Monday, April 13, 2009

Compton Mackenzie

I continue to enjoy Sinister Street, one of the greatest coming-of-age novels, and surely the most detailed narrative about turn-of-the-century education ever written (important for sociological as well as literary reasons). Does formal education or social environment form character? Mackenzie devotes pages and pages to each phase of the hero Michael's childhood and adolescence, weaving in the impact of education at each point. The Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics version contains Mackenzie’s fascinating foreword to the 1949 edition, in which he describes the Daily Mail's successful defense of the first volume of Sinister Street, published in 1913, against two libraries’ attempts to restrict circulation in "the banned book war." Edmund Gosse compared the novel to Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, and Henry James told Mackenzie in a letter that he had “emancipated the novel.” Mackenzie thought Lascelles Abercrombie in the Manchester Guardian most fully understood Sinister Street : "We seem to be watching that strangest of all modes of evolution: the dissolution of one century’s character to make way for the character of another century.”

I’m still in the Oxford section of Sinister Street ("Dreaming Spires"), and I have to say it brings back some undergraduate memories: the quixotic Michael, having obstinately refused to compete for a scholarship so as to be under no obligations, treats Oxford as a gentleman’s club and does no academic work. it is, of course, a waste of his intellect. We see examples of Michael’s brilliance again and again, yet he refuses to write or express himself except casually, in conversation, though his friend Maurice begs him to write for their jointly-run newspaper; but Michael has some misguided belief that to work would be ungentlemanly. Waugh, of course, does something similar in Brideshead Revisited, though his characters are more outrageous and he is more barbed and humorous about their blatant snobbery and homosexuality. There is humor in Sinister Street - Mackenzie can show us how young and sometimes pompous Michael is - but there isn’t much sexuality. The "good eggs" (as opposed to the "bad men") are all heterosexual, yet we know nothing of their love lives, and Michael wants no sex while at Oxford - a change from his passion for Lily while at St. James in Part 2.

At Oxford Michael grows stuffy and conservative, wanting to live in the idyllic Platonic world without passionate involvement or intellectual commitment. Annoyed by the Catholic church’s new tolerance of Darwinism (the church was important to him during his rebellious period at public school), he prefers to enjoy leisurely lunches,intellectual discussions, readings and rereadings of Don Quixote (the only book that consistently seems to interest him), and rugby and cricket. He assures his former governess, who believes that he has become TOO staid and is in a rut, that he is happy:

“Once I wanted passionately to be like everybody else. I thought that was the goal of social happiness. Then I wanted to be violently different from everyone else. Now I seem to be getting near the right mean between the two. I’m enjoying Oxford enormously. I can’t tell you how happy I am here, how many people I like...I’m so positive that the best of Oxford is the best of England, and that the best of England is the the best of humanity...”

Now he can’t remain in this stasis. Something will shake him out of this. Eventually he does graduate, or at least leave Oxford.

Meanwhile, I am enjoying this and wondering why this brilliant book is out-of-print in the U.S..

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