(Edward Montague) Compton Mackenzie

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J.I.M. Stewart

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 784

Water on the Brain is a squib that in places is very funny indeed. It is also entirely unambitious, since loaded with nonsense reducing it well below the level of satire. But it will remain readable for so long as secret services exist—that sort of activity being, or being popularly supposed to be, exclusively carried on by button-headed bad hats superannuated from our very grandest public schools.

Compton Mackenzie, certainly, had found a new and delightful stamping ground which he could frequent during occasional periods of fatigue in his astoundingly prolific career. The Monarch of the Glen is perhaps the most successful of the frolics that resulted. It concerns the triumps and indignities alternately enjoyed and suffered by Donald MacDonald, twenty-third of Ben Nevis, who inhabits a world suggesting, similarly in alternation, that of P. G. Wodehouse's Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit and John Arden's Armstrong's Last Goodnight….

As a larger than life figure whose antique imagination constrains him to act in a manner inappropriate to the age in which he lives Ben Nevis has an illustrious ancestor. But this novel touches Don Quixote only on its drubbing and tumbling side; it is farce not comedy….

The incidents sustaining The Monarch of the Glen are clearly the first that came into its author's head; they are for the most part knockabout stuff that frequently goes on for too long, or virtually repeats itself, and thus turns boring. But the writing remains spirited and vivacious, and in particular is rich in divertingly incongruous similes and random escapes of wit something in Wodehouse's manner. All through the rough and tumble, indeed, there is preserved a certain choiceness in the writing. It exemplifies, in this unassuming field, what Henry James describes as Mackenzie's "positively caring for his expression as expression, positively providing for his phrase as a fondly foreseeing parent for a child".

Hunting the Fairies is a similar book. We are back in Glen Bogle, although this time Ben Nevis is less prominent than his friend Hugh Cameron of Kilwhillie…. There is again no end of fun. And between these two romps has come Whisky Galore. Endemic near-inebriety thwarted by the exigencies of war is a good farcical idea but one without much staying power, and Mackenzie bolsters it up by reviving his old feud with Military Intelligence and the "suet-brained bureaucrats" and "leather-bottoms" of Whitehall….

Thin Ice is [however] a serious book, and a variously admirable one as well. It has pronounced imaginative limitations. As the protagonist in a work designed as close to tragedy Fortescue is inadequate, or rather his creator's command of him and feeling for him is that. We ourselves scarcely experience the waste that is the theme of the novel—as we do, for instance, in Granville-Barker's drama Waste, which has a not dissimilar subject and political setting.

One may go back to [D. H.] Lawrence for some glimpse of the nature of the deficiency…. Of the sketch of the Lawrences in the second volume of The Four Winds of Love Mackenzie declared that "apart from names and places most of it is factually and conversationally exact". This is probably true; it is a blameless piece, written at all only because the novelist is filling out an enormous fiction with anything in the way of the literary life that he can dredge up out of a quite abnormally tenacious memory. But it might be the work of any clever author who had listened attentively to what was recorded of Lawrence and Frieda, and it is as flat as a photograph. Lawrence's "The Man who loved Islands" is in its origin reprehensibly uncharitable, the writer having been prompted to a disobliging picture of an acquaintance better off, better bred, and more successful than himself…. It is a fable which, in a score of pages, penetrates its theme quite as deeply as Meredith contrived to do in the whole extent of The Egoist. The comparison leaves us with a sense that all Mackenzie's serious work is exhibitory rather than exploratory; that De Quincey's "burden of the incommunicable" rested on his shoulders not at all. Yet this is no doubt over-exigent. And when Cyril Connolly in Enemies of Promise speaks of "talent, personal charm, and conventionality" rather than the ability to labour after a perfected art as being Compton Mackenzie's endowment, this is perhaps too narrow a verdict upon the entertainer—who does at least strive to make us a moment merry. And this Mackenzie most abundantly did during the dark days of war.

J.I.M. Stewart, "Out of the North Wind," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1977; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3939, September 9, 1977, p. 1068.

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