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Peter Ackroyd (Thomas Wright, ed.), The Collection: Journalism, Reviews, Essays, Short Stories, Lectures (London: Vintage / Random House, 2002, £12.99, 470 pages, ISBN 0-099-42894-6)—Georges-Claude Guilbert, Université de Rouen

The Collection: Journalism, Reviews, Essays, Short Stories, Lectures was first published in 2001 in the UK by Chatto & Windus. It is divided in three parts: “Writing for the Spectator 1973-1987”, “Writing for the Sunday Times and The Times 1981-2001”, and “Lectures, Miscellaneous Writings, Short Stories”. The first part is my favorite, for a simple reason: Ackroyd was young and ruthless; the combination of his energetic twenties and the relatively small readership of the Spectator made him totally unafraid of trashing even the most sacred monsters of literature (he became less caustic as years went by). The result is a series of hilariously scathing reviews, which makes this reviewer green with envy.

In 1983, a good friend of mine, knowing how keen I was on Oscar Wilde, bought me The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde the minute it hit the stores. I was fascinated by the skillful way Ackroyd embodied Wilde, mixing invention and historical fact so well that I sometimes forgot I was not actually reading a book by Wilde. This was his second novel, after The Great Fire of London (1982). As Thomas Wright points out, it was rather courageous of Ackroyd to take up fiction after he had scorned the efforts of so many novelists in his book reviews. But of course, he has now become a kind of British institution, highly regarded by the critics and selling books like hot cakes. I enjoyed several of his subsequent novels, impressive literary accomplishments like Hawksmoor (1985), First Light (1989), The House of Doctor Dee (1993), or Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem (1994); I have a soft spot for the dazzling Chatterton (1987), about Thomas Chatterton, eighteenth-century poet and forger who died in mysterious circumstances. Ackroyd has published scores of other books, including collections of poems and striking critical essays (T.S. Eliot, for instance, 1984). I must confess I don’t care so much for Dressing Up: Transvestism and Drag: The History of an Obsession (1979), which is slightly under-researched and sometimes grossly politically incorrect. I cannot forgive, anecdotally speaking, the caption for the photograph of Helmut Berger as Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel in Luchino Visconti’s The Damned, which reads: “Cabaret artiste from Visconti’s The Damned (1969)”. This is quite unlike Ackroyd, who is not one to let multiple layers of references go unmentioned in any work of art. Surely the Peter Ackroyd of Dressing Up cannot be a homonym?

The Collection is so densely packed, I cannot be exhaustive here. I’ll merely point out some of its best moments. In many ways, Ackroyd makes me think of a British Gore Vidal; they are equally outspoken and have always remained unimpressed by literary fads and postmodern gimmicks. Vidal often says that the novels and stories of writers such as John Barth and Thomas Pynchon are meant to be taught in trendy universities, not read. This is Ackroyd about Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973):

I have sat and slept through this novel for five days, and words would fail me if logorrhea were not so catching […]. Mr. Pynchon […] has written a novel which would deter and baffle any but the most avid research student pursuing a thesis. Gravity’s Rainbow becomes a specimen of Eng. Lit. as soon as it comes off the press. [13]


Peter Ackroyd about John Barth’s Chimera (1972):

[Chimera is] a novel within a novel within something else on the Chinese principle that a great many boxes are better than a hat […]. When an American writer touches upon [classical mythology] I feel a frisson on behalf of centuries of classical scholarship; Americans, being a poorly educated race, take the Greek myths far too seriously and become either pompous or heavily jocular about them. Professor Barth has naturally gone for the jocular ‘angle’, and has recounted the unutterably boring mythic lives of Perseus and Bellerophon in a suburban demotic that relives the boredom of the original while increasing its capacity to irritate. [15]

Surely this is not going to endear Ackroyd to our American readers. I am very fond of Barth myself. Indeed I nearly wrote my thèse de Doctorat on him, before moving on to another postmodern creator in the end. His latest novel, Coming Soon!!! ((2001) has been reviewed in Cercles. I confess, however, that I have a preference for The Floating Opera (1956), The Sot-Weed Factor (1960) or Giles Goat-Boy (1966), though I found Chimera hugely entertaining. Lately he has had a slight tendency to repeat himself: there are only so many books a person can read in a lifetime about Baltimore creative writing professors / novelists sailing the Chesapeake Bay (sailing being the metaphor for living and / or writing).

