Peter Ackroyd, Postmodernist Play and Chatterton
Well-known in Britain, less generally known in the States, Peter Ackroyd is representative of a new breed of British novelists who can loosely be termed postmodernist. But, unlike their counterparts in the States, these British postmodernists do not necessarily cultivate radical experimentation nor do they confine their appeal to an elite, mainly academic coterie. They are capable of producing best sellers such as Martin Amis's Money. They produce works of fiction that are turned into movies, such as Angela Carter's story, "The Company of Wolves", a rewriting of the traditional fairy story of Little Red Riding Hood. They have absorbed the triumphs (and absurdities) of poststructuralism and can utilize those aspects of recent theory that suit their purposes without becoming enslaved by them. They have never lost touch with their readership. But they are clearly distinguishable (and distinguish themselves) from the mainstream of British realist novelists typified by writers like Angus Wilson, Alan Sillitoe, or Margaret Drabble.
Yet none of these less realist novelists belongs to a school or subscribes to a group identity. Peter Ackroyd typically insists on the difference of his fiction from the entire contemporary scene: "Someone said the novels I write really have no connection with the novels of my contemporaries, or even with the period itself. I think that's probably true" (Smith 60). Ackroyd is a peculiar combination. He is of his time and outside it, representative of a newer kind of fictional British writing and yet unique, in rebellion against the mainstream English fictional tradition yet writing in an alternative British strain of his choosing. To illustrate the particular position he occupies in the contemporary field of British novelists this article will concentrate on what a number of reviewers consider to be his best novel to date, Chatterton. But because this is the first essay (as opposed to reviews and interviews) to be written about him, the first section will be taken up with his earlier career and stated attitudes to the genres of literature which he has produced.
Ackroyd's introduction to postmodern writing came when he won a Mellon Fellowship that enabled him to spend two years from 1971 to 1973 at Yale. He had just been awarded a double first in English literature at Cambridge, a bastion of New Criticism in the F.R. Leavis mold. At Yale he met John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch, both poets of the New York School. Ashbery had spent nine years in France and was well acquainted with contemporary currents in French thought. He was also a friend of a number of postmodern artists such as Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. After Cambridge this potent new brew went to Ackroyd's head like wine. He quickly absorbed these Americans' disruption of meaning and reference, their exploration of the self-reflexivity of language and art.
Towards the end of his stay at Yale he wrote what he described as "not a scholarly work" but "a polemic," Notes for a New Culture (9). The position he takes in it reflects Yale's enthusiastic adoption of contemporary French theory at that time. But, seen in a British context, his assertion that form and language constitute the true subject of contemporary modernism (postmodernism as a term had yet to become fashionable) was inflammatory material. In the book he ridicules F. R. Leavis's belief in the moral force of literature. He also deplores the English subscription to a great tradition of literature (as defined by Leavis) built on a conventional aesthetic which rests on key notions of "subjectivity" and "experience." This old humanistic belief in the referential instrumentality of language, Ackroyd argues, was replaced by the modernist aesthetic. "Modernism is the movement in which created form began to interrogate itself, and to move toward an impossible union with itself in self-identity...Language is seen to constitute meaning only within itself, and to excise the external references of subjectivity and its corollary, Man" (145). But England has insulated itself from "that formal self-criticism and theoretical debate which sustained European modernism" (147). The true line of modernism, according to Ackroyd, runs from Mallarmé and Nietszche through Joyce to contemporaries such as Ashbery in literature and Derrida and Lacan in theory. Both Ashbery and his fellow poet of the New York school, Frank O'Hara, share "a concern for a language which, although assured and relaxed, manifestly 'says' nothing" (127). Ackroyd concludes that England's separation from the mainstream of modernist developments has led to a paucity in English creative writing. "Our own literature has revealed no formal sense of itself and continues no substantial language." (147).
