Sonya Hartnett revisits 'A Difficult Young Man' by Martin Boyd

Few writers, it could be argued, have ever cannibalised life for their art as ruthlessly and consistently as did Martin Boyd; and few are born into situations which lend themselves so readily to art. Boyd’s working life – indeed, much of his entire existence – was spent trying to unite the past with the present, the old world with the new, himself with the man he might have been; and in committing his efforts to paper. To this end, he never shirked from using friends and relatives as material for his novels, as well as the real-life experiences of himself and of others. If he paid a price for this – which he occasionally did, for people often hanker to be preserved in print, only to resent the style of preservation – the consequences gave him little pause. By the time he wrote A Difficult Young Man, focusing the cool spotlight of his attention on his brother Merric as well as more sharply on himself, Boyd had form as a writer whose true gift lay not in the power of his imagination, but in the brilliance of his ancestral inheritance.

Martin à Beckett Boyd was born on 10 June 1893, in Lucerne, Switzerland, where his wandering family was briefly waylaid. His lineage was illustrious, littered with soldiers, judges, landowners, lawyers, and a convict, as well as with artists and architects. His parents, Arthur Boyd and Emma à Beckett, were painters who had met at art school. Both sides of the family history were racy with tales of crime, illicit love, canny business dealings, fortunes won and lost. There were fine estates, servants, and an appreciation for creativity and learning. It was a lavish, free-thinking, generous background, the romance of which would capture Boyd’s childhood imagination – and seem to forever imprison it. In a life of restless travel and precarious finances, he lingered long enough to expensively restore a childhood home. He carted in his wake an array of ancestral portraits. He commissioned his nephew, the sculptor Guy Boyd, to make a dinner service bearing the Boyd crest. He struggled to maintain the manners and ideals of the old world – he taught his toddler grand niece to curtsy – and increasingly railed against the new. Most of all, he wrote of that place that entranced him: the small, rich, finely coloured world of his own and his family’s past. He came to A Difficult Young Man only after writing an autobiography – the first of an eventual pair – and at least four novels which drew heavily on real people, existing places, and actual events.

One of these semi-biographical works was The Cardboard Crown: published in 1952, it was the first of what would become the Langton Quartet. The inspiration for the novel had come to Boyd while musing on the portraits of the ancestors: those old faces and older stories cried out, apparently, for the writer-as-cannibal treatment. A Difficult Young Man, which appeared three years later, is the second of the quartet, and its focus is Boyd’s own generation. This second book looks, appropriately, at a second son.

William Merric Boyd was the second child and second son of Arthur and Emma, born in 1888, five years before his brother Martin, the fourth son. While still a boy, Merric would prove to have a fiery streak, a darkness cast into even deeper shadow by the sunniness of Gilbert, the eldest child. When Gilbert was killed, aged nine, in a fall from a pony – an event, tweaked to fit, recounted in The Cardboard Crown – the always-demanding Merric became even more the centre of his parents’ attention. Merric was handsome and strong, prone to epilepsy and to fits of both depression and unpredictable rage: Martin, so much younger, physically small, felt his brother’s proximity as dauntingly oppressive. That Merric knew his faults and tried to master them, to somehow negate them by extending an almost overbearing courtesy and kindness, did not lessen the shame and fear his behaviour provoked in Martin. To the prudish, anxious younger brother, Merric appeared deliberately selfish and wilful, his behaviour an insult to the family’s gentility, a spurning of all that Martin held dear. Merric was a blighted black sheep, and could be hard to like; life was never easy for him, yet Martin, pitiless as only a sibling can be, seems to have viewed him as an indulged rival, and something like an enemy. The farm in Yarra Glen, scene of Boyd’s happiest memories, was bought to provide a future for directionless Merric. Leaving school, Merric outrages Martin’s snobby sensibilities by taking a menial job. Merric dabbles in theology, a career path that the pious Martin contemplated for himself. Merric tries his hand at pottery, and discovers a raw and brilliant talent that nourishes him for the rest of his life; Martin, who worships art and beauty, finds no such skill in himself, and studies architecture without passion. Because flighty Merric can’t be a farmer, the much-loved Yarra Glen home must be sold; because Merric, a conscientious objector, initially refuses the 1914 call to fight, it is Martin who must unwillingly sign up to prevent a white-feather disgrace befalling the family. The third brother and Martin’s favourite, good-natured Penleigh, dies in a car crash, taking with him his flair for traditional painting, of which the conservative Martin approves, leaving Merric and Merric’s dramatic work, which Martin finds confronting. In its portrayal of Merric, from whom much – although far from all – of the character of Dominic Langton is drawn, A Difficult Young Man proves to have roots, as does so much that is worthy in the world, in something as lowly as sibling rivalry.

