Saturday, 12 July 2014

Compton Mackenzie: Carnival

Jenny Pearl, born Jenny Raeburn, is a dancer on the stage. She is beautiful and talented, but otherwise a rather ordinary girl, sharp-tongued, unsentimental but far from insensitive in her relations with men, fond of, but often at odds with, her unartistic family. Her problem ultimately is the discrepancy between her gifts of beauty and grace, and her impoverished cockney background and all that goes with it. Like a chorus-girl in a P.G. Wodehouse story, Jenny has no shortage of suitors from a different social class. Realistic as she is, she nevertheless falls hard for one of them. Like her, Maurice Avery is separated from his natural milieu by artistic interests; he is playing at the bohemian life with his intellectual friends. For a while, this provides enough common ground for a relationship, though one that she won't allow to lead to sex and he won't allow to lead to marriage. It will end badly; Maurice is too weak a character to flout convention for long, and when he lets her down, Jenny makes the most disastrous decision of her life. She marries another suitor, the sinister religious bigot Zachary Trewhella, and goes to live with him in his farm in Cornwall: a beautiful place, beautifully evoked in Mackenzie's rich prose, but one which provides the backdrop for a final tragedy.

I was led to Carnival by my enjoyment of another Compton Mackenzie novel, The Monarch of the Glen. You may remember the BBC series, part comedy, part soap opera, which was quite enjoyable until the Richard Briers character got killed off. The novel is completely different, set in the 1930s and depicting the struggles of a hidebound Scottish laird against the forces of modernity: hikers in shorts, rich Americans and left-wing poets. In fact, one of the few things I knew about Mackenzie is that he was active in Scottish Nationalist politics and had a bitter feud with that greatest of Scottish left-wing poets, Hugh MacDiarmid. Another thing I knew about him was that his novel Whisky Galore was the basis of an Ealing comedy film; that was the next book of his I read, finding it slightly disappointing after the very funny Monarch. Then came Carnival, which was a big surprise in all sorts of ways.

For a start, where was the Scottishness? I'd pictured Mackenzie as a Highland laird like his own Hector MacDonald. Here, on the other hand, was a novel steeped in London life, above all working-class Islington and the West End. It turns out that, like so many nationalists, he was only tenuously connected to the place he was nationalist about, having been born in Durham to a theatrical family and educated in London and Oxford. There's a density and realism to his depiction of London that's far more impressive than the Celtic trappings of the later novels. His ear for dialogue, above all, is wonderful. Jenny has a little clutch of catchphrases that include 'Oh no, it's only a rumour!' (sarcastically, to imply that she sees through an obvious attempt to deceive), 'you date!' (a soppy man - 'soppy' is another favourite word), 'he'll spring it on you' (seduce you) and 'thanks for those few nuts' (rebuffing a compliment), as well as the more obvious 'Oo-er! and 'Hark at him!'

There's also, despite the liveliness and unsentimentality of the dialogue, an intensity, seriousness and ambition that are quite unexpected. This is a long and detailed novel that starts right at the beginning with a chapter describing Jenny's birth, then takes us all through her childhood before getting on to her theatrical career. Mackenzie is undaunted by the challenge of writing about a character of a different gender and class; telling us about other people's lives is his business and he is very, very good at it. At the same time, we never lose sight of the difference between the language and sensibility of the narrator and his presumed readers and those of the heroine and her family. The mismatch between the two, flowery description and dispassionate analysis on the one hand, earthy characters and dialogue on the other, is fundamental to his writing:

Jenny lay awake in a fury that night. One after another, man in his various types passed across the screen of her mind. She saw them all. The crimson-jointed, fishy-eyed Glasgow youths winked at her once more. The complacent subalterns of Dublin dangled their presents and waited to be given her thanks and kisses. Old men, from the recess of childish memories, rose up again and leered at her. Her own father, small and weak and contemptible, pottered across the line of her mental vision. Bert Harding was there, his black boot-button eyes glittering from a crowd of dirty rotters. And to that her sister had surrendered herself, to be pawed and mauled about and boasted of. Ugh! Suddenly in the middle of her disgust Jenny thought she heard a sound under the bed.
  'Oo-er, May!' she called out, 'May!'
  'Whatever is it, you noisy thing?'
  'Oo-er, there's a man under the bed! Oh, May, wake up, else we shall be murdered!'
  'Whatever next?' said May. 'Go to sleep.'
  And just then the Raeburns' big cat, tired of his mouse-hole, came out from underneath the bed and walked slowly across the room.

The result is mock-heroic, or, in the central metaphor of the book, a Commedia dell' Arte perfomance with Jenny as Columbine and Maurice as Harlequin.

Carnival was published in 1912. For us, that's the age of Conrad and Lawrence (another of my few snippets of prior knowledge about Mackenzie was that he was lampooned in Lawrence's short story 'The Man Who Loved Islands'); in the next few years the novel would be shaken even more profoundly by Joyce and Woolf, Hemingway and Faulkner. Like most of his literary contemporaries, he was travelling a different route, one that now seems to us a dead-end. I'm sure if you had asked this brilliant young writer whose work he was modelling himself on, he would have said Dickens. (The same answer would have been given by Patrick Hamilton, another writer I've dealt with in this blog.) There's the London setting, the wide canvas, the epic scale, the range of tone from comic to tragic. And the twentieth century, in hindsight, was not the right era for the Dickensian novel. He must have realized it himself, turning in later life to those less ambitious books he is remembered for. (He also wrote a sequel to Carnival called Coral, which is worth reading, but not in the same class.) Still, the book works: a little overwritten in places, it is nevertheless rich, involving, and a tour de force of fictional realism. It doesn't deserve to be forgotten.

Next time, the mostly spooky short stories of a Georgian poet whose fiction has been unjustly neglected.

1 comment:

  1. Enjoy yr reviews and comments much, please continue. Charyn, Jackson, Hoban, Beard(!), yes. Guessing who the next reviewed author may be-- does his first initial begin with W? Thanks.

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