Azure Puddles

John Bayley

  • Compton Mackenzie: A Life by Andro Linklater
    Chatto, 384 pp, £14.95, May 1987, ISBN 0 7011 2583 7

Staying at about the age of eleven with a friend whose father was a doctor, I was put in a room where the only reading-matter was a medical textbook and the first volume of what was to become Compton Mackenzie’s quadrilogy, The East, West, South and North Winds of Love. I embarked on it with hope and confidence, but after only a few pages had to give up and turn for entertainment to the medical book. Considering myself a mature and experienced reader, I was much chagrined at this and confessed my defeat to no one – it was too shaming. Mackenzie’s novels were a household word at the time. Everybody devoured them. What was wrong with me? It is a slight consolation after this lapse of time to feel that I may have been right.

How could such a colourful and remarkable personality have written such an unabsorbing novel? Perhaps by an unexpected but logical consequence. Mackenzie himself once said that he thought he would give up writing ‘because living is so much more enjoyable’. Neither a best-seller nor a serious author – and one aspired to be both – could afford to know that was true. Born into a well-known acting family – his energetic and successful parents ran what became the Compton Comedy Company – Mackenzie remained an actor all his life, running it like a continuous one-man show, and probably in unconscious competition with the activities of his dynamic father. On Capri he was to see himself as Byron, D.H. Lawrence as Shelley and Francis Brett Young as a more retiring kind of Keats. And Lawrence was fascinated by him, found him sympathetic and good company, and made him the model in his story called ‘The man who loved islands’. The story could just as well be about Lawrence himself, and shows the humorous self-perception of which he was capable: both men shared in their different ways the restlessness and the need for total dominance of a ‘perfect’ environment. ‘He wanted an island all of his own,’ writes Lawrence in the story: ‘not to be alone on it, but to make it a world of his own.’ That cap fits both authors.

Andro Linklater, son of the Scottish author who was one of Mackenzie’s great friends, has written a remarkably perceptive biography. As an undergraduate at Oxford, and for some time afterwards, Mackenzie could well have been one of the minor players in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time: perhaps a little like the fabled Truscott who is going to become a great poet, great actor, great statesman, great something or other. Needless to say, little more is heard of Truscott, but Mackenzie was one of those rare birds who not only seem destined for fame but do in fact achieve it, by one means or another. When he appeared as Gratiano in an OUDS production of The Merchant of Venice, the famous actor manager of the Garrick Theatre, Arthur Bourchier, promptly offered him a contract to be the young lead at the Garrick, with a salary rising to £2000 a year, a phenomenal sum in those days. He turned it down, because he had already decided that acting was a shallow skill and the stage ‘a safe prosaic form of livelihood’. He had decided to become a world-famous writer.

At the time, he was being an aesthete in a room at Magdalen decorated in Paterian style, with a huge print of the Mona Lisa over the mantelpiece. Introduced by ‘Sligger’ Urquhart (prototype of Powell’s busy don, Sillery) to the more intellectual atmosphere of Balliol, he met Logan Pearsall-Smith, author of Trivia. The great man read an essay by Mackenzie called ‘The Undergraduate’s Garden’ and delivered his verdict: ‘Yes, yes, you have it in you. The authentic note of English prose sounds from time to time.’ That was just the trouble. The ‘authentic note’ would go on sounding, as predictably as ever. As Andro Linklater diplomatically puts it, the shadow of Sinister Street, published in 1913, still hangs over The East Wind of Love, which came out in 1937. Characters and motifs are much the same, which would not matter: what is deadly is that conventionally beautiful prose – an actor’s prose. None the less, the tributes continued to come in throughout Mackenzie’s writing career, many from unexpectedly distinguished sources. Henry James may well have been influenced by Mackenzie’s good looks. He had been so swept away by Rupert Brooke’s appearance that it had been quite a relief to be told he was not a very good poet. But about Mackenzie he was rhapsodic, considering him by far the most promising of the young lions of fiction – ‘the greatest talent of the new generation’ – and putting the ‘sensitive plate’ of his imagination, and his ‘tremendous attention’, before other favoured candidates, Hugh Walpole and Gilbert Cannan, and well before D.H. Lawrence, who was left to ‘hang in the dusty rear’. James was by now an old man, not in good health, and Mackenzie’s wife Faith began to have hopes that he might be going to leave them his money. But Mackenzie had no gift for intimacy or reverence, especially not with other writers. James might despise the writings of his ‘dear young friend’ Hugh Walpole, but he valued extremely the latter’s confiding admiration and hero-worship. Mackenzie, always insouciant, thought nothing of his two rivals, observing that Walpole’s entry in Who’s Who should read: ‘Eldest daughter of the Bishop of Edinburgh. Recreation, mountaineering.’ Despite this, Mackenzie was, as his friends saw, quite innocent of the intensity and self-importance which produces true malice. He liked to hear and to tell a good story about other writers, and was delighted when his friend Frank Swinnerton ventured to call on John Galsworthy in the country, and reported that the great man had risen from his work-table exclaiming gravely: ‘I say, Swinnerton, this is very sporting of you, very sporting indeed.’

