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Reading, Writing & Hardly Any Arithmatic

Sinister Street (Complete)

Sinister Street (Complete) - Compton Mackenzie “Sinister Street”a bildungsroman by Compton MackenzieI read the first hundred pages of this gigantic novel in awe that its sparkling text could have been written over a hundred years ago. Mirroring Joyce's near-contemporary “Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man”, “Sinister Street” goes further, beefing up childhood impressions with deep probes into the psychology of the quixotic child, Michael Fane, as he grows from toddler to man about town. Also, there is great prose, much of it landscape, which almost always avoids the purple.But not the purple cloth. Mackenzie was one of that triumvirate of Roman Catholic convert authors (the others being Graham Green and Evelyn Waugh). I was dismayed with the boy's religious fanaticism dominating the next two hundred pages. Precocious even by Joyce's standards, Michael Fane's curious admixture of faith, bookishness and larks stood him on the Irishman's shoulders, rather, as if at twelve he were already the Victorian equivalent of Compleat Man. Wallowing through all this religiosity, I began to apply the formula of seven deadly virtues to Compton Mackenzie's literary boasts. Deadly because seen from the outside as negative, in Fane's world these virtues are untainted by vice. Snob (as amalgam of pride and prejudice), prig, braggadocio, zealot, hypocrite, smug & glib. From a famous public school in London, to an exclusive college in Oxford then on into the slums of Pimlico, Michael Fane lives according to the above codes in order to retain the title of gentleman. Even punching a copper and spending the night in the Bow Street cells fails to tarnish his self esteem and righteousness.Pre-dating “Brideshead Revisited” by three decades, “Sinister Street” is said to be the quintessential portrait of undergraduate life at Oxford. From the viewpoint of Michael Fane's snob, almost everyone deserves looking down on: street boys, Rhodes Scholars, peers whose tastes he deplores. Even his taste in girls suffers from an entropy of sneer. Attracted to those who set out to attract, Michael is sooner or later appalled by their contrariness and crashes out of his slumming ways.The title puzzled me for hundreds and hundreds of pages; presumably it was meant to. The Fane family (Charles Michael Saxby Fane, his semi-pro pianist sister Stella and their unmarried mother) do move about somewhat; so at each of Michael's new locations I paused to think if it were the eponymous street. One thing that does not wander at all is the point of view, which doggedly remains Michael's. This is an achievement, enduring over two hundred thousand words; but his cut-glass world view distorts as well as reveals. Not quite in a sinister way, I should add.This novel is so long, it becomes writing above fiction. What's more it begs sequels; and the sequence of three it begot (“Plasher's Mead”, “Sylva Scarlett”, “Syvia and Michael”) was only curtailed by The Great War. Other than that, it's a veritable Downton Abbey of industry over craft, a voluminous Victorian handbag of a work. Yet it is not all told. Which probably inspired Orwell to go “Down and Out” on crusading slums of his own; and as in there, we are left by caesuras to guess what peccadilloes dared not speak their names. The novel's popularity (stayed in print for most of the twentieth century) is partly down to the censorship of popular libraries followed by championship by the Daily Mail. Many were the boarding school bums caned for possessing it, but it was never banned outright like DH Lawrence's more explicit work. In truth, the (orignally) two volumes are very long on the results of adultery but rather short on their details.Having deprecated the hero, I must say the romantic vision of Lily is irresistible, despite her sloth. In Fane's smitten shoes, I would have been tempted to take old Mrs Carthew's advice and “beat her figuratively for a year” lest she became “a shrew or a whiner”. But in the pursuance of his romantic dream, he is incapable of taking good advice, only bad. Whether he marries her is not revealed until very near the end of the book (829 pages in my battered 1969 Penguin paperback). Like with further episodes of Downton, I ponder taking in the sequels - lifetime permitting.