(Edward Montague) Compton Mackenzie

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Kenneth Young

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1123

[The story of Jenny in Carnival] is an amalgam of Mackenzie's experience and observation. (p. 12)

The real tragedy … lies not in the murder of Jenny by gunshot, but in the gradual murder of her vivacity, sharp wit, and sheer brightness, her marvellous aliveness, by a kind of inertia in herself: it was too easy for her to stay in the chorus at the Orient with her friends and admirers around her rather than to move forward into the more taxing world of dancing…. It is this wastefulness—which lies in nature—that saddens the reader. But there would be no sadness, no sunt lacrimae rerum, without Mackenzie's astonishing insight into the character of a small child who grows into a young woman but never into a mature woman…. Here is a great theme, presented in unforced prose exactly fitted to its purpose—not a phrase jars even after fifty years. Some readers in 1912, upset by its sexual implications, dubbed it 'realist'; later it was thought of as 'romantic'; today it is a classic. (pp. 12-13)

[The picaresque Sylvia Scarlett is the first novel, Mackenzie says], to be 'affected by weariness and the disgust of war' and he points to 'its apparent contempt for all the conventions that even as late as this still exercised their power'. This does not strike the reader today. It is a book tingling with robust life and inexhaustible invention, not least in the latter pages of its heroine's traverse of war-time Europe. Sylvia herself, the intellectual whore with a distaste for men, is first encountered in Sinister Street where she is the protector of another actress, Lily, and so fierce is that protection, so jealously does she seek to guard her friend from male attentions, that the present-day reader at least must wonder at her psychological motivation: is she consciously or otherwise a lesbian? (pp. 15-16)

Mackenzie's treatment [of homosexuality in Vestal Fire and Extraordinary Women] was comic rather than earnest, merciful rather than cynical (as the critic Gerald Gould observed at the time). He conveys a sense of the futility of the gossipy, spiteful, somewhat inane lives of [his] expatriates…. [These novels are not] exclusively concerned with sexual deviants; most of the characters are odd but not all are queer and, as always, Mackenzie observes an artistic reticence over physical detail…. The novels have a high surface polish, an abundance of appropriate classical allusions and more complicated constructions than anything he had written before, partly no doubt to conceal the fact, subsequently revealed, that practically every character was a portrait of a real person. They are, in short, rather artificial works with a period sophistication, sired by Oxford out of the classics; they still have their devotees as once they had their imitators. (pp. 16-17)

For Mackenzie the 1920s were a time of new directions, one might almost say of all directions. This was not because, like some of his contemporaries and juniors, he was feverishly searching for new modes of expression—much less that he had been plunged into purposelessness and despair by the war and its aftermath—but that there was so much he wanted to write about: religion, for example, and more particularly the practice of religion…. [The Altar Steps, The Parson's Progress and The Heavenly Ladder] lay bare with acute insight the mind and emotions, not to say the soul, of Mark Lidderdale, the young cleric so typical of many of that time. The trilogy is much concerned with the variations of worship in the Church of England—High, Low, Evangelical, Broad, Anglo-Catholic—that were in part a result of those doctrinal and liturgical upheavals in the nineteenth century which rocked the nation and affected its politics, in part a reaction to scientific humanism…. But the dominant theme remains [Lidderdale's] struggle, not only with doubt and temptation, but with his own religious conscience. Here Mackenzie's writing rises to a new height of strength and sincerity…. (pp. 17-19)

One consequence of the speed with which Mackenzie wrote was an occasional lack of care in construction: he tended to fall back on well-worn but tedious methods such as narrators in London clubs, styles that R. L. Stevenson had employed, and an over-reliance in narrative on letters which at least one reader of fiction has always found irritating: if only he had taken as many pains in planning some of his trivia as he had with Vestal Fire less of his output would seem today no more than the 'train-reading' of the steam age. These strictures, however, do not apply to the best of his 'entertainments' such as Water on the Brain … or Whiskey Galore which have amused several generations and no doubt will continue to do so. And even with his most hasty production, once the reader is over the hump he reads on because almost everything Mackenzie has written has a bracing quality that leaves the reader better pleased with life than he was before: that in itself is no small achievement. (p. 20)

In 1937 there began to appear what must be considered as Mackenzie's chef d'oeuvre in fiction, The Four Winds of Love, in four sections and eight volumes … [with] over a million words…. [In] a sense, The Four Winds is a reploughing of old fields, another going over of earth tilled before in a dozen volumes and forms.

The eight volumes are not stylistically all of a piece; the earlier ones dealing with schooldays, early loves, Irish nationalist friends and the war in the eastern Mediterranean are narration—with superb dialogue up to and beyond the best in Carnival or Sinister Street; the later ones, written after the outbreak of a new world war, are overcast with a sense of 'that misused past'. (pp. 21-2)

One thing [The Four Winds of Love] indubitably does for Mackenzie's own and younger generations: it shows the self to the selves of those whose lives were interrupted, rearranged and broken by two world wars. (p. 22)

So what of Mackenzie's place in the pantheon of writers, or at any rate the histories of literature? … He has written so variously about such varied people—and always warmly—that he may come to be seen as the Dickens of his time, a man of almost universal insight and sympathies. Like Dickens, too, he is on the side of the little man up against the big battalions—this is the theme of one of his best loved works, Whisky Galore. And his prose has always had a lyrical quality about it, as though he were saying that, however sordid and brutal, life is something to be glad of, to sing about. (pp. 27-8)

Kenneth Young, in his Compton Mackenzie (© Kenneth Young 1968; Longman Group Ltd., for the British Council), British Council, 1968, 28 p.

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