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DESPERADO - Contemporary British Literature | There are two major directions in 20th century literature: the stream of consciousness and the Post-stream of consciousness, the latter being known as Postmodernism (including Post-Postmodernism as well)...


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British Desperadoes at the Turn of the Millennium

The Desperado of Sensibility Laid Bare – Peter Ackroyd (born 1949)


Peter Ackroyd writes forcefully and almost pushes his readers in a trance. His novel Hawksmoor (1985) drags us to and fro between early 18th century and late 20th century London. The story is both breathless and inessential. There is a multitude of stories, in fact, and inevitably you miss some, until it finally dawns on you that somehow they are told twice: once when Queen Anne reigned (with the plague and the great fire), and a second time in present-day London, when the detective Hawksmoor is trying to discover a serial child murderer. The book is built on parallelisms. Even the names (or at least part of them) are the same. The whole text is enveloped in an air of unreality, a web of mystery and forbidden truths. Unless you surrender to the enthralling atmosphere and share the characters’ experiences, the end is bound to be meaningless.

In a very strange way, Peter Ackroyd intertwines his highly narrative style with an imperiously required suspension of disbelief, subtly infusing poetry into magical incidents, instilling lyricism into fiction. Although full of suspense and palpitating events, even murders, the book is pre-eminently a lyrical experience, and creates a new kind of reader: the sharing reader. To read Peter Ackroyd, you have to do more than just take his words for granted (he confesses on the last page: ‘this version of history is my own invention’). You have to lend yourself to the expert hand of a writer who will never be satisfied with less than absolute communion. He leads you to the point where you become him. You partake of a sacred rite (the novelist’s imagination), and when you finish reading the book, you could easily say, ‘Madame Bovary c’est moi;’ the novel becomes a holy communion, and you feel you partake of a very creative mind. Reading Ackroyd is an entrancing and overwhelming experience.

The book begins with the stating of a historical fact: in 1711,

‘the ninth year of the reign of Queen Anne, An Act of Parliament was passed to erect seven new Parish Churches in the cities of London and Westminster, which commission was delivered to Her Majesty’s Office of Works in Scotland Yard. And the time came when Nicholas Dyer, architect, began to construct a model of the first church.’

The world in which the architect lives and builds his visions into durable churches is overburdened by the dark powers of the devil. Each church requires the sacrifice of a child, and the book is full of these churches that have very little to do with faith in God. It is also strewn with dead bodies, whose murder is never traced.

Nicholas Dyer works for the Queen at Scotland Yard. Hawksmoor works for the Police at Scotland Yard. They are both called Nick, and have an assistant called Walter. Every other chapter is devoted to Dyer and his mysterious stories. Most of the others (beginning with Part Two, Chapter 6) describe Hawskmoor deciphering the secrets of the past and slowly becoming one with them. At first, the alternation past-present (an interval of two hundred and seventy years, at least) is confusing. Gradually, we begin to remember leitmotifs (Eliot’s technique of recurrent motifs, in The Waste Land, is not far away) and feel elated when we recognize a clue, as if time had slammed open its doors and we were actually travelling back and forth.

Dyer’s chapters do not use inverted commas for the dialogue at all, and the connecting ‘she said’ or the like are italicized. It uses the spelling of the time (a little reminiscent of the earlier John Donne, with the same joy of life, too), and is narrated in the first person, by Dyer himself, in the Past Tense. We learn of many horrors there, but somehow they do not terrify us as much as the view we get through the eyes of Hawksmoor, who, not being able to build the churches, tries to build a case, understands too much and in the end intentionally fails, identifying with the legendary murderer. Death is no reason for fear in this book, nor is the traditional cop dead set against it. It is merely a fact of life. Even of art.

The first striking sentence Dyer utters (addressing, teaching his assistant, Walter) is:

‘I am not a slave of Geometricall beauty, I must build what is most Sollemn and Awefull.’

To add to the aesthetics of the ugly and terrifying (in good Eliotian tradition), he continues:

‘I declare that I build my Churches firmly on this Dunghill Earth and with a full Conception of Degenerate Nature.’

To continue the connection with T.S. Eliot, the church in question is St. Mary Woolnoth, whose bell tolls the hours in The Waste Land (‘with a dead sound...’). Minds meet, beyond transitory fashions and – at least this is what Ackroyd is trying to state – above Time.

Nicholas Dyer begins with the beginning: his birth in London, in 1654. At the very end of the book, Hawksmoor finds the entry in an encyclopaedia at the public library. It summarizes what we already know, making us realize that we have actually been delving in history all along:

‘DYER Nicholas (...) 1654-c. 1715. English architect; was the most important pupil of Sir Christopher Wren, and a colleague both of Wren and Sir John Vannbrugghe in the Office of Works at Scotland Yard. Dyer was born in London in 1654; although his parentage is obscure, it seems that he was first apprenticed as a mason before becoming Wren’s personal clerk; he later held several official posts under Wren including that of surveyor at St. Paul’s. His most important independent work was completed as a result of his becoming the principal architect to the 1711 Commission for New London Churches; his was the only work to be completed for that Commission, and Dyer was able to realise seven of his own designs: Christ Church Spitalfields, St. George’s-in-the-EastWapping, St. Anne’s Limehouse, St. Alfege’s in Greenwich, St. Mary Woolnoth in Lombard Street, St. George’s Bloombsbury and, finest of all, the church of Little St. Hugh beside Moorfields. (...) He died in London in the winter of 1715, it is thought of the gout, although the records of his death and burial have been lost.’

Past, present, reality and nightmare mingle freely. Hawksmoor finds children’s dead bodies in front of all these churches, all dead by strangulation, but with no marks or fingerprints or any other signs whatsoever. He haunts a kind of bodiless tramp called the ‘Architect.’ When Dyer’s chapter ends with one word, Hawksmoor’s begins with that; the name of Dyer’s first victim in the name of a church – Thomas Hill – is the name of Hawksmoor’s first case. It is obvious that Ackroyd means to baffle us, smash all our rational defences, and take us into the core of impossibility.

