Kenneth (Seaforth) Mackenzie’s The Young Desire It is a beautiful prose-poem, a novel about adolescence which amazed me again and again with its evocation of states of mind and the experience of landscape. It tells of a year in the life of fourteen-year-old Charlie Fox, as he begins at a boarding school in Perth, with interludes at his mother’s farm in the South-West where he falls in love with a neighbour’s visiting niece. It’s shocking to read in 2019, with the sexual assault of Charlie by the other students as a hazing ritual in the novel’s opening and the grooming by a paedophile teacher presented as a normal part of school life.
He was enraptured, remembering the spaciousness and freedom there, among the rolling fields that rose against the sky in uplands from which he could see the hills five miles away, covered with a mist like the bloom on plums, and as purple and dusky as plums in the soft distance of evening. Without his knowledge, the agelessness of those lonely places made him understand in some degree how brief and immaterial his own life was. (Location 1042)
The train rattled on, and the sun set in a final burst of heatless ruddy light. Above the orange radiance of the horizon, the sky was a colour of lemons, paling upwards through faint green to blue. The infinite sadness of the bush country at evening came into the carriage like a sigh; silence swept in a wave over the world. (Location 1230)
The fugue went on, insisting and insisting with different voices in its argument; it grew up, mathematical, perfect, black and white in its lordly simplicity; it built up an architecture of sound like peace in his mind, an edifice into which his consciousness could enter as he had entered the Chapel, listening to the inspired dictations of the music. (Location 3676)
…for he had not the fatal power of being satisfied, and his love of life therefore was conscious and intense. (Location 4399)
Mackenzie was twenty-three when the novel was published, the same age I was for my debut, The Fur; it’s uncanny to read his novel now and realise I was trying to express a similar sense of the world – apocalyptic, solipsistic adolescence – in the same Western Australian setting seventy years after him. Should the universality of experience surprise me? It’s wonderful and melancholy to allow literature to teach us not just about different experiences of the world but similar ones, separated by time.
In 1966, after Mackenzie’s early death in 1955, Westerly published a special issue devoted to him. Remarkably, the introduction began, ‘The present revival of interest in Seaforth Mackenzie—the critical industry seems almost to be shifting to him from Patrick White!…’ The revival seems to have been short-lived, but the 2013 reissue of The Young Desire It by Text Classics led to many appreciative new reviews. The 1966 Westerly issue includes a biographical essay. I began it with interest, thinking at the back of my mind that it was a travesty there was no full-length biography of Mackenzie and perhaps he could be my next subject; by the time I’d finished it, I suspected I might not want to spend too many years in his company.
Mackenzie shared a publisher with Katharine Susannah Prichard – Jonathan Cape – who published her Intimate Strangers in the same year, 1937, making it a significant year for Western Australian literature. David Malouf writes, ‘The Young Desire It [is] perhaps the earliest novel in Australia to deal with the inner life in a consistently modernist way. Patrick White’s The Aunt’s Story is still a decade in the future.’ He’s probably right, but interestingly Intimate Strangers is attempting something similar, albeit with some more conventional narrative sections.
Katharine read Mackenzie’s second novel, The Chosen People, in 1938 and wrote to Jonathan Cape (the man) about it; ASIO captured Cape’s reply:
I will be on the lookout for further connections between the two.