(Edward Montague) Compton Mackenzie

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Benny Green

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 512

The fate of Sinister Street is unique in that its virtues as a novel have been overshadowed by its accidental status as a germinating influence on a more solemnly regarded writer. The juxtaposition of Mackenzie with Scott Fitzgerald has always seemed a shade bizarre, for a multiplicity of literary, historical and cultural reasons, but the measuring of Sinister Street against Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise, defined by Edmund Wilson as 'an American attempt to rewrite Sinister Street,' undertaken at a point in Fitzgerald's life when he was 'drunk with Mackenzie', soon reveals that these unlikely literary bedfellows were stalking the same quarry, the lost innocence and naivete of schooldays. (pp. 20-1)

There is something wrong about all this. Fitzgerald's vast shadow has obscured one fact vital for anyone now coming to Sinister Street for the first time, which is that while This Side of Paradise is interesting in the light of what Fitzgerald eventually became, Sinister Street is fascinating for what Mackenzie was at the time….

It is, for all its sprawl and its gaucheries, a book of unusual power and attraction. Mackenzie at the end of his life knew he had done something extraordinary at the beginning of it, by making the reader become the hero, obliging him to move through each intellectual phase of Fane's from baby-hood to maturity. Mackenzie's technical aim was to eliminate the omnipotent narrator, his actual effect was to compose a dazzling if partial portrait of a certain class at the very moment of its dissolution; the writing of Sinister Street was disturbed by the outbreak of the Great War. Fane's world collapsed even as Mackenzie was describing it…. (p. 21)

Which means that today we can read Sinister Street with all the detachment we bring to a historical novel. Michael Fane's story begins in the cot, so that Mackenzie, in sticking to his plan, strained to deploy the emotions of the nursery. I am not quite the first reader to notice both the similarities and the differences between the opening chords of Sinister Street and those of a greater book of the period…. But Joyce, applying the first brushstrokes to his portrait of the artist, attempts to become his own infant self by expressing infant thought-patterns, while Mackenzie is only describing his recollection of babyhood. If we take his great literary facility for granted, we can see Mackenzie as a prodigious memory allied to compassion and an irrepressible sense of stinging humour. His most famous novel flatters to deceive, and its end, with Fane drifting among what seem suspiciously like stage cockneys, is a sad decline. But the childhood sections are unforgettable and, as Beerbohm once said, the Oxford chapters form the most accurate evocation of university life ever written. Fane is a now extinct butterfly caught under the glass of Mackenzie's affectionate scrutiny, and re-reading of his affairs today, it is easy to forgive Fitzgerald for having lost his head so completely. (pp. 21-2)

Benny Green, "Portraits," in The Spectator (© 1979 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 242, No. 7859, September 24, 1979, pp. 20-2.

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