Time was Dyer’s concern ever since he was a boy:

‘...I used to sit against a peece of Ancient Stone and set my Mind thinking on past Ages and on Futurity.’

It looks as if ever since his childhood he had been practising immortality. He repeatedly states that his churches (which are his life) will not die. Yet, to defeat death, he has to start fighting it very early in life. The plague kills both his parents, sparing him, though. His faith in God is grievously shaken, although in what way he never says:

‘...a Crowd of Thoughts whirl thro’ the Thorowfare of my Memory for it was in that fateful year of the Plague that the mildewed Curtain of the World was pulled aside, as if it were before a Painting, and I saw the true Face of the Great and Dreadfull God.’

He escapes from the house that is ‘shut up by a Constable,’ becomes a vagrant, sees ‘Apparitions (call’d Hollow Men)’ (Eliot reappears), and plunges into a world which ‘was one vast Bill of mortality.’ Minutes, centuries, feelings, beings are all ‘Dust.’ The word recurs obsessively in almost every chapter. He calls himself Faustus (the Devil recurs quite as often as Dust, the frailty of Man), meets Mirabilis, ‘and thus began my strange Destiny.’ Mirabilis teaches him ‘that older Faith,’ namely that God created Death and the world is subjected by plan to Evil. Sin is inherited from generation to generation, human condition is ‘inveterate Mortal Contagion.’ In his own words,

‘We baptize in the name of the Father unknown, for he is truly an unknown God; Christ was the Serpent who deceiv’d Eve, and in the form of a Serpent entered the Virgin’s womb; he feigned to die and rise again, but it was the Devil who truly was crucified. We further teach that Virgin Mary, after Christ’s birth, did marry once and that Cain was the Author of much goodnesse to Mankind.’

Consequently, ‘Satan is the God of this world,’ just as the ‘Chief God of the Syrians was Baal-Zebub or Beel-Zebub, the lord of the Flies,’ which last association sends us to Golding’s novel with a new understanding.

In Dyer’s imagination, the dead constantly call out to the living and each church requires living blood. Dyer found the ‘Sacrifice desir’d in the Spittle-Fields,’ in the person of the mason’s son, Tom Hill. A character by the same name dies in Hawksmoor’s time, too, in the same place almost, as if he had been reborn only to repeat his death. In Dyer’s time it was an accident: the boy climbed to the tower to lay the highest and last stone, as the custom was. There was a sudden gust of wind, he lost his balance and fell from the tower. He died on the spot, and Dyer commented:

‘He has fled out of his Prison.’

As a matter of fact, he confesses (he never hides anything from the reader, so the mystery is confined to the 20th century),

‘I could hardly refrain from smiling at the sight; but I hid my self with a woeful Countenance.’

He did not even have to kill with his own hands, as he did later on. He had the boy buried where he fell. No sooner is this incident recalled than the second chapter (taking place in our own century) describes another boy named Thomas Hill, surrounded by children who dance round him and shout, ‘Dead man arise!’, in the vicinity of the Spitalfields church. The new Tom knows, for instance, that ‘if you say the lord’s prayer backwards, you can raise the Devil.’ He feels attracted by the church, the tunnel, the Pyramid. His widowed mother (his father was a baker and died six years ago) fears this attraction, which is actually fatal to him. While writing this chapter, the writer still shares the mystery with us, revealing what actually happened, what the Police (except Hawksmoor) will never know. A creature who seems to be half-man, half-ghost makes the boy take refuge in the tunnel of the church. He has the supernatural experience of another world, the way back vanishes, he has a broken leg, falls asleep and dreams of the other Tom Hill falling and dying. The description is purely lyrical:

‘But he was afraid, and his fear became a person. ‘Why have you come here?’ she said. He turned his back upon her and, as he looked down at the dust upon his shoes, cried, ‘I am a child of the earth!’ And then he was falling.’

Bits of poetry are interspersed all through the novel, all of them with the same halo of ill-omen. The second Tom Hill is reunited with his dead father, the registers, the times merge, and the shadow reveals to him ‘the face above him.’ Nothing is named or rationally explained. Like a refrain, ‘the face above’ begins the third chapter, which goes back to the spell-binding world of Dyer, who has a fit of gout. Though a successful architect by now, sadness, or rather pain is his burden, and he can never enjoy life. Here is the small poem of his misery:

‘And now my Thoughts are all suspended and like a Pilgrim moving into the Glare of the Sun I am lost in the wastes of Time.’

He remembers his childhood years, immediately after the plague. His heart is set on becoming a mason. His aunt finds him an orphan and helps him. The fire comes. After the fire, he goes to Mirabilis, his ‘good Master,’ asking for advice, since so much room was created for building anew:

‘You will build, he replied, and turn this paper-work house (by which he meant the Meeting-place) into a Monument: let Stone be your God and you will find God in the Stone. Then he pickt up his dark Coat, and in the dusk of the Evening departed away whither I never saw him afterwards.’

Like a lord of Darkness and Death, this Mirabilis lives on in Dyer, who all his life builds churches to a God of Evil, in a world of Evil, where it is perfectly all right to sprinkle each monument with the joyful spilling of human blood. The book is thus built that we do not even rebel or argue. We are happy to understand. Or rather infer what is going on. We have been made accomplices in thought, and the experience does not terrify: it is exhilarating.

