September 2013

Arts & Letters

Kenneth Mackenzie's 'The Young Desire It'

By Peter Goldsworthy

Poets, like mathematicians, can burst fully formed into song (or into differential calculus) in late adolescence. Novelists tend to take further study in the school of life. Even coming-of-age novels are often recollected in the tranquillity of middle age; David Malouf’s Johnno, for instance, was published when the author was 40-ish. There are exceptions. DH Lawrence wrote his first novel in his early 20s, roughly the same age at which Kenneth Mackenzie wrote his precocious 1937 masterpiece, The Young Desire It, now reissued in the Text Classics series.

Like Lawrence (and Malouf, who contributes an excellent introductory essay to the new edition), Mackenzie was a fine poet. It’s the poetry of his prose that first strikes the reader, although (at least in the early pages) poetry is firmly in the service of character study, as our protagonist, Charles Fox, prepares for boarding school in Perth, leaving his mother back on the farm, if not the colliery.

I don’t want to push the Lawrence comparisons too far, but there is an awful lot of the birds and the bees (and the rivers and the rustling trees) in the book, especially when Charles and his girlfriend Margaret rendezvous in their secret forest glade. But for every channelling of Lawrence – “he was frequently aware … of a tightness in his own loins … as though some hot flower were about to break from the green bud” – there are lines of utter freshness: “The heavy drops from the wet leaves above still fell like little animals on the dead leaves beneath.” And while Mackenzie might at times take a thousand words to change one psychological or sexual light-bulb, the accumulating rhythms of those words seldom fail to illuminate.

At times I found myself reading the book too impatiently, drawn on by the exquisite sexual tension. There is only one plot, according to Samuel Goldwyn: the delayed fuck. Or perhaps, in the more delicate conventions of earlier times, the delayed kiss. The first meeting of the future lovers takes place in that glade, but unlike Lady Chatterley, the consummation – a delayed moan, barely overheard – must wait another 300 pages. 

If Lawrence is the father of this novel, its godfather is Plato. The growing, complex eros of Charles’s relationship with his young Classics teacher, Penforth, who tries to woo him away from the girl of the glade, is handled brilliantly. There is far more interior monologue than exterior dialogue in this novel, much of it astonishing in depth. How did Kid Mackenzie get so wise? Yet remain – at least for narrative purposes – so innocent? 

“He’s a bright spark,” a teacher says of Charles. “The others just smoulder and if you don’t keep blowing on ’em they go out.”

Peter Goldsworthy

Peter Goldsworthy is an author, poet and librettist. His books include Gravel, Everything I Knew and His Stupid Boyhood

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