PETER ACKROYD & CATHOLIC ENGLAND : At Present, Living in the Past

By Keen, Suzanne | Commonweal, November 3, 2000 | Go to article overview

PETER ACKROYD & CATHOLIC ENGLAND : At Present, Living in the Past


Keen, Suzanne, Commonweal


I prefer the city in darkness; it reveals its true nature to me then, by which I suppose I mean its true history. During the day it is taken over by its temporary inhabitants, and at those times I feel as if I might be dispersed and lost among them. So I keep my distance. I imagine them in the clothes of another century, for example, although I realize that this is very fanciful. But there are occasions when a certain look, or gesture, plunges me back into another time; it is as if there had been some genetic surplus, because I know that I am observing a medieval or a sixteenth-century face. When the body of a neolithic traveller was recovered from an Alpine glacier, sprawled face down in the posture of death, it was considered to be an extraordinary act of historical retrieval. But the past is restored around us all the time, in the bodies we inhabit or the words we speak. And there are certain scenes or situations which, once glimpsed, seem to continue for eternity.

PETER ACKROYD
The House of Doctor Dee

British novelist and biographer Peter Ackroyd is not widely known in the United States, at least not to the general reading public. His acclaimed 1998 biography The Life of Thomas More brought him to the attention of an American Catholic audience, but his ten novels, though they have earned a loyal readership both here and in England, have not pushed him visibly into the front ranks of contemporary fiction writers. That's too bad, because Ackroyd is a fascinating writer with a singular voice. His novels as well as his superb biographies (he has written five) are all passionately engaged in attempting to imagine what the past might have been like. Though his methods are extremely bookish, he extends himself imaginatively to call up in rich detail lives radically different from our own. He is insistently interested in continuities over time, but fixes on the oddest items--the location of a left-wing bookshop in a neighborhood where seventeenth-century religious radicals used to hang out, for example--to reconnect us to our never-quite-dead past. The quirkiness of his vision is seductive, and makes him seem sincere where so many postmodern writers interested in history are insincere as an article of unfaith.

Some time in the last few years, after several decades of dogged labor, ineffectually disguised by a playful public persona, Ackroyd became a man of letters. In both the novels and biographies (which include lives of T. S. Eliot, Charles Dickens, William Blake, as well as More) he has produced a unique sequence of literary pictures of London through the centuries. A forthcoming "biography" of London will offer readers the yield of Ackroyd's lifelong obsession--a comprehensive study of his hometown. The city has served as more than a backdrop in many of his novels; it is a central locale for the celebration of a native English tradition of spectacle, ritual observances, and festive burlesque. Ackroyd knows London by heart--knows it as Dickens, or Blake, or Thomas More would have known it. He represents it with antiquarian zeal, but unlike many of the heritage-fixated, he does not despise the present. Readers can anticipate that the London biography will appreciate the living city while serving up a combination of historical conjuring and visionary leaps through time.

These preoccupations can be traced in Ackroyd's earlier works, but such thematic handles are the slightest of helps in getting a grip on this prolific writer. Reading him conveys a sense of a restless imagination disciplined by unvarying work habits and a desire for a steady income. A self-acknowledged workaholic, Ackroyd is a bookworm's bookworm, whose imaginary worlds radiate out from the British Library. Though he talks freely about his life and opinions in interviews, this is no confessional author. His homosexuality, a recent heart attack, the loss of his long-time companion to aids, his drinking problem--are no secret. …

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