Dyer becomes a mason’s apprentice to Richard Creed, reads and learns architecture mostly on his own, and he meets ‘Sir Chris’ (Wren) when he is seventeen. Impressed by the young man’s knowledge, Sir Chris, who is ‘both Surveyor-General and principal Architect for rebuilding the whole City,’ takes him to be his assistant. They visit Stonehenge together (which reminds us of Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles). Dyer feels he must see the ‘High Place of worship,’ by which he means worshipping the ‘Daemon,’ of course. He calls it ‘the Architecture of the Devil.’ Life and death mingle in this novel, which aims to relieve the reader from the frustration of never experiencing the infinite, the inconceivable. Actually, Ackroyd confines the universe to seven churches, all built in the spirit of Death in Life and Life in Death. Nothing is Black or White any more. Good and Evil grow together into a strange promise of delight unknown.

The proof of this is Chapter 4, describing a vagrant Ned, parallel to the one killed by Dyer centuries before. The story is confusing, but the lyrically recurring images come to our rescue. ‘Dust’ reminds us of the kingdom of night. One sentence could very well characterize this entire book:

‘And how does it feel to go down into the water with your eyes wide open, and your mouth gaping, so that you can see and taste every inch of the descent?’

The mood being set, sentences, incidents, flashes recur. The victim feels like a child again. The church is waiting for young blood. A father, like an apparition, has a vision of his son dead. Chronology is thus ruined in a new, subtler way. The future feels like the past, all moments are one, we live all times simultaneously.

The fifth chapter thickens the ‘Shaddowe’ with which it begins (reiteration of the last words in Chapter 4). Dyer accompanies Sir Chris to examine a dead body (he was a master of anatomy) at a mental asylum. A madman there has a fit and calls out:

‘What more Death still Nick, Nick, Nick, you are my own! At this I was terribly astounded, for he could in no wise have known my name. And in his Madness she called out to me again: Hark ye, you boy! I’ll tell you somewhat, one Hawksmoor will this day terribly shake you!’

The two heroes melt. Who is who? Would it help if we knew? All we really want, as long as we keep reading, is not to know. Ominous ignorance is the suspense of the book. An axe that never falls, and having finished the novel, we feel infinitely lucky we have emerged alive. As the last sentence explains:

‘And then in my dream I looked down at myself and saw in what rags I stood; and I am a child again, begging on the threshold of eternity.’

A child who is repeatedly sacrificed, and whose death makes a poem out of every paragraph. Even more than Graham Swift, Peter Ackroyd is pre-eminently quotable. At one point he half-reminds us of Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach:

‘This mundus tenebrosus, this shadowwy world of Mankind is sunk into Night (...). We are all in the Dark...’

Dyer confesses that he builds his churches in stones and shadows, with the firm aim of enveloping all living creatures in ‘Confusion.’ These are churches meant to lead people into the dark. The dark of evil, of ignorance, of mystery. Ambiguity reigns. Ackroyd’s major goal is not to clarify, but to disturb.

The way the chapters are knitted together is masterful. Not only does each one begin with the last words of the previous chapter, but incidents are also duplicated, brought up to date, seen from another point of view. Part two (Chapter 6) introduces Hawksmoor as the London Detective Chief Superintendent who looks for a mystery more than a murderer. So far, three children have been strangled near three churches (all built by Nicholas Dyer, but he does not yet know that), with no prints left. The bits of poetry continue to pop up. Hawksmoor hears a vaguely reminiscent refrain in the street:

‘I will climb up, climb up, even if I
Come tumbling down, tumbling down.’

We fumble about the text and are led to suspect his likeness to Dyer. He ends by becoming a little of an alter ego, though not enough, since he is not half as full of life, passion and determination. What they have in common is, sombrely, their love of death. Hawksmoor, though unspeakably less impressive, gives the title to the novel. He likes to think of his investigation as of a story (is this the writer urging us indirectly?):

‘...even if the beginning has not been understood, we have to go on reading it. Just to see what happens next.’

Which we do. Dyer has not been understood and never will be. Reason is too small a dimension for him. Hawksmoor realizes that and steps out of his detective routine when it is too late: he drowns into his twin. As he once says:

‘But I may not have to find him – he may find me.’

And the sequel to this is: ‘What time is it now?’ No time. No age. Far behind. Let us forget it. Let us run away. Here is a book that pushes us outside ourselves.

The book deals with the plague, the fire, a dark faith, and numberless skeletons (Eliot’s obsession with bones). Dyer’s conviction is that

‘the Plague and the Fire were no Accidents but Substance, that they were the Signes of the Beast withinne.’

In the name of the lightlessness within all of us, he builds and makes a clean breast of all his thoughts. The author makes him explain everything but the inexplicable core of mystery, his (our) very existence:

‘When my Name is no more than Dust, and my Passions which now heat this small Room are cooled for ever, when this Age itself is for succeeding Generations nothing but a Dreem, my Churches will live on, darker and more solid than the approaching Night.’

A book which mixes fiction, poetry, drama, history, thoughts and dialogue, this text has no love interest whatsoever, no romance. Yet our deepest feelings are stirred, probably because we respond to the love of evil with our fear of death. Readers make this novel throb with life. We realize that there are topics more heart-rending than falling in and out of love. Now, Dyer died in 1715, but no records of his death or burial were preserved. Here is what he meant to do, before it happened:

‘Dr. Flamsteed, the Astronomer Royal (...) predicts a total Eclipse of the Sunne on the date 22 April 1715: at that dark Time, when the Birds flock to the Trees and the People carry Candles in their Houses, I will lay the last Stone secretly and make the Sacrifice due.’

He keeps this a secret. It will be his most beautiful ‘Church of Little St Hugh in Black Step Lane.’ The house of Mirabilis, meeting place of dark believers, was in Black Step Lane. It was destroyed by inimical people. Dyer offers himself as the supreme sacrifice for the endurance of his faith. He builds himself into the everlasting and triumphs:

‘No one can catch me now.’

How strange that we should fall in love with the incandescent love of life of a book that haunts all its heroes with the spectre of death.

