A Balloon of Emptiness

It seems astonishing to me the leap that Denton Welch makes in A Voice Through a Cloud. His two earlier novels show a way of observing the world that often provokes and startles.

The leap Welch makes in A Voice Through a Cloud is in the clarity of access it offers, or simulates, into the mental world of his narrator. It is impossible not to be drawn deeper and deeper into the place where Denton’s perceptivity meets the characters and objects that surround his narrator. This sense of deep intersubjectivity recalls Mann’s The Magic Mountain.

I’ve just reread Welch’s rendering of the scene in which his invalid narrator meets a couple of other invalids from another care home in a blowy, seaside town. It is exquisitely described, the loneliness and isolation of long-term illness that draws these strangers together for the briefest of moments.

They both said ‘Hullo’; I was made to shake hands; there was a little sad heartiness, then nothing. We stood in a circle round a balloon of emptiness which was swelling all the time, forcing us farther and farther apart.

A page or two further, Welch’s narrator is awake in the night and hears a barking dog.

I would imagine his cry coming across the fields, the brimming icy ditches and the bare hedges glittering with black drops of water. Perhaps it came from some lonely farm where he was chained up in a cobbled yard. The chain would grate and clink like a ghost’s as he ran from side to side, barking and waiting for the answer which never came. At last his tail would curve down through his legs and he would huddle back into the dank straw in his barrel.

That balloon of emptiness and that dog’s bark waiting for the answer that never came have sufficient texture to last me for days.

6 thoughts on “A Balloon of Emptiness

  1. Despite my usual preoccupation with reading everything in order written, I think I’m going to have to break my rule and read A Voice through a Cloud first.

  2. Hello Anthony. Never commented before, but I’ve been reading your blog posts about Denton Welch with interest.

    I see that you have been concentrating on the novels and quoting from the journals. As perhaps you know, Welch was also a extremely gifted writer of short stories (these are not as easily obtained as the novels, but anyone determined enough shouldn’t have too many problems). I raise the issue of the stories because I think that the “leap” you speak about from In Youth is Pleasure to A Voice Through a Cloud, might not seem quite so dramatic if you were to track his “progress” as a writer by reading the stories too. That, however, is not the chief reason for recommending them to you. The chief reason would be, quite simply, that they are wonderful. There are also several lengthy fragments of unfinished novels worth looking at as well, if you find – as many do – that you just can’t get enough of Denton.

    Favourite stories of mine would include “The Trout Stream”, “When I Was Thirteen”, “A Fragment of a Life Story”, “Brave and Cruel” and “Leaves From a Young Person’s Notebook” (this last covers the same autobiographical terrain as A Voice Through a Cloud).

    I’ve been reading DW for years, revisiting him periodically in intense, obsessive bursts. I’m sure you are right that A Voice Through a Cloud is the best of the novels, but it’s not my favourite. That’s always been In Youth is Pleasure, which aptly enough gives me more pure pleasure than any other book. After that I would choose the autobiographical tale “A Fragment of a Life Story”. Do try the shorter work if you can obtain it – each piece instantaneously spirits you off to Denton’s world, which is not, I acknowledge, a place of any great profundity, but is a place more vivid than any other I know.

    • Hello Mark, and thank you so much for commenting. I’ve wondered whether the short stories would reveal more of a gentle curve than a leap. I’m pleased to say I tracked down what I think are most, if not all, the short stories and am awaiting delivery from various publishers. I very much look forward to reading those you mention and others. I find so much enchantment in Denton Welch’s writing, not only for some curious similarities in our lives, but for the way he observes the world. I loved all three novels; Voice is the most accomplished, though I couldn’t pick a favourite. Thanks again for your thoughtful comment.

  3. Pingback: A Year in Reading: 2015 | Time's Flow Stemmed

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