I am also very fond of Pynchon. Admittedly, Gravity’s Rainbow is a bit long and hermetic (760 pages), but The Crying of Lot 49 (1965, 127 pages) is much more accessible. But that does not stop me laughing a great deal when I read Ackroyd’s reviews. In the same way, I revere Vladimir Nabokov, whose Lolita (1955) remains my favorite twentieth-century novel. There are not many critics around who will deny that Nabokov is at least among the best, but this what Ackroyd has to say about Look at the Harlequins! (year):

[…] it may be that Nabokov is fascinated by his own work, and so continues to harass and worry it in order to extract some key or secret code which will justify it all; or, more probably, it may be that his talent has long since atrophied and he is condemned to the constant reworking of his original material, to press some scent out of the already heavily pressed flower […]. When a novel strives too hard to become literature, it falls into literariness. Nabokov’s words are hollow and external, and he lays them on with a trowel. All that is left is solemn persona playing with himself and that—of course—leads to blindness. [28-29]

Now, that’s a thought, I had never envisaged Nabokov as the Grand Masturbator. Reading these lines, you might get the impression that Ackroyd bears a grudge against metafiction, but he practices it himself in his novels, so that is not the explanation. The least you can say is that he doesn’t care what the intelligentsia will make of him. Ackroyd never pretends to like any artistic output because the intelligentsia says he should. My brother-in-law Robert is convinced that his three-year-old daughter can outdo this or that billionaire modern art star any day, but whereas Robert trumpets it, many people—who secretly agree with him—proclaim their admiration for the “geniuses”, for fear of appearing uncool or uncultured. This equally applies to the films of, say, Jean-Luc Godard, or to Berg’s music.

Ackroyd approves of some of the things Frank Kermode and Jeremy Reed (whose latest book has been reviewed in Cercles) have to say about literature, seizing the opportunity to stab us poor academics right through the heart. He first quotes Kermode who wrote that “the number of people now teaching literature is probably greater than the total of critics who formerly existed through history.” Then he states:

Leaving aside the fact that most of these new-found eminences probably have little idea of what literature is, discounting the additional fact that they are unlikely to know how it should be taught, and entirely ignoring the strong possibility that they do not know why they are teaching it at all, the sheer mass of verbiage is enough to induce a kind of nausea. These endless cycles of commentary and interpretation and response and practical criticism, this endless recital of mindless clichés about the need for ‘relevance’ or for ‘deconstruction’, produce students who are probably no wiser and certainly no better than they were before. [221]

Well, what can I say? I'm certainly not going to give up teaching and take up some more useful job, although I have always liked the idea of owning a night-club. There are many passages of that sort in The Collection, usually funny. And you can always convince yourself that Ackroyd is not talking about you; of course not, he’s talking about your colleagues. He is equally interesting about Yukio Mishima, Christopher Isherwood, W. H. Auden or Joe Orton. His film criticism is also enjoyable, and the short stories that conclude the volume are a welcome addition to his novels. To round off this review of reviews, I would like to quote a few lines about Ted Hughes:

God knows I must be a weak little helpless person, but I can’t take all this suffering any more. Every time I open Ted Hughes’s latest book [Gaudete, 1977], there is something about testicles, bone tissue or vomit. It’s like watching General Hospital. And quite frankly what adds to my guilt about this cowardice is the fact that Hughes is only doing it for my benefit. He’s not doing it for fame or for the money—his royalties are probably going to some important Wildlife Fund—he’s only doing it to help us. […] The reviewers liked him so much that even the academics felt they were missing something: he was put on the syllabus. [56-57]

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