Chapter 11 has Dyer experience and verbalize his own death. What history has lost, Ackroyd recreates:

‘I had run to the end of my Time and I was at Peace. I knelt down in front of the Light, and my Shaddowe stretched over the World.’

Over Hawksmoor as he finds Nicholas Dyer in the encyclopaedia. Who is speaking? Can the dying go on and review their deaths? He, the detective (hoping to prevent another death? Death in general?) walks towards the church Little St Hugh. He is inside. The two Nicks are together:

‘They were face to face, and yet they looked past one another at the pattern which they cast upon the stone; for when there was a shape there was a reflection, and when there was a light there was a shadow, and when there was a sound there was an echo, and who could say where one had ended and the other had begun?’

They melt into one, and we feel the elation of having witnessed a reunion with Divinity.

‘A child again, begging on the threshold of infinity,’

and the book ends, without explaining Dyer, without solving the murders, without saying a word about the joy of melting into the unknown. Everything is desperately suggested, hinted at, lyrically murmured. Nothing is stated. So far, Peter Ackroyd is a Desperado of shared infinite mystery, of darkness for ever. Reading him, we witness black and white, day and night, good and evil, reason and confusion, detective and murderer merge. We need a new set of values, a new way of judging what we read. The novel is the enlightening communion with lightlessness. Partaking of a huge question mark. The unspeakable.


Chatterton (1987) is a Point Counter Point novel. Besides using Huxley’s shifting focus, which also implies a multiple point of view technique, Ackroyd, just like Julian Barnes (Flaubert’s Parrot), amalgamates fiction with literary history. The only character who narrates in the first person is in fact the source of mystery: Chatterton himself. As his story becomes clearer, he slowly drifts into the third person, and, willingly or simply unaware of it, the author steps to the front.

This is a rather depressing book about many kinds of death: from Chatterton’s unwilling suicide (meant to be a mere ‘cure for clap’) to Charles Wychwood’s death of a stroke. It is a hopeless, morbid novel, lacking in joy of any kind. Hawksmoor abounded in all kinds of deaths, yet the strength of the text was such that the reader came out of it feeling very much alive and kicking with thoughts, with hope and curiosity. Chatterton is a bundle of discreet shadows. It is an interesting text, more technique than elation, not at all haunting, and quite predictable. The imp of creative horror is absent. Ackroyd writes a decent novel which is not forceful.

The first page is a possible entry in any dictionary of literature. It says everything (and nothing) about Thomas Chatterton (1752-1770), the boy born in Bristol, who learned very early how to forge older texts, thus giving an ancient – highly interesting – face to his own poetry. He created ‘Rowley,’ the mediaeval monk, and wrote under his umbrella. When he was seventeen, he left for London, where ‘on the morning of 24 August 1770, apparently worn down by his struggle against poverty and failure, (...) he swallowed arsenic.’ His suicide was later on painted by Henry Wallis (1856), who used young George Meredith as his model. Ackroyd’s account sets out to debunk both: the suicide because of poverty and literary rejection, and the story of the painting.

It turns out in the end that Chatterton had absolutely no intention of taking his own life: he merely used laudanum and arsenic as a friend advised him, in order to cure the ‘clap’ contracted on the occasion of his losing his virginity. He also used quite a lot of alcohol, thus adding by mistake too much arsenic to the mixture. As for the painting, its story is rather concerned with Wallis’ affair with Mary Ellen Meredith, his model’s wife, than with George Meredith (who does not even exist as a character) or his impersonation of Chatterton.

T.S. Eliot is present again, here and there, with a few lines (‘Oh do not ask what is it. Let us go and make our visit!’; ‘Why should the aged eagle?’), and the novelist Harriet Scrope even claims he was her protector. Numberless connections are woven in a web of coincidences. Charles Wychwood is an unsuccessful poet, married to Vivien, and they have one son, Edward. Philip Slack has been his friend for fifteen years. They studied at University together; Philip is a public librarian now. Andrew Flint also was at University with Charles, and is a (doubtfully) successful novelist. For six months, Charles (otherwise unemployed) was Harriet Scrope’s secretary. Philip finds out that Harriet Scrope’s first novels counterfeited those of Harrison Bentley, which she later admits, in an interior monologue that only the reader can hear, not the other characters. The whole book is full of forgeries and fakes. Hawksmoor was swinging between evil and good. Chatterton shipwrecks the genuine into the fake: nothing is reliable any more.

The same Philip ends up with Charles’ wife and son (‘his only family’ even at the beginning of the book) after Charles’ death, preceded by ominous headaches, blurred speech, spells of dizziness and confusion. One day Philip finds one of Bentley’s novels, connects him to Harriet Scrope, replaces it on the library shelf and alights on the book next to it, in which he finds a text about George Meredith and Chatterton: deserted by his wife, in 1856, he was saved from suicide by Chatterton’s ghost. The whole book would like to be haunted by this ghost of dead youth and hidden old age (which proves to be a fake), but Ackroyd’s ability to build mystery fails him here. It is replaced by ingenuity.

Andrew Flint, on the other hand, is in the act of writing a biography of George Meredith when Charles visits him. Vivien works as a secretary ‘in Cumberland and Maitland, a small art gallery’ which acquires at an auction three Seymours that are fakes, as they were actually painted by the painter’s assistant, Stewart Merk, before the painter died. Merk faked Seymour, Harriet faked Bentley, Chatterton (dangerous supposition) wrote most of 19th century poetry. Charles is taken in by faked Chatterton manuscripts, handed to him by a descendant of Chatterton’s first publisher, Joynson. The only thing that is genuine in this novel of deceptions is Charles’ death. All the rest is a game which, unfortunately, we decipher too easily. More direct and much less poetic than Hawksmoor, Chatterton is not a Desperado’s novel. It experiments a few old tricks (mainly Huxley’s), it desperately strives after a sense of humour and flops into traditional narrative. The ghost is asleep...