Oddly enough, Walpole has probably lasted better than Mackenzie and still constitutes a ‘taste’ that can be tried with pleasure. But Mackenzie’s influence at the time was far greater, and it was international. Both Scott Fitzgerald and Edmund Wilson were fascinated by him: the lush vivacity of his prose not only animates the former’s early novels (intended to be ‘intellectual’ like H.G. Wells, ‘and improper like Compton Mackenzie’), but is just as evident in the prose texture of Tender is the Night, especially the first version. Mackenzie’s influence on the novel of the Twenties was enormous, although, as Linklater handsomely admits, ‘not often beneficial’. But Edmund Wilson clearly perceived the importance of its impact on novelists of promise in America, and in essays and letters he continued to hold the same view, writing in 1949: ‘Mackenzie gets less attention now than he deserves ... His mother, I believe, was an American woman from the South, and his father a Scottish actor, and I have a theory that he represents a particular breed – romantic but extroverted, intelligent but superficial, quixotic but rather mild – that is due to this mingling of strains and that doesn’t find any appropriate role in the English public school system in which he was brought up ... His career has been disappointing, but I would rather read him than Somerset Maugham.’

That is certainly shrewd, particularly the point that the novelist was ‘completely lacking in intensity and completely extroverted’. Wilson even thought of writing a full-scale appreciation of Mackenzie, though he never got around to it. A connoisseur of the social influence of ‘good bad books’, he probably saw that Mackenzie’s heroes – the Michael Fanes and John Ogilvies – lacked a true personality linking them to their author, and at the same time lacked the constructed persona with which writers like John Buchan managed to endow themselves and their characters. The sense of disembodied animation given off by Mackenzie’s prose was an immediate inspiration to young writers, freeing them into their own literary personalities, but for the reader it has become a swiftly diminishing asset.

All the same, there is something gallant about the way the old trouper soldiered on, becoming Lord Rector of Glasgow University and Sir Compton, lending himself to the cause of Scottish Nationalism and walking about in a kilt on Barra, where he wrote Whisky Galore and many another ‘richly comic’ novel. He was always surrounded by adoring women who never questioned the quality of his work, but typed it out, listened devoutly while he read it aloud, and spent the rest of the twenty-four hours putting on gramophone records for him. No wonder D.H. Lawrence, after supping alone with Mackenzie’s wife Faith, found the material for one of his most malicious stories, ‘The Two Bluebirds’, the caricature of a once great writer complacently dictating to his secretary, while his wife is both jealous and compassionate in keeping among them the open secret that his talent has gone.

