The Young Desire It by Kenneth Mackenzie Published by Text $24.95
There is a black and white photograph taken of Kenneth Mackenzie in the 1930s, showing the author as a young man. It’s hard to resist that sensitive face, the sensual, perfectly curved mouth, the penetrating gaze. There’s a touch of Trevor Howard, of Oxbridge intellectual. Subfusc with absent pipe. A whole era is summed up in that image.
Yet Mackenzie was a Western Australian and his most famous novel, The Young Desire It, was published in 1937 when Mackenzie was 23. His life thereafter never reached the heights of that first, early success. Other novels were published, fizzed and faded. He married and had two children, but after a career that also encompassed poetry, journalism and the law, Mackenzie became a recluse, battling ill-health and alcoholism. He drowned in 1955 – the circumstances surrounding his death remain unknown.
I would probably have remained unfamiliar with Mackenzie had I not read critic Peter Craven’s fulsome review of The Young Desire It in the Australian Book Review recently, as it’s just been republished as Text Classic. I was also urged to read the book by WC Chong, Text’s head of design and illustration, whom I interviewed for a forthcoming Pageturners podcast.
Summed up, the narrative is conventional enough – a boarding school story, a 16 year-old boy’s rites of passage, the burgeoning of an adolescent love affair with a country girl. Erotically-charged yes, plot-driven, no. What impresses, as David Malouf writes in his excellent introduction to the new edition, is that it’s “perhaps the earliest novel in Australia to deal with the inner life in a consistently modernist way.”
One of the dominant features is the novel’s languid sensuality and lyricism and lush, haunting evocation of place. When the novel opens, the hero Charles Fox is about to go to boarding-school but before leaving indulges in a final walk, mushroom picking in familiar woods. Brought up alone and a child of nature, Charles is completely at one with the landscape. “Here the first mushrooms appeared, breaking through inches of half-softened crust from the moister warmth beneath, just as if for their pulpy, round heads it was no feat at all. They came up in a night: they seemed to come even as he walked about stooping with a knife to take them into the basket; against the darkness of the earth they shone like moons, and the pink flesh of their secret undersides was wonderful to see.”
This is gloriously poetic with obvious Lawrencian undertones, and indeed Mackenzie acknowledged DH Lawrence’s influence. When, later, Charles meets Margaret for the first time in his retreat in the woods, she appears almost like a spiritual emanation of nature, even before the second theme of love and sexual awakening is introduced. The reader has already been primed to expect the following: “Charles watched her…carefully seeing with a sort of delight that he had never known before that moment, the happy movement that turned her face away, and threw into full view the side of her head, smooth and fair, the one long plait near him fallen and hanging on her knees, and the soft curve of breast and arm. She was very beautiful, he thought.”
Towards the end of the novel when the two consummate their love over the summer, Mackenzie builds up the sexual tension between them with almost heart-stopping intensity. You feel the heat of the day, hear the beating of their hearts, witness their bodies’ abandonment to “the blind volition of their own single will”. What the young desire is not simply sex, of course, but freedom, independence of action and thought within the constraints of a conservative society, the need to be completely oneself. The novel aches with that passionate wish and struggle, which is tackled with fervour and immense literary sophistication and discipline, bookended by the largest chunk of the novel, which describes Charles’ time at school.
Modelled on an English public school, Mackenzie depicts the day to life of Chatterton as a factory for making English clones out of colonial country bumpkins. In this, the novel is quietly satirical. More graphic by far is the emotional and sexual life of the school. Charles’ instincts are completely heterosexual, but at Chatterton he discovers a hothouse of homoeroticism, veiled seductions and more obvious approaches, and his confusion at how to deal with this and survive is handled by Mackenzie with extraordinary sensitivity. The success of this section lies in part in its autobiographical content. In a letter written years later, Mackenzie recalled: “When I was at school I, being angel-faced and slim and shy, was apparently considered fair game by masters as well as certain boys. The boys were at least honestly crude in their proposals; but the masters – young men whom I thought very mature and wise – had a much better technique. They wooed the intellectual way, just at the very time I was beginning to comprehend something of literature and music, and so was most gullible.”
On his very first day, Charles is brutally gang-raped by a pack of boys under the pretext that he’s actually a girl. Later, he comes under the spell of Penworth, a young Classics master out from England, who is captivated by the boy’s beauty and love of learning. For Charles, Penworth is someone to look up to, a role model. When Penworth kisses him, Charles’ experience with Margaret has already laid the foundation for what he desires and his main concern is how to negotiate the inherent difficulties of the situation – rejecting Penworth’s advances whilst somehow managing to retain his favour in the classroom.
For the 21st century reader, this scene is truly shocking. Penworth’s action is a blatant betrayal of trust and we’re perhaps more aware of its lingering whiff of paedophilia and sexual abuse today than readers in the 1930s. Yet magnanimously, Mackenzie presents a predominantly sympathetic portrait of Penworth which is essentially non-judgmental, highlighting their similarities rather than their differences. Like Charles, Penworth is lonely, isolated, artistic. Penworth’s growing realisation of his own inner nature and his attraction to Charles – which both excites and repels him – makes him one of the most fascinating characters in the novel. Again, for its time, the subject matter and the way it is tackled are groundbreaking.
The Young Desire It has all the hallmarks of a true classic – dazzling writing, deep insight and themes that are both of their time, yet timeless. As Malouf writes: “Among Australian novels it is unique and very nearly perfect, a hymn to youth, to life, to sexual freedom and moral independence, written in full awareness – and this is a second miracle – of the cost, both to others and to oneself.”
Read it: as an introduction to a largely forgotten Australian author who deserves full recognition.