The story as such is pretty uncomplicated. Charles discovers a portrait which, he decides, shows a middle-aged Chatterton. He rejoices at having a mystery on his hands. He manages to acquire some manuscripts which confirm that Chatterton faked his own death and continued to write under the signature of Cowper, Gray, Blake and the early romantics. Charles himself is in constant pain – headaches and a tumour which lead to a fatal stroke – but rejects the thought of death. He wants to unravel the mystery. Ackroyd tries to impose a mystery on us, parading Chatterton’s ghost here and there, but we do not feel any thrill. Charles dies as truly as Chatterton did, and we learn that in the end. There is no mystery. Just a chain of forgeries that lead nowhere. The novel ends with a clarity that our sophisticated Desperado readership rejects. Our last thought is: ‘So what?’

Ackroyd tries hard to mix lyricism into his fiction, but it does not help. He also uses bits of sentences as refrains, but that produces no particular effect, either. Many details are useless, several characters have no magic meaning, no real place in the structure of the story at least (Harriet’s secretary, Mary, the homosexual couple who own the fake Chatterton manuscripts, the 19th century poet Agnes Slimmer). Sarah Tilt is an art critic (and Harriet’s supposed friend) who is writing a ‘study of the images of death in English painting,’ provisionally entitled The Art of Death. Since we hardly get to know her at all, this is one more parallelism that might have been interesting but stays flat. Harriet tells Charles an interesting sentence:

‘...reality is the invention of unimaginative people.’

Can it be that this novel by Ackroyd is a bit too real?

The novel advances the hypothesis that Chattterton did not die, and then dispels its halo. He did die. Forgery is sublime, a law of life, but always found out, dragged into the open. It would be interesting if the world ‘were a vast public library, in which the people were unable to read the books,’ as Philip thinks to himself.

Chatterton’s first-person autobiography is half-appealing. A certain mist of superficiality covers everything. We feel in the presence of a ‘catching’ manner (forgery). Charles exclaims, ‘half the poetry of the eighteenth century is probably written by him,’ he is ‘the greatest poet in history!’, but the only thing that really catches our soul is Charles’ own agony of slow and sure (very real) death.

Talking to Harriet, Charles quotes Montaigne:

‘I no more make the book than the book makes me.’

It was not the case of Hawksmoor. The theme of Chatterton, stated by Charles again, is ‘the anxiety of influence.’ The theme of Hawksmoor was after life, between lives, out of life. Here, death is final and it even manages to kill its own mystery.

We are told that Harriet

‘always preferred stories in which the ending had never been understood.’

This is Henry James’ policy. It is also the effect of Hawksmoor. The fact that the portrait of Chatterton in middle age dissolves when Merk tries to decipher it, cleaning the forgery, is not convincing. Again, we catch ourselves shrugging our shoulders: ‘So what?’ Philip is ready – at the end of the novel – to retell everything in a new novel, his own. Do we want it? Ackroyd’s last words here are:

‘And, when his body is found the next morning, Chatterton is still smiling.’

As a novel, Chatterton is neither bad, nor good. It is a lecture on exposure. Its plot is a chain of associated forgeries. All characters (except Vivien and Edward, who form the only emotional background) are hypocrites. The two novelists are really failures, and Philip, who is preparing to become the third, opens a drab prospect. Everyone has at least one skeleton in the closet, and besides the infamous secret nobody has much to say. It looks like a book with all the mannerisms of Hawksmoor, but none of its enthralling charm.

Irony might have saved Chatterton. Somehow, though, we never feel like laughing. Charles is dying slowly and painfully under our own eyes, and even while analysing his death and communicating it to us, he cannot be honest with himself. The author plays with all sorts of hints, but his nimbleness fails to make his text more appealing. With each new turn, we expect an infusion of emotion which never arrives. Love is so discreetly described that it fades before the reader gets there. The whole novel fades soon after we have finished reading it, just like the Preface to Charles’ never-to-be-written book on middle aged Chatterton.

The lesson of the book is: Death can neither be faked, nor fooled. Both Chatterton and Philip (an old trick with Ackroyd) end by becoming one, learning this the hard way. And so does the reader.


English Music (1992) is more a nostalgic poem than a story. The first motto comes from St Augustine:

‘...he who can interpret what has been seen is a greater prophet than he who has simply seen it.’

The whole book is a matter of interpretation. ‘English music’ is the music of the mind, of all minds ever, which contains the Earth, with all its wonderful arts (literature included), and the spheres, the universe; life here, present, past, future, and the soul beyond; in one word, the most essential mystery at the core of all that is. Peter Ackroyd deals mostly with what we do not know, what we shall never know, but his manner is relaxed. He helps us peep at the inconceivable, and this kind of suspense, again, replaces any need for plot or precipitated incidents. Thus finding areas of sensibility that not many writers care to investigate (the mystery of building churches, the mystery of artists long dead), leaving aside the usual concern with love and action, Ackroyd creates a dreamy novel, which is his own trend. He puts so much lyrical sympathy in his fiction that we find ourselves caught in the web of hybridization, and experience its brightest side – the side which mellows without confusing our souls and minds.

The odd chapters (the last one is nineteen) are written in the first person, by Timothy Harcombe. They deal with a brief account of his life and bring into play mystery upon unsolved mystery. The even chapters are Tim’s dreams or weaknesses, or escapes into the past, into old music, old literature, old painting. One is a poem on past writers, another a lecture in the composition of music, one more reveals the secrets of painting. They may seem a bit longish and irrelevant to the plot, but the plot of this book is our mind itself: the more we learn, the farther away the plot reaches. We feel privileged to partake of this dreamy, affectionate fiction that haunts us, beckoning to us long after we have left it, long after we have realized that none of its mysteries will ever be explained. We are taught how to love the unfinished, and this is a way of penetrating the never begun, of partaking of the inconceivable truth that we live in a world that never began and will never end. Ackroyd forces the limits of our understanding in a very gentle way, making the impossible easier to bear.

