Sunday, 14 October 2012

Carnival - Compton Mackenzie

… or, as the 1961 Panther edition pictured here has it, “Compton Mackenzie's world-famous Carnival". I can't comment on the degree of global renown that the book enjoyed 49 years after its original publication in 1912 but, another half-century on, I wonder how many people have even heard of it, let alone read it. (The one 'review' that appears on – a one-star review at that – is from a reader who confesses to not having finished the book, doesn't appear from their account actually to have read any of it and misspells Mackenzie's name (twice). It was unknown to me before coming across this copy, despite having read some of Mackenzie's other early works. But, like J B Priestley, he seems to be one of those hugely prolific men of letters who are now only remembered for one or two works - in his case, two slices of Scottishry in the form of Whisky Galore and Monarch Of The Glen. But much as he is now associated with that part of the UK (he was also a founder of the SNP), Mackenzie wrote some excellent works of London fiction early in his career, the most notable of which is his 1914 magnum opus Sinister Street. Carnival was published two years earlier and there's as much here to enjoy for the dedicated London novel enthusiast. Interestingly, there appears to be a new edition on the way, and it's a novel that certainly merits rediscovery.

Anyone expecting the melodramatic potboiler suggested by this Panther edition, however, would probably be disappointed. The story of dancer Jenny Pearl, which starts with her birth in the fictitious respectable-working-class Hagworth Street, Islington, proceeds at a measured pace, especially the account of her early years; several chapters elapse before the action even ventures beyond Hagworth Street. But hard-going it isn't. Mackenzie is a meticulous and careful writer, and especially successful at conveying how childhood experiences, often involving adult behaviour that seems mysterious and incomprehensible at the time – inform his key characters. (He would take this idea much further with the story of Michael Fane in Sinister Street). Jenny, daughter of a feckless father but a strong, strict and loving mother develops a vehement desire to train as a ballet dancer but, due in part to her reluctance, once she's been set on her chosen path, to apply herself to her art, ends up in the career graveyard that is Piccadilly's Orient Palace of Varieties. It's there she encounters the upper-middle-class would-be artist Maurice Avery, and their passionate but unconsummated affair – and Maurice's importuning of Jenny to take their relationship to another level – form the key part of the story.

This all takes place amid a large cast of characters and a vividly evoked turn-of-the-century London with all its pleasures. And there's a noticeably more frank – and grown-up – treatment of sex than one would find in English novels of the Victorian era that had only ended just over a decade previously (indeed, Mackenzie also drops surprising hints here and there about darker sexual practices and proclivities).To modern readers, the character of Jenny is refreshingly independent, strong and
self-assured, and determined throughout not to be subjugated by any man – even one with whom she's in love. Nor is this is remarked on as in itself especially unusual or noteworthy – although when she has a brief flirtation with the suffragist movement the result is in no way a meeting of minds. In fact, she is (as is made clear on several occasions) neither an intellectual, nor possessed of much imagination; she's not even especially sympathetic – at least not at first, and this gradual change on one's perception is, I think, part of Mackenzie's skill. That said, towards the end of the novel ones sympathies become polarised by the introduction of one of the grimmest characters I've encountered in fiction in a long time: the Cornish farmer Zachary Trewellha. Arguably this threatens to overbalance the whole work but, without wishing to drop a spoiler, it's worth mentioning here that Mackenzie's inspiration for the novel (as he himself notes in his somewhat pompous introduction) was a visit to a farmer he knew in Cornwall whose wife turned out to be a peroxided former barmaid he'd met in a Leicester Square dive and persuaded to marry him.
As a London novel, there is much to relish here: the depiction of Maurice’s dishevelled bachelor pad-cum-studio, the backstage world of the dancing girls at the Orient (based on a real place?), and conversational quirks of the period:
"Is that right?" murmured Irene. "Is what right?" "About getting off with a fellow in the stalls?" "You're not nosy, are you? Oh, no, it's only a rumour. But if you want to know, it's nothing to do with you."
And despite the final section, it's as a predominantly London-set tale of great subtlety and superbly realised characterisation that this is likely to linger in ones mind.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

You're In The Racket, Too by James Curtis

Curtis's third novel (1937) is probably one of his least-known; certainly one of the hardest to track down as there appears not to have been a reprinting after the original Jonathan Cape edition
(although there was also a 1938 US edition). But it's very much in line with his other work of the period – the central character Snowey Henderson is a small-time crook cut from essentially the same cloth as Shorty Matthews from They Drive By Night and Kennedy from The Gilt Kid, albeit less sympathetic, less bright and more brutish. But in this novel Curtis splits the narrative between Snowey and other key players from further up the social scale, including Dickie Lambert, an ambitious young clerk; his boss, industrialist Ulrich Krebs, head of Krebs products (to whose daughter Dickie is also engaged), and Krebs' family. A web of coincidences connects all these characters and others, virtually all of whom (the possible exception being Krebs' luckless daughter Kathi) are used by Curtis to depict a society where everyone is on the make and dishonestly so. Dickie's engagement to Kathi is solely to better his position. Krebs is engaged in dodgy business dealings (and involving Dickie in his plans). Krebs' wife is having an affair with an ageing gigolo who fears his gravy train is about to hit the buffers, while Snowey attempts to blackmail Dickie, who happens to be seeing his girl Pidgy on the side… It's a world entirely informed by cynicism – and the title itself suggests we are all implicated. But despite the seemingly bleak subtext, YITRT comes at times as close as Curtis ever did to out-and-out comedy, as in this scene where Snowey, as pre-arranged with Pidgy, walks in on her and Dickie.
A man came in. He had not taken off his hat. His shirt and collar were soiled. He was wearing no overcoat. An unlighted cigar was stuck aggressively in the corner of his mouth. He looked so much like Balham's idea of Hollywood's idea of a Chicago gangster that Dickie, if he had not been scared out of his life, would have roared with laughter… “Whisky and all, blimey.” Snowey had caught sight of the bottle on the mantelpiece. “Carousing in luxury on the wages of shame.” He felt that was a good phrase. “Might as well have a drop meself.” He took the bottle off the mantelpiece. Dickie laughed. He could not help it.
And bearing in mind that even contemporaneous reviewers took Curtis to task for the degree of arcane argot he used, the following exchange between Snowey and his mate Len is priceless:
“If I hole up for a bit I won't stand a chance of earning myself no more. You'll have to sausage me a goose's.” “Sausage you a goose's? What the hell are you talking about?” Len had turned round from the window and was staring at Snowey. “Cash me a cheque, dopey.”
From the opening scene of the book in Bruce House - then, as now, a homeless hostel in Drury Lane - Curtis, as the flyleaf blurb phrases it, has got his eye in. His sympathy for those on the bottom rung of society is evident here, albeit more equivocally. Snowey might be a charmless lunk, but he's no worse than the cheap, dishonest Dickie or the corrupt Krebs – and, in one key scene he angrily berates a stranger in a pub for telling a joke he feels is mocking honest working men. Played out across London locations from seedy Paddington bedsits to Soho dive bars, this is a hugely entertaining and visceral novel, and it's a shame it's so hard to find - but in this field it has to be classed as essential reading if you can unearth a copy.

I'm back…

After a two-year+ hiatus – for no good reason other than that a lot of spare time has been taken up with musical pursuits – I'm getting this blog up and running again. There's no shortage of potential content, so my aim is to post about at least one book per month. Hopefully there'll be at least a few people out there still interested…