Compton Mackenzie Reconsidered

In the wake of the recent New Statesman essay seeking to revive an interest in JB Priestley, the latest New Criterion has published one seeking to create a renewed interest in another neglected novelist of the same period. This is Compton Mackenzie and the essay is by David Platzer. He opens with an introduction to Mackenzie’s work which will be unfamiliar to many of today’s readers:

Now remembered by many only as the humorist who wrote farces like Whisky Galore (1947), set on a mythical Scottish island, he began his life in London’s West Kensington. In the first phase of Mackenzie’s fame, Henry James praised him as a great hope of the English novel. His second novel, Carnival (1912), the tale of the doomed dancer Jenny Pearl and the dilettante Maurice Avery, made Mackenzie a cult novelist among the sophisticated young. Lady Diana Manners (later Cooper, the inspiration for Evelyn Waugh’s Mrs. Stitch) took Jenny Pearl’s phrase “there’s nothing wrong with this little girl” as her own, and she and her friends in the set they called the “Corrupt Coterie” loved repeating the cockney Jenny’s “don’t be soppy” and “I must have been potty.”

His most respected novel was probably his next, Sinister Street (1914). This became The Catcher in the Rye of Waugh’s generation. Waugh described Sinister Street as his favorite book in his student years and says we was “steeped” in it at Oxford. Others of his generation, partcularly George Orwell and Cyril Connolly, similarly venerated that book. In his sequels to Sinister Street, however, there was, according to Platzer,

[…] a shift from Mackenzie’s earlier “Edwardian” approach, luscious as a ripe peach, to the sparer, purely comic style that marked his post-war novels. Mackenzie attributed the trimmed-down style to the telegrams he wrote as an intelligence officer, where no unnecessary words were allowed. It was as if Waugh had started his career with Brideshead and followed it with Decline and Fall. […] Reviewers prefer authors they can pigeonhole; Mackenzie eluded them. Almost fifty years after his death, Mackenzie still deserves plaudits in his many seasons and facets. Meanwhile, his books continue to find readers, many of them delighted to encounter an author whose writing can chase clouds away.

In reviewing one of his later and now forgotten novels (Thin Ice) in 1956, Waugh took the occasion to consider his earlier career (EAR, p. 511):

For forty-five years, the full reading life of most of us, there has been an unbroken series of novels by Sir Compton Mackenzie. He has written much else, but it is primarily as a novelist of great versatility, ranging from high romance, through satire to farce, that we honour him. […] Everything he writes sets us an example of elegance and sound workmanship […]

Waugh goes on to praise the new novel (about a homosexual politician) which has disappeared without a critical trace and is unmentioned in the New Criterion article. But I think he would support Platzer’s plea for a revival.

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