A Difficult Young Man – its dreary title does the novel no favours with contemporary readers, and even in his lifetime Boyd’s work suffered from being deemed unfashionable – continues, in clear, conversational style, the story of the Anglo-Australian Langton family at the turn of the nineteenth century. It was written in England in 1953; experience had taught Boyd that with distance came freedom, that the further he was from Australia, the better he could write of those nearest to him. As does The Cardboard Crown, A Difficult Young Man draws on numerous monumental and microscopic real-life events, including the death of Boyd’s grandmother, the family’s unifying centre, and the subsequent breakup of her household and of life as Boyd had known it. Dominic Langton, a secondary character in The Cardboard Crown but the dark heart of A Difficult Young Man, continues his painful struggle for acceptance, his fight to navigate a world he only imprecisely understands.

According to Guy, the novel’s narrator, Dominic’s ‘soul-mixture’ is ‘very black to match his face’. Sombrely beautiful, admired by women who sympathise with him and despised by those who do not, Dominic’s personality is a cross he carries from birth. Weighed down by ‘spiritual perception’, a sensitivity to suffering both real and imagined, he is burdened with a compassion that isn’t always welcomed by those who receive it. Dominic feels all things deeply – affection, anger, guilt, pride; harshly judged by those around him, his life is an ongoing struggle with the ugly aftermaths of his ‘dark waves of feeling’. Those who cannot see past his faults call him ‘wicked’, but Dominic is rather a fallen angel, constitutionally incapable of reaching the heights of goodness to which he aspires. There seems no place for someone so erratic within the mannered sphere to which he is born, but – in this second of the quartet at least – Dominic is young, with a young man’s touching determination to conquer his failings, to find the proper way to be.

That much of Dominic is drawn from Merric Boyd is obvious: but if Martin predicted for his brother the sad fate met by the character in the early pages of The Cardboard Crown – to rave and wander and finally perish in a psychiatric hospital – Merric evaded it. Merric Boyd died in 1959 at the age of seventy-one, by which time he had survived poverty and disaster to establish himself as the nation’s revered ‘father of studio pottery’; more than that, he was the father of children who would raise the Boyd name to greatness in the history of Australian art. His pioneering pottery influenced younger artists who paid him appropriate homage; and, though he grew reclusive in his later years, Merric’s life, rarely easy, was undeniably full.

Martin Boyd died in 1972, aged seventy-eight, in Italy. He had lived most of his life as an expatriate, far from the Australia of his crowded and sunny childhood, and frequently isolated from his family. He had never married or had children, and as a writer he had never achieved great or lasting success. At the time of his death he was impoverished and essentially alone, the ancestral portraits unhung, the restored house long gone. He had wandered for decades, unable to settle anywhere; on his deathbed his thoughts returned to the farm at Yarra Glen, the one place where he might have wished to stay.

If there is something of Merric Boyd in the young Dominic Langton, there is much of Martin in the adult Dominic who goes to war, watches the complexities of life move beyond his ability to cope, and trails off, a dying star, to a wretched end. Born despairing of the future and hungering hopelessly for the past, Martin Boyd, the autobiographer and essayist, the novelist notorious for filling his fiction with the facts of others, never looked at any life more closely than he looked at his own. The lonely destiny of Dominic was one Boyd long foresaw for himself. The difficulties, in the end, were all his.

Sonya Hartnett’s introduction to the new Text Classics edition of A Difficult Young Man is reprinted with kind permission of Text Publishing.

Published in March 2012 no. 339