The story itself is very simple: Timothy Harcombe, the son of ‘Clement Harcombe. Medium and healer,’ follows in the footsteps of his father, who began as a circus magician, until he met Cecilia, his wife. She died when Tim was born. She seems to be the source of their (especially Tim’s) healing power, their constant communication with eternity. At first, while Tim is still a boy, his father heals using his son’s special energy, or so it seems. Soon, Tim’s grandparents (his mother’s parents) take the child away from his father. Clement Harcombe loses his gift until seven years later, when he actually manages to heal his own son. Tim is aware of his father’s share of the indescribable legacy, and goes to ‘work’ with him again. Clement Harcombe dies soon after they restore to health Tim’s best friend, Edward, who had a crooked body, shaken by nervous spasms. Once Edward is healed, Clement dies of a ‘stroke.’ Timothy continues to work for the circus until he feels he has lost his special energy. He continues to grow old, he writes this book which we are reading, and ends by saying:

‘I no longer need to open the old books. I have heard the music.’
Meaning that he has been holding our hand while we were looking for a way out of the maze of Ackroyd’s English Music: we have been flying across feelings and ideas, and landed in the very special ever-green field of the writer’s sensibility. It is an experience hard to forget. We have been keeping company with an artist of all arts, a creature of the here and the beyond; we have shared the inexpressible gift of ever after, ever before. Maybe this is why the book seems to be so private.

On the first page, Timothy tells us he is an old man, in 1992, but he has managed to return to the past, because

‘One day is changed into another, yet nothing is lost.’

He goes back to a hall built in 1892, on the place where a Dissenters’ chapel was destroyed in 1887. It is a meeting place, where his father, medium and healer, welcomes his small circle of followers with the words:

‘Welcome to the Chemical Theatre. Where all the spirits of your past come in dumb show before you.’

Timothy is twelve, he sees ‘phantoms’, and, when his father heals or ‘guides’ anyone, he touches the head of the child, who sees the ‘vision’, who feels ‘a world of energy lingering upon the earth.’ They commune with the dead and help people who ‘had somehow failed in life.’ Clement Harcombe has a whole philosophy of life. As he tells his circle,

‘That is all I have done: I have opened the door, and allowed the light to pass through.’

What light exactly, we shall never know. Not from Clement, not from Timothy, not from Peter Ackroyd.
Tim and his father live in a house not far from William Blake’s grave. Clement tells Tim,

‘Mr. Blake saw angels. The invisible world...’

Next to it, the monument of John Bunyan reminds Clement of the metaphor of the pilgrimage, and he continues:

‘That’s what we are, Timmy. Pilgrims.’

The whole book is an indefinite journey to the source of words, into ‘English music,’ by which Clement Harcombe means

‘not only music itself but also English history, English literature and English painting.’

The two solitary creatures, widowed father and motherless son, share a ‘secret inheritance,’ but, strange enough, Peter Ackroyd does not dare explain what it is.

The memory of Tim’s childhood is a memory of deep communion and also deep fear. His father reads to him at night, from The Pilgrim’s Progress and Alice in Wonderland. He does not go to school, studies ‘English music’ with his father, and has unbelievable, trance-like dreams, in which Clement Harcombe reads the certainty of his son’s connection to the unseen world. These dreams mix all kinds of styles. Written in the third person singular, like an omniscient narrative, they imitate Lewis Carroll, John Bunyan, Charles Dickens, 17th and 18th century narratives. The child sinks and travels into books, paintings, music, and, in the last but one chapter, he even witnesses the death of the Maimed King – his father – and converses (dream within dream) with Merlin. Each dream begins with the final words of the previous chapter. They are all engaging, confusing and entrancing, an outlet for Ackroyd’s overflow of lyricism.

In the second chapter, Timothy describes his childhood as he saw it, which means we do not get much by way of an explanation. He is happy not to be sent to elementary school. His father is a ‘patient and assiduous teacher,’ who makes him study a page of English history, a page of science and a page of Shakespeare every day. Clement Harcombe keeps uttering philosophical, enigmatical statements, which push us deeper and deeper into the unworldly. He talks about ‘the power of the invisible over the visible.’ He tells Margaret Collins (a dwarf) that ‘nothing in the world happens by accident,’ because ‘there is always a pattern.’ He bans everybody’s fears. He tells the scared Mathew that there are no haunted houses, ‘only haunted people.’ If Clement Harcombe is such a haunted person, we never find out. His small circle of followers, as well as his own son, are inhabited by solitude and fear. Clement is never cracked open, he stays a mystery in life as in death.

Tim learns from his father that

‘the larger world, the other world, is a world of love.’

Clement asks Tim if Tim’s mother, Cecilia Harcombe (1891-1913), dead in childbirth, has ever ‘contacted’ him. We are led to believe that he trusts and relies on his son’s supernatural powers more than he should. It looks like a mystery for a while, or a source of suspense, but Ackroyd dispels it in the end. Each page is interesting on its own, independent from the general meaning of the book – which merely means to conjure a mood.

During a film after Great Expectations, Tim has another dream. He dreams he converses with Charles Dickens, while they are both caught in the latter’s narrative. Except for the remarkable atmosphere they create, a mixture of some author’s literature and Ackroyd’s own sensibility, these dreams do not take the plot any farther. They merely underline the fact that we live in a tiny atom, which is part of a vaster, endless universe, which Tim anticipates without being aware of it. He talks about ‘that world which I had entered for a short time.’ His grandfather, William Sinclair, who comes to take him from his father and his early communion with the unspeakable, is a total stranger to that vastness. He and his wife, Cecilia’s parents, are decent common people, who provide Tim with a decent home until he finishes school.

