The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Monday, June 27, 2011

A Ten-Volume Autobiography?

A Young Compton Mackenzie

A few weeks ago I shared my summertime reading list of about a dozen books through which I'm picking my way ever so slowly. The slowness is due to a recent discovery of a forgotten box in a closet. Inside the box were all ten volumes of Compton Mackenzie's autobiography which he titled, My Life and Times. Some time ago I set out to acquire all ten books, long out of print. It took over a year to locate relatively good hardbound copies of each volume at reasonable prices, but through persistence and the help of several particularly kind online booksellers, I managed to acquire all ten volumes, one at a time and very inexpensively.

At the time Diane and I had just completed our move to Florida and I was simply too busy to begin the reading of this man's remarkable life -- hence the forgotten box in the closet. I have always believed that biographies, autobiographies and novels should be read straight through, interrupted only by sleep and life's other necessities. And when the reading involves a ten-volume autobiography (close to 3,000 pages)...well, this demands I set aside a significant block of time. This time has now come and already I have completed the first three volumes. As a consequence, the summer reading list has suffered.

Compton Mackenzie in his old age

Unless one is particularly fond of English literature of the first half of the 20th century, I suspect few today have even heard of Compton Mackenzie. Born into a famous theatrical family in 1883, Mackenzie lived a long and productive life, dying in 1972 a few months short of his 90th birthday. He was actually quite the prodigy as a youth, and attended London's St. Paul's School and then went on to study at Oxford's Magdalen College. Not only did he publish over 100 books during his long life, but he also founded (in 1923) the authoritative and still-published classical music magazine, The Gramophone. He served in British Intelligence during the First World War and later wrote several best-selling books about his experiences in the Eastern Mediterranean. Particularly proud of his Scottish ancestry, Mackenzie was an unapologetic Jacobite and actually co-founded the Scottish National Party. Born an Anglican, he held strong Anglo-Catholic beliefs from his youth and eventually converted to Catholicism in 1914.

I first stumbled across Mackenzie about 30 years ago when I picked up a copy of his novel, Vestal Fire, in a used bookstore. Although I recognized his name, having encountered brief references to him in a few literary biographies, I really knew very little about him. Vestal Fire is a novel about an odd collection of ex-patriots living on the Italian isle of Sirene, a fictitious name for Capri where Mackenzie lived for a number of years. I actually enjoyed the novel and so began to pick up other examples of his fiction as I came across them. As I read more of his work, I became increasingly intrigued by the man himself and turned to his non-fiction, much of it autobiographical. It was then that I bought a copy of the first volume of My Life and Times. He began writing the ten volumes when he was 80, dividing his life into ten eight-year periods he called octaves. Probably the most honest autobiography I've ever read -- Mackenzie doesn't shy away from his exposing the mistakes and sins of his long life -- it not only describes the man, but also provides wonderful insights into the remarkable times in which he lived and many of the famous and not so famous he numbered among his friends and acquaintances.

This is why my summer reading list might well remain unfinished when September rolls around. If you're interested in reading some of this author's works, here's a few suggestions:

Whiskey Galore, Mackenzie's 1947 novel set in Scotland that was later (1949) made into a feature film.

Monarch of the Glen, another Scottish novel (1941) on which was loosely based the BBC TV series (2000-2005) of the same name. The series also appeared on PBS in the US. (The link I've provided is to a book that includes this novel, as well as Whiskey Galore and The Rival Monsters.)

Sinister Street, a novel focusing on the lifelong psychological and moral growth of his protagonist. His depiction of life at Oxford in the early 1900s is particularly interesting. One of my favorites.

The Four Winds of Love, was published in six volumes between 1937 and 1945. Almost 1 million words in length it was truly ambitious, a remarkable 20th-century Scottish novel. 

Gavin Wallace, one of Compton Mackenzie's biographers, offers this insight into the man:

"Although Mackenzie's output of novels (including delightful books for children), essays, criticism, history, biography, autobiography, and travel writing was prolific - a total of 113 published titles - it can truly be said that if he had never written a word he would still have been a celebrity. He had a personality as exhibitory and colourful as his writing, and remained throughout his life a gregarious man with a brilliant sense of comedy. Flamboyant, a raconteur and mimic, he was no less memorable as the formidable scourge of politicians, bureaucrats, and governments, and the passionate defender of the ostracized, the shunned, and the wronged."

Mackenzie was a remarkable man, and I'm truly enjoying this lengthy glimpse into his life and times.


  1. I just discovered Compton MacKenzie through a free Kindle book, The Vanity Girl. The religious asides were intriguing, so I looked up the author, finding he was (like me) a convert. I would be interested to hear your opinion on his conversion, and the effect it had on his life and work. FYI, my dad, may he rest in peace, was also a Naval Aviator, and he and mom retired to Florida. I am 69, and converted 7 years ago. We had two children who converted and have so far given us nine grandchildren, endless blessings abound. I'm glad I discovered your blog!!

  2. Yes, I enjoy his books, but then I have odd states when it comes to things literary. Mackenzie was often accused of writing simply for sales, especially his fiction, but if true he's in good company. As for his conversion, I think it was the logical step for an Anglo-Catholic of the time. He was very forgiving when it came to human sinfulness and weakness, something I believe grew out of his conversion experience. Read his autobiography (10 vols) or Andro Linklater's biography: Compton Mackenzie, A Life (on amazon)