rather desperate strength."

The guardedness of Ralph's early comment about the Phaedrus is symptomatic of a quality that comes to inform the entire book. Renault's style is restrained; descriptions are matter-of-fact, often understated but somehow rich, conversations take place in a milieu in which not everything can be said, so that, even in the privacy of Ralph's rooms, talk is weighted with words left unvoiced -- subtlety and indirection have become habits for these men. This reticence becomes the style of the book, and against this deep quiet, passages deliver an intensity that catches us by surprise time and again once we learn to look below the surface.

And after all this, the final admission: I can never seem to do justice to this book. Anything I can say is a pale reflection of something that has the capability to introduce a new dimension into the reader's life. In its basic and unassailable humanity, it is much more than a "gay" story, as I've been advised by readers from across the spectrum. Depending on where you are in your own journey, you may not get it the first time through -- I am not sure that I have, but what I've written here is as much as I understand now. The Charioteer is a book of immense and subtle power and almost painful beauty.

- Rambles
written by Robert M. Tilendis
published 18 December 2004

Buy it from