Tim does not want to leave his father, he does not want to go away from London, with his grandfather, about whom, now, in 1992, he remembers:

‘He thought he was protecting me – saving me from a wayward existence with a suspicious parent, a charlatan who professed to see visions and pretended to heal people.’

As a matter of fact, Tim himself heals his grandmother from a continuous trembling of the body, by putting his arms around her and imagining she is his mother. Nobody mentions this miracle and, actually, we are frustrated by this neutrality, this silence of the author, who refuses to be part of what he fails to understand.

Five months after Tim’s departure, two of the followers of Tim’s father (Margaret and Stanley) come to take him furtively back to London. They tell him there have been no more meetings in his absence, since ‘the spirit had gone out of Mr. Harcombe.’ But, on arriving at the old house, Clement’s former rooms are empty, and Tim has another dream (chapter six) of himself going to Mr. Sherlock Holmes, asking him to find his father. The waves of imagination, layer upon layer, remind us of South-American fiction, mainly Gabriel Garcia Marques. Actually, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled might be closer. Tim actually sees and talks to characters invented by writers. He explains to the detective (whose real name is Austin Smallwood) that Arthur Conan Doyle invented a kind of a double of his. We live in several parallel worlds at once. There is in this book an essential parallelism of the characters with themselves, a simultaneous existence in several realms at once, which quite baffles the reader, without intriguing him.

Small clues (recurrent places or characters) rekindle the mystery, though we need not make the effort to remember, since everything is repeated and explained in due time. The constant theme of music is stressed over and over again. William Byrd, a composer who later, in another dream, actually lectures on music, is quoted as having said that

‘God is in essence a musician, because he creates harmony within the universe.’

Actually, the detective extends the statement to all of us:

‘We are all looking for that harmony, Timothy. We are all detectives, looking for the pattern.’

These very quotable lines lend a musical quality to the book itself.

While the detective finds out that Tim’s father left with a younger woman, the stories penetrate one another, and the author’s imagination swings us pleasantly. As Austin Smallwood describes it,

‘Everything has been done before. Everything has been said before. It is the same pattern. The same music surrounds us.’

The author created a story (which could easily be changed by the characters), other people have lived our own lives. Nothing is disquieting, though. The tone is soothing, and we care more for the beautiful sentences of this dream than for the plot.

It turns out that Clement Harcombe has left with Gloria Patterson, one of the small circle. He comes back to his son only to inform him that

‘everywhere is our home,’

so Tim ends up by going back to live with his grandparents. But not before he dreams of Defoe’s island, on which he finds the sunflowers that used to grow in front of his London house. He is told by the only man on the island:

‘...in my retired imagination I remember that I am not alone but surrounded by others who came before me.’

The island is called ‘an emblem of our existence,’ bathed in the waves of ‘English music.’

At last, Tim goes to school and makes his first friend of his own age, Edward Campion, a cripple. It is all the time extremely predictable that the afflicted friend will be cured at some point, which happens towards the end of the book, when they are both in their twenties. Angelic sentences keep popping up, pouring poetry upon this unwilling narrative, lost in the maze of what we are stubborn enough to persist in taking for a novel:
‘I knew that, if I lay upon the ground or rested against a tree, I would be filled simply with the motion of the turning world.’

Tim becomes interested in music, and his music teacher reveals to him that Cecilia is the patron saint of music, consequently of the book. It turns out that what Tim’s father called her (‘Hail! Bright Cecilia...’) is a fragment from Purcell, who died just the day before the twenty-second of November, when her day falls. T.S. Eliot’s technique of recurring images which give coherence to the text is heavily relied upon. The waste land as such is invoked several times.

After a long dreamless time of adaptation to school, Tim’s dream of the musician William Byrd comes to pass. As the latter explains,

‘That is the meaning of my death, as I suppose, to return to that source from which all my music flows.’

Timothy Harcombe keeps his name in all his dreams, as if reliving his own previous lives. In this one, as Byrd’s pupil, he ‘saw time as musicke.’ Ackroyd can hardly resist the temptation of using his knowledge of 18th century English, which makes us think of a late Joycean prompting.

When Tim is seventeen, he finishes school. He goes to live and work with his father again. His father is alone, poor and older. He reads people’s cards, makes horoscopes, in short tells fortunes by astrology and tarot. He is called a magician. It is the year 1930. Clement Harcombe ‘seemed empty, as if he were being hollowed out by the passage of time.’ Tim lends him his true power. At the same time, he has a frightening dream of madness, of slipping into an engraving of Bedlam made by Hogarth. The lesson of painting shows there is harmony even in misery and the music of understanding pervades every second of life. The end of the dream is an exclamation – ‘Happy the ingenious contriver!’ – which makes us meditate on Peter Ackroyd himself, as no less than a contriving novelist.

The novel ripples like a stagnant water. Nothing flows, yet the surface moves. All along, as Clement Hargrove puts it,

‘There is no past and no future, Tim, just the two of us listening to the music.’

The two part and are reunited. The dreams become more and more manneristic. The father is now a magician and a hypnotist for Blackmore’s circus, which he was when he met Cecilia. Edward Campion and Tim meet again in Upper Harford, the Sinclairs’ village. Edward has taken his father’s job, in spite of the fact that he has a degree in philosophy. Tim learns his father’s tricks and illusions, giving up his liking for English literature, his interest in music. He falls very ill. His father, who tells him he has no real healing powers, actually heals him of a mysterious fever. From generation to generation, a burden and a key are transmitted. Tim’s grandfather – now he learns – was a magician, too. Father and son, together again, heal Edward. Clement Harcombe dies of a sudden cerebral haemorrhage. Born in 1899, he is reunited with Cecilia in 1936. Tim’s grandparents die. Alone, Tim stays at the farmhouse, where, in 1992, he is an old man, living in the shadow of his friend Edward’s family. Edward even has a granddaughter called Cecilia. Nothing is of existential importance any more. What Timothy does best now is ‘simple things,’ like writing English Music. We should not try to read undecipherable mysteries into it, if it is only to humour him. Or to humour Peter Ackroyd, the novelist who unveils here the poetry in his heart.