Written in 1973, Notes for a New Culture was not published until 1976, by which time Ackroyd was established back in London as the youngest literary editor of the Spectator, a weekly magazine. It was reviewed in the influential London Sunday Times by Christopher Ricks, a leading professor in English at Cambridge at that time. Professor Ricks was implacably opposed to the irruption of French theory into the field of English studies, and the literary editor of the Sunday Times must have known that he was offering a red rag to a bull when he sent the book to him for review. After expressing his exasperation at Ackroyd's attempt "to make out that it [the book] is a lonely oasis when it fact it has a swell of trend buoying it up" (somewhat of a mixed metaphor), Christopher Ricks concentrates all his fire on Ackroyd's numerous errors of fact that reflect its origin as the product of a young graduate student who has failed to check all his sources. He mocks Ackroyd's assertion that Tennyson's "Locksley Hall" was published one year before Mallarmé's Les Poésies, seeing that Mallarmé was born the same year "Locksley Hall" was published. He castigates Ackroyd for misspelling Tristes Tropiques (Topiques ), Mauberley (Mauberly ), Revaluation (Revaluations ) and other misquotations. "Why all this niggling?" he asks. "Because literary history at present might profit from a long hard look, but only if the look also took a long hard look at itself first." He concludes: "It will be a gloomy day...if all that happens is that English disdain-for-theory squares up to Continental disdain-for-fact" (39)
Apart from being upset that Christopher Ricks had been able to point out so many easily avoidable errors, Ackroyd was not unduly put out by what was ultimately a refusal to confront head on the argument of his book. After Notes for a New Culture, the next book Ackroyd published was a study of Ezra Pound, one of the modernist giants. Ezra Pound and his World (1979), one of a series, came out the same year as a less conventional and more personal book that Ackroyd wrote simultaneously, Dressing Up, Transvestism and Drag: The History of an Obsession. That combination of the avant-garde and camp places Ackroyd quite accurately outside the mainstream of English culture. He has subsequently said of his eight years as literary, then joint, managing editor of the Spectator, "I'm not what you'd call a Spectator person...I don't fit into that particular kind of Englishness" (Appleyard 53). Asked recently what tradition he does subscribe to, Ackroyd claimed to admire the English genius for "a combination of melancholy, lyricism and camp" (McGrath 47). Those are the qualities he attempts to embody in his work. "I don't think many other contemporary novelists are working in that vein" (McGrath 47). Clearly he has shifted his position since writing Notes, in that he no longer spurns a particular English literary tradition. But he still redefines which one he admires. It is not, he insists in the same interview, concerned with the moral life of adult love and death. Apart from Shakespeare, English "tragedy slides off into excessive horror, or gothic; and there's very little love either, it tends to become parody or sentimentality" (McGrath 47). Reading literature may make you a better writer, he quips, but not a better person. So he still stands opposed to the Leavis school of criticism, and he still cultivates a postmodernist delight in parody and linguistic self-consciousness.
Throughout this time Ackroyd thought of himself primarily as a poet in the American avant-garde tradition. His first published work had been a slim book of poems called London Lickpenny (1973), and he published a second small volume of poems, Country Life, in 1978. Even Peter Porter had to admit in his review of London Lickpenny for the Observer that he did not understand most of the poems. Throughout this period Ackroyd saw himself as an experimental poet in the contemporary mode, isolated in England by a general cultural subscription to humanism and realism. The last thing he contemplated during this time was extending his linguistic experimentation to the realm of fiction. Interestingly, since turning to fiction he has stopped writing poetry altogether. But he has noticed that "some of the cadences and the images and the ideas and the perceptions and even the very phrases which occurred in [the] poetry have recurred in the fiction" (CA 3).
In 1982 he published his first novel, The Great Fire of London. It has many of the unique characteristics that Ackroyd's readers have come to associate with his subsequent works of fiction. Setting out to offer a continuation of Dickens's Little Dorrit, the novel stages this in contemporary London. A cast of characters attempt to relive parts of the novel - invariably unsuccessfully. The past is unrepeatable. There is the director of a film based on Little Dorrit who sets himself the impossible task of recreating Dickens's London using a contemporary prison for the Marshalsea Prison of Dickens's time. There is Audrey, a telephone operator, who imagines herself at a séance taken over by the persona of Little Dorrit. Other Dickensian characters include Arthur, a dwarf child murderer and Rowan Philips, a gay Cambridge don whom the director hires to write the script. Inevitably past and present become inextricably fused when Audrey, indignant at the presence of an actress on the set impersonating Little Dorrit (herself), burns down the film set, in the process causing the director's death. That is the fate, Ackroyd considers, that lies in wait for any realist artist attempting to resurrect the past. As he concludes: "This is not a true story, but certain things follow from other things" (169). The entire novel is written in a style that brilliantly encapsulates Dickens's taste for caricature and Dickens's style of writing.
His next novel, The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde (1983), won the Somerset Maugham Award for its brilliant reproduction of Wilde's voice and linguistic mannerisms. It purports to be Wilde's journal between August and November 1900 (when Wilde died). The text is sprinkled with Wildean aphorisms that bear comparison with their original. Ackroyd portrays a Wilde transformed by his public trial and period in prison: "I longed for fame and was destroyed by it. I thought, in my days of purple and of gold, that I could reveal myself to the world and instead the world has revealed itself to me" (2). Ackroyd combines (unacknowledged) quotations from Wilde with his own mimicry of Wilde's voice to invent a highly plausible fictional journal. One critic even claimed that Ackroyd "is sometimes more Wildean than Wilde" (Lewis 40). Ackroyd's impersonation of an earlier writer reflects his belief in the disappearance of the subject in postmodern art. Ackroyd's Wilde writes: "I have discovered the wonderful impersonality of life. I am an 'effect' merely: the meaning of my life exists in the minds of others and no longer in my own" (Last Testament 2). "Wilde" is effectually bequeathing the interpretation of his life and writings to the likes of Ackroyd. Not only does Ackroyd refuse to offer his readers the consolation of an authoritative narrative position, but he further proceeds to undermine the voice of his impersonated narrator/protagonist. At one point Frank Harris, after reading a section of the journal, says to Wilde, "you have stolen lines from other writers." Wilde retorts, "I did not steal them. I rescued them" (161). Ackroyd here recruits Wilde to justify his own "rescue" of Wilde. As readers we are thoroughly enmeshed in one of Ackroyd's intertextual mazes in which all literary paths look like one another and none lead to a center, let alone logocentricism.