Feeling that his own actress mother had rejected him in early childhood, although in fact she remained protective and possessive to her death, Mackenzie liked to seek out substitutes, and at no time of his life had any difficulty in doing so. A maternal love for a beautiful young man is a continuing theme in his fiction, and when the hero is not rejoicing in a May morning – ‘A snowy aggregation of cumulus sustained the empyrean upon the volume of its mighty curve and swell. The road before him stretched shining in a radiant drench of azure puddles’ – he might well be on his way to the indulgent embraces of a woman old enough to be his mother, such as Miriam Stern, who in The East Wind of Love sits dreaming of the 17-year-old John Ogilvie. ‘She thrust her hand down to her left breast, calling it in fancy his hand, and trying to imagine whether he would shrink from the softness of a breast that had sacrificed contour and resilience to maternity.’ Well, well. But there is a kindly business-like understanding about that which is quite authentic, for however lyrical Mackenzie was about sexual consciousness, he was always simple and down-to-earth about sex itself, teasing Lawrence on the subject and telling him not to worry about simultaneous orgasms. He also made a most penetrating comment on Lawrence’s ‘innate homosexuality, debarred from expressing itself by an equally strong respectability’.

For readers of Sinister Street there was the sense of liberation, a titillating sense of evil, and – most important – a power of conveying youth and fashion which had the panache of class but none of its constraints and limitations. Jenny Pearl, the heroine of Carnival, had the same kind of fame as the post-war heroine of Michael Arlen’s The Green Hat, and Diana Cooper adopted her catch-phrase: ‘There’s nothing wrong with this little girl.’ But for other writers like Rosamond Lehmann, whom Mackenzie was proud to acknowledge as a disciple, Dorothy Richardson, even Virginia Woolf and Lawrence himself, there was the play of consciousness caught in words, consciousness as itself a form of diffused and in a sense infantile eroticism. One remembers Virginia Woolf’s feeling for the lost mother, appearing in her curious intimacy and sympathy with Hugh Walpole. The connection of lost or arrested sexuality with the new stream of consciousness in fiction is very striking, and although Mackenzie’s ‘azure puddles’ seem garish beside the prose of Lawrence or Woolf, his continuing theme and its expression inspired theirs under the surface.

His wife Faith was five years older than Mackenzie, and later gave her version of their life in volumes of memoirs, two of which she coyly titled As much as I dare and More than I should. She seemed prepared to accept a maternal role which left him free to have affairs elsewhere. Capri, that hotbed of tedious loucheries, was the undoing of this arrangement. Faith became friendly with Norman Douglas, for whom she typed South Wind – surely the most unreadable book ever to become famous from its Capri associations – and he may have encouraged her into a liaison with a 19-year-old Anglo-Italian boy who fell passionately in love with her. Mackenzie was away at the war at the time, or rather running a colourful ‘M’-type spy network in the Greek Islands, and in his absence she had to procure a miscarriage, which left her in a state of dreadful depression. When he returned, in that alienated, numbed condition so common in soldiers back from that war, she had to tell him what had happened, for nothing could be kept quiet in a place like Capri. Like Michael Furey in Joyce’s story ‘The Dead’, Faith’s unfortunate young lover used to wait under a tree at the end of the garden, hoping to catch a glimpse of her, and presently died of TB. Axel Munthe counselled the married pair (what a counsellor!) to continue living together as friends but their relationship never recovered.

This sad story seems to have been disposed of by Mackenzie as one of the things that could not be acted out, either in his life or in his art, although it no doubt made its contribution to the severe bouts of psychosomatic pain that he always suffered from. Childless, he had found himself displaced in his marriage by an authentic child, as it were, who both impregnated his wife and left her grieving for his loss, bereft as Niobe. That was not the sort of thing that could go into Sinister Street or The Four Winds of Love, nor could it be alleviated by dressing-up – when working as a spymaster in Athens in the war he told his wife to send out his white trousers, ‘also my light coloured ties and new white felt hat’. He survives better in an excellent biography of this kind than he does in his own work. But at the same time his azure puddles have mingled with the wide sea of famous fiction and played their part in it.