Peter Ackroyd ends his biography of T.S. Eliot (1984) by quoting Eliot himself:

‘We also understand the poetry better when we know more about the man.’

With his novelist’s gift, Ackroyd blends the huge mass of information – he definitely worked hard and conscientiously on this book – into a story that captivates anyone who knows Eliot (more or less). It is a biography written with the alertness of fiction, in the unpretentious style of a prose writer who knows how to make even the bits of literary history palatable. An informative and formative book, Ackroyd’s T.S. Eliot is one of the few Eliot biographies that do not gossip and are not insufferably sophisticated, either. It is, in fact, the work of a sharp mind that obviously has understood another sharp mind. A sharing and a revelation.

The biography aims at elucidating the mystery of Eliot’s life and creation between his childhood and his second marriage (first and last years), the two happiest periods in the writer’s life, as Eliot himself stated. All through the narrative, Ackroyd has a sure eye for the significant detail, that catches our interest and unlocks our understanding. Nothing is merely informational or explanatory. The very structure of the sentences (the personal statement coming forward, supported by pure information between brackets) reveals the manner of the book. With an eye to the work and both eyes to the man, Peter Ackroyd delicately (yet firmly) opens the shell and shows us the pearl.

We first learn that Eliot’s ancestors were both English and French. One of them actually was among the conquerors of Hastings. Which very subtly accounts for Eliot’s youthful confusion when he visited Paris and contemplated the idea of writing in French. As we go along, we are confronted with more and more statements that elucidate the work, starting from the life. We learn, for instance, that Eliot’s
‘natural instinct was to write poetry which was as close to fiction as possible.’

This major feature of modernism – the symbiosis, the fusion, the hybridization of literary genres – eventually led to contemporary disarray, to each writer becoming a Desperado in search of the gold of his or her own literary trend, which blends all shapes or manners into the absolute surprise, the exasperatingly repeated (yet still fresh) novelty.

The story of Eliot’s life flows just like a novel in which Ackroyd leads us towards the meaning he has in mind, a meaning that encloses within the same capsule the man and his work. He interprets Eliot as a character, analysing his thoughts and motives. Thus he talks about the ‘punishing ritual of work’ that Eliot imposed on himself. It was meant to order the poet’s life, but Ackroyd goes on with the explanations of Eliot as a fictional character:

‘His pervasive and sometimes corrosive scepticism was not to be easily overcome – just as, in his private existence – he was soon plunged into the disorder which he most feared.’

One interesting remark states that Eliot needed a ‘double life’ and ‘was never completely at home anywhere.’ They actually prove Ackroyd’s depth of understanding, his identification with his hero, whom he describes as if he were imagining him for our benefit all over again. Another remark is equally challenging: ‘his talent was for concentration.’ Which is true. Unlike his Desperado followers, Eliot never wrote anything longer than his undergraduate thesis on Bradley, as Ackroyd points out. Actually, Ackroyd explains Eliot’s highly accessible criticism by saying:

‘He used to say that he had learned how to write prose from the example of F. H. Bradley...’
He describes the ‘clarity and logic’ of Eliot’s literary criticism, which ‘characteristically begins with a judgment.’ What follows is not always striking, sometimes not even very original:

‘Eliot had few original ideas, but he was immensely susceptible to those of others – the act of creation was for him the act of synthesis.’

Many readers who have noticed the influence of Pound’s ideas on Eliot’s criticism, as well as the masterful use to which Eliot put Pound’s ideas –especially in his poetry, accept this sentence as a revealing explanation.

Eliot’s conversion to Anglo-Catholicism prompted Pound to write a couplet:

‘In any case, let us lament the psychosis
Of all those who abandon the Muses for Moses.’

Ackroyd explains, though, that Eliot’s religious belief exists in his poetry only as

‘surface material, employed to provoke recognition and assent from the reader,’
which is as much as to say that Eliot never wrote purely (or at all) religious poetry. He is highly devious, and Pound realized how slippery he was when he found for him the nickname ‘Old Possum,’ which actually described ‘his ordinary tactics of evasiveness and caution – the opossum being an animal which shams death in order to escape predators.’

One sentence Ackroyd writes is a confession of powerlessness (which can also be found in Ackroyd’s fiction):

‘We cannot reach into the mystery of Eliot’s solitude.’

The book probes deeply and brings to light heavy secrets (Eliot’s sex life, his heavy drinking, his anti-Semitism), but does not claim to reveal any ultimate truth about the man who had complained, ‘I can never forget anything.’
When congratulated by John Berryman on receiving the Nobel Prize, Eliot retorted:

‘The Nobel is a ticket to one’s funeral. No one has ever done anything after he got it.’

Peter Ackroyd stresses again and again Eliot’s deep-seated anxiety that he will never be able to write anything again. On an existential, psychological, emotional, circumstantial level, he analyses very thoroughly the writer’s block from which Eliot seems to have been suffering. It looks more like a creative slowness, which we gently come to sympathize with and even share.

Peter Ackroyd’s book on T.S. Eliot is far more than a biography. It is a novel. Eliot once said,

‘Understanding begins in the sensibility.’

Ackroyd is too sensitive a writer to be satisfied with dry facts. Probably that is why he first sees in Eliot the critic a man who is trying to change the vocabulary of criticism. The darkest recesses of this intricate personality are exposed to light in a delicate yet firm way. There is no doubt that Eliot himself would have approved of this informed and also endearing biography. It certainly is a book hard to reject.
Ackroyd the scholar and Ackroyd the novelist are not very different. He is not so much intent on novelty as he is on admitting us into the richness of his mind and feelings. If anything, he certainly is a Desperado of sensibility laid bare.



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