Monday, 4 May 2015

Book review - A difficult young man by Martin Boyd

A difficult young man : a novel by Martin Boyd

Melbourne : Lansdowne Press, 1965      (first published 1957)

If you are interested in Australian literature, you will not only know of A difficult young man, but will probably have an opinion on its author, and the whole milieux that he and this book represents, even if you haven't read the book.

Its a book that looms through the mists of the modern Australian canon (if one can speak of such a thing), as a book that set a new course for Australian writing, but, because of the subject matter and the background of the author, didn't quite fit into Australian literature as it was then thought of. Which is apt, as Martin Boyd himself didn't fit in, feeling not Australian, but not English either, when he spent time there.

This feeling of not fitting in, not belonging anywhere, is one if the major themes of A difficult young man, a book which traces the life of Dominic Langton, eldest surviving son of the Langton family, English landed gentry of whom he was the first generation to be brought up in Australia. Dominic's story is written from the vantage point of Guy, his brother; Guy is writing many years after the events described in the novel, both with the aid of hindsight, and family diaries. That many of the scenes in this book reflect Boyd's childhood there is no doubt, and the descriptions in the book of upper-middle class life in Melbourne at the turn of the 20th century are almost lovingly recreated for the reader.

Dominic, and his tragic love affair, are at the centre of this book, but it also has the makings of a family saga, with Uncle George's unhappy marriage one of the key sub-plots: his gold-digging wife Baba is used to display the venality of most of middle-class Australia, in comparison to the almost aristocratic life of the Langtons, who don't care for or think about money or employment. Boyd is quick to point out, in the section of the book set in England, that the upper-class British were no better.

Dominic is shown throughout the book as something of a throwback to the early Spanish side of the family, full of pride and a strong attachment to what was proper in others, but not having any idea how his actions affect those same people. Other characters in the book either love, hate, or fear him. He variously fails to set himself up as a farmer, soldier, or manager of the family's land. His passionate nature is described through a series of events in his life, from jumping from a moving dray to save his cousin Helena, leaping into a bullfighting ring, and riding his favourite horse to death after an argument. The Langtons move to England after Dominic is caught in a compromising situation with Helena.

When in England, Dominic is engaged to a daughter of the local gentry, and his life seems back on track. Guy shows us that the union is to be doomed from the start, as Sylvia is more like Aunt Baba than she would care to think, and will be expecting from Dominic things he will not be able to give. Then Helena and her family visit, and the old love is rekindled. Dominic's engagement is called off, and the Langtons return to Australia bruised and battered by their English experience, to find that Helena is to be married to the son of a Western District grazier. The novel ends on Helena's wedding day, with a final twist in the tail for all the family.

A difficult young man is written, despite its subject matter, in an elegaic tone, with much feeling for times gone. It is a paen to an unusual family, and describes how families fall apart as time rolls on. The wonderful family gatherings that begin the book are mere memories to the characters by the end, as are the family homes and treasures. All that are left are broken lives and dreams of better times. As I have mentioned, Boyd writes of the Langtons as a truly aristocratic family, with little interest in worldly affairs: while Guy and Dominic's father is forced by his position to run the household, he'd much rather be outside somewhere painting. Art takes a strong place in the book, with Boyd often comparing a scene to a great work of art.

Boyd writes his characters very well, and cuttingly at times, and the conceit of this book allows Guy to write of people both as he saw them in his youth, as the contemporary diaries of other members of his family described them, and more importantly with the gloss (or glaze, as Boyd writes) of the adult Guy looking back to decipher what was indecipherable to him as a youth. Even though Guy is Dominic's brother, Dominic throughout the novel is unknowable, an unpredictable force of nature: not understanding other people, and other people not understanding him.

Boyd has little time for the plodders of the world. He writes several times that people struggled to keep up with the quick-wittedness of Langton gatherings, and often contrasts the higher feelings of the Langtons with other characters: he writes tellingly late in the novel "But one was sorry for Baba at this time because of her terrible stupidity. My relatives were often silly, but they were never stupid. Stupidity is the result of a complete absence of imagination, silliness of its excess."

He writes with perception and beauty of youth - when in England Guy decides to study to be a priest, and in his youthful excess of emotion sees beauty in everything around him. The older Guy writes, looking back on his younger self "Even so, this state of our perception, when the natural world is the reflection of paradise, when the young men are sparkling angels and the children tumbling jewels, which disappears with our chastity, and which we then condemn as romanticism, is the most valuable possession we ever have. In later life there may come at times a similar awareness, but it is only intellectual, not of the spirit" How true, and how Boyd makes us remember our own awakening, and long for those feelings again.

A difficult young man is one of four books Boyd wrote about the Langton family, and is the best-remembered of the four. It won an ALS Gold Medal in the year of its publication, and was very well-received in England. However, in Australia Boyd was treated with some ambivalence - his work didn't fit in to either the colonial archetype, or the social realism of other Australian authors of the time. However, this book seems to be growing in reputation, if anything - recently shortlisted in the ABR Fan Poll of favourite Australian novels, and reprinted in the Text Classics series, A difficult young man seems assured of being on want-to-read lists for at least another generation.

It is certainly a fine novel, and recommended by me.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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