The Young Desire It

Kenneth “Seaforth” Mackenzie’s novel The Young Desire It was first published in 1937 by Jonathan Cape. The book was awarded the Australian Literature Society’s gold medal, but three decades later, he’d slipped into obscurity. A special 1966 issue of Westerly notes “how difficult it is to procure his work at all.” The Young Desire It, the editors note, had just appeared in a new edition from Angus & Robertson. The book’s fate still wasn’t secure, but another fifty years on, it’s part of Text Publishing’s Classics series.

9781922147509

Mackenzie started writing the novel at the age of 17. It was published when he was twenty-three. I was going to mention his precociousness as a mate to Raymond Radiguet’s, but of course David Malouf’s introductory essay beat me to it. Rest assured, neither the prize committee nor the editorial staff at Text graded the novel on a curve. Malouf calls the book “a miracle, not least in that its wholeness, its freshness and clarity, seem magically untouched by the damage that casts a shadow over Mackenzie’s later years.” Of those later years, more to come.

The Young Desire It conjures hints of William Maxwell’s novel The Folded Leaf in its open-hearted guilelessness, and Tobias Wolff’s Old School for its illustration of how the hothouse environment of a boarding school inflates the significance of small events. It’s worth noting that Mackenzie’s work predates both, whether they knew of him or not.

The lushness of Mackenzie’s prose reveals a novelist with the sensibility of a poet. Take Charles’s discovery of Margaret, who takes over much of his thoughts from that time forward:

“It was a girl, a stranger. She had evidently not seen him, for she was stooping to pull up clothes that had slipped as she ran, and he could see her chest heaving when she straightened herself up again. Her legs were bare, and she had no shoes on; he could see the insteps of her feet in the leaves that sank beneath her. That was why she had been so quiet. When she bent down two plaits of hair, as thick as ropes but softly alive, slid over her shoulders and hung each side of her face, which he could not clearly see. His breath was coming more comfortably; he turned himself round, and sat down quietly by his tree trunk to watch, aware of no privacy save his own…To him sitting there, the mystery of a human being, particularly a woman, who is unconscious of any watching eyes and has abandoned all protective postures, came as unexpectedly and enchantingly as the telling of some romantic secret.”

He was very young when he wrote The Young Desire It, but even within those first, fevered longings, Mackenzie emphasized also subtle shadings of attraction.

The novel follows young Charles Fox during his time at an Australian boarding school. Upon his arrival, Mr. Jolly, the headmaster, tells him, ‘Now you listen to me, old chap. We know nothing about you here. Your job is to teach us, just as ours is to teach you. You teach us to like and respect you; we’ll teach you something above all price.’ Mackenzie’s debut is a roman à clef in large part, though it matters little which experiences cut closest to Mackenzie’s lived experience. Charles is callow but resilient, and Mackenzie captures the un-diluted intensity of those years in a way it’s hard to imagine he would’ve managed to years later.  Fox experiences a difficult adjustment to life at school though, we are given to understand, nothing truly unusual in duration or scope. He attracts the interest of Penforth, one of the masters at the school. Their halting, frustrated dealings resolve with Charles drawn to Margaret, a young woman from a neighboring farm, and Penforth at a loss. From there, Charles comes to know the sensual world in ways he hasn’t yet to that point. To call it an awakening may sound lame and hackneyed, but to Mackenzie’s credit, that’s just what unfolds, in a deliberate, natural manner. Neither is the progress Mackenzie charts wholly, or even mostly, sexual. After their early assignations, the two return to their respective schools and Charles thinks of all the new and previously forbidden knowledge he now holds:

“With such knowledge of her, the smallest yet, perhaps, the choicest he could have known, his mind in sleep or day dreaming, during a noisy morning recess or under the meaningless glory of a service in Chapel, composed ecstasies whose frailty and unworldliness were mercifully kept from him. In a rare and lonely way he was learning, as those others were learning, with surprise and happiness, to live.”

This is not the work of a writer we should forget, and it’s pleasing to imagine Mackenzie enjoying a sort of renaissance. The singer-songwriter Stu Larsen included a song entitled “Seaforth Mackenzie” on his 2011 EP, Ryeford.

Mackenzie’s final novel, The Refuge, is also available from Text Classics. I have a weakness for writers whose entire body of work would fit neatly in an omnibus volume, and in a pinch, Mackenzie would fit the profile.

Mackenzie died at forty-one, drowned in Tallong Creek under, it’s said, mysterious circumstances. He’d struggled with poor health and alcoholism in his later years.  “A fine talent was laid to waste,” the writer Diane Davis writes of Mackenzie’s death. The Young Desire It is testament to that judgment, and one of the truly indelible novels of youth.

– John McIntyre

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