The next year, 1984, Ackroyd published T.S. Eliot, a biography that won him wide applause and the Whitbread Award for Biography. It was written under trying circumstances as the estate refused Ackroyd permission to quote from any of Eliot's letters or unpublished verse and restricted his citations of the published writings to a legal minimum. Subsequently Ackroyd claimed that not being able to quote from the letters verbatim made him "much more inventive about how [he] brought him to life" (CA 4). It was natural for him to move from Pound to Eliot, and Ackroyd welcomed the opportunity of examining the makeup of another great modernist and his work, one who owed an extraordinary debt to his American fellow poet. Reviewing Pound's suggested revisions and deletions from the original version of The Waste Land, Ackroyd provocatively claims that "Pound mistook or refused to recognize Eliot's original schema and as a result rescued the poetry" (Eliot 120). At the same time Ackroyd expresses reservations over the ambiguous role Eliot played in the advent of modernism. "He helped to create the idea of a modern movement with his own 'difficult' poetry, and then assisted at its burial" (Eliot 239). This position is similar to that he took in Notes for a New Culture where he argued that Eliot's famous dictum about the poet's need to escape from personality does not amount to "'escaping' into, and celebrating language, but rather as 'escaping' into a mysterious entity which is himself and yet not himself" (50). In Ackroyd's eyes Eliot ultimately turned his back on the modernist revolution he helped introduce, unlike Joyce who took the modernist fascination with the world of language to its limits in Finnigan's Wake.
Yet as a biographer, Ackroyd is drawn to a writer like Eliot who hides behind invented literary personae. A gifted literary ventriloquist himself, Ackroyd sees Eliot as one of the great instances of the idea that literary creativity consists largely of the ability to absorb and rearticulate voices from the past. "The character inhabited me," he claimed (McGrath 54). He even wrote the biography "in a style that would re-create Eliot's presence" (Lehman 80). Revealingly he has confessed that in writing the biography he "wasn't concerned with the real Eliot," only with his "creation of an Eliot" towards whom his feelings were those "of an author towards his character" (McGrath 47). Writing about Eliot gave Ackroyd the confidence to employ imitation, quotation and pastiche in his subsequent fiction. "The history of English literature," Ackroyd has said, "is really the history of plagiarism. I discovered that when I was doing T.S. Eliot. He was a great plagiarist...I see nothing wrong with it" (Smith 60).
Ackroyd has some particularly illuminating things to say about the passages excised from The Waste Land. "Its first four sections," he writes, "had been introduced by poetry which is as close to parody as he ever got." Nevertheless, he continues, there is a difference between Eliot's use of parody and pure imitation. Eliot's use of parody amounts to "the creative borrowing of another style and syntax which releases a plethora of 'voices' and perceptions." So, Ackroyd concludes, "Eliot found his own voice by first reproducing that of others" (117-118). All biography reflects, however indirectly, the personality and obsessions of the biographer. Ackroyd is here describing the process by which he too found his own literary voice - by his creative borrowing of the style and syntax of first Dickens, then Oscar Wilde.
The connection between the fiery young author of Notes for a New Culture and the biographer of T.S. Eliot surfaces in the latter book when Ackroyd defines biography there as "a convenient fiction" (239). Clearly a writer who believes that the subject is purely a textual construct will be drawn to a poet like Eliot who speaks through an array of "characters" or personae. It was Eliot's later subscription to extra-textual values that led Ackroyd to denounce his eventual betrayal of the modernist revolution. What is of most interest here is Ackroyd's refusal to distinguish between the genres of biography and fiction. Elsewhere, in an interview, he has echoed this conviction that "they're much the same process." He goes on provocatively to suggest that "fiction's often more factual than biography and far more precise," because "biography has to be an act of interpretation. No one ever knows what happened." Both employ the same technical skills in their writing. "There's no reason" even, he argues, "why you shouldn't use pastiche or parody of the subject's style within the biography" (Smith 59). "I just think of them [biographies] as other novels," he has said elsewhere (McGrath 46). Ackroyd's Notes, his biographies and his fiction, then, are of a piece. They all assume a linguistically constituted universe in which concepts like originality, authenticity and objectivity dissolve, to be replaced by the irridescent surface of language and its endless reformation in the works of the great wordsmiths of literature.
The biography of T.S. Eliot was followed the next year (1985) by his third novel, Hawksmoor. This book won him the Whitbread, Guardian