Writer and bookseller Jenni Kauppi presents musings on books new and old, under the radar and above…
The Young Desire It
Kenneth ‘Seaforth’ Mackenzie
First published in 1937 under the name ‘Seaforth’ Mackenzie, The Young Desire It has been brought back into print as a part of Text Publishing’s Text Classics series, championed by Australian author David Malouf (Remembering Baybylon, Ransom), who also introduces this edition.
The story outlines the coming of age of Charles Fox, a boy brought out of an idyllic and slumbering childhood on a remote property in Western Australia into the brutal world of male adolescence at a Perth boarding school. What ensues is a bold and brutal coming of age, described with the cold and lucid confusion of youth. Charles sets about overcoming his intense homesickness and peer bullying only to find himself emerging into a state of awakened sexuality with Margaret, whose family rents a cottage on his mother’s property, and shortly after, through discomfiting advances from classics teacher, Master Penworth.
As with many first novels, the biographical elements stand out; many details are shared between the character Charles and the author Mackenzie, who similarly grew up in the idyllic and wild surrounds of a remote WA property and was a boarder at Guildford Grammar. Perhaps adding to the art-meets-life tension is that Mackenzie’s biographers are given to understand that while attending Guildford Grammar, Mackenzie was subject to sexual advances by a Master at the school and the mysterious circumstances of Mackenzie’s death by drowning in 1955, just a few hours after being release from jail for public drunkenness.
In his introduction ‘A Perilous Tension’, Malouf points out that what is so stunning about this as a first novel is its delicate navigation of the what would have been heavily taboo topics – handling them with both the mystery and opacity of the first person narration, along with the total and devastating transparency of a narrative perspective younger and less knowing that its reader.
The narrative perspective moves seamlessly and deliberately in an almost Virginia Woolf-like manner, mainly between the perspectives of Charles and Master Penworth, creating the sense that these fates are linked. In a sense they are mirrored, the school described as a place “where many of the boys are old for their years, and many of the Masters seem young for theirs”. As such, Penworth is going through his own transformation, and readers are in a similar position as they are with Charles, instinctively sifting with their own wisdom and experience through his experiencing, judging and sympathizing by turns.
But Charles is surely the more sympathetic of the two: a natural born victim, with red hair, a soft, effeminate “pretty” face, and completely unprepared for the vagaries of the company of other men. His isolation, both through childhood and an internal detachment, creates a protective force field around him, creating a distance between himself and the world that both invites and wards off these attentions.
And, indeed, to us. It his strangeness that sustains and protects him, and it, along with Mackenzie’s uncanny illumination of that strangeness, makes him so compelling a character. In lieu of the artifice of plot, Mackenzie concerns himself solely with the interior world of Charles, creating a wholly abstract and sensory internal landscape that he inhabits in quiet isolation, as if in utero. In doing so, he creates an almost anthropological study of a boy who seems to float dangerously, but also vulnerably, above the social conventions of adolescence and masculinity. He is, in fact, most suited to the young Margaret, his passionately subdued love interest, and even she finds the depths of his soulfulness unnerving.
In many senses, it is a classic coming of age novel, but Mackenzie draws so heavily on the natural world, delivering such clear and succinct images of the West Australian bush – its oppressive summers and natural beauty – that it also works as a “passionately lyrical” piece of nature writing, as Malouf puts it. Emotions are conveyed through the invocation of the natural world, so that the very organics of the universe seems to collude with Charles’ emotional state. In the bottomless relief of arriving home for term break, Charles finds another buried feeling that he cannot explain;
“It was strange, he thought, how completely that bright dawn could be dispersed. He walked steadily on, over dried clover now, feeling melancholy with the day. The problem of self came on him again, fed and active upon his own melancholy with the day, and he pondered on the surprise of his body’s strength and potency. The brilliance of his own dawn had gone like the day’s, clouded over by a high wind from the north-west and distressed by a questioning breeze of doubt…”
Even Charles’ own budding sexuality is placed in these terms, “as though some hot flower were about to break from the green bud, or some ripening fruit to burst and scatter rich juices through his whole body.”
Yes, it’s verbose and in many ways; a dense, slow read, heavily emotive and scant on actual action. Its long Dickensian sentences would almost certainly have faced the full force of an editor’s red pen were it published today. But its themes are also deeply resonant, and it’s a beautifully, intricately and expertly crafted story that Malouf calls “unique and very nearly perfect; a hymn to youth, to life, to sexual freedom and moral independence…”, and for all its long tracts of metaphysical musings, it will indeed reward the patient reader.
The Young Desire It
Kenneth ‘Seaforth’ Mackenzie
By Jenni Kaupi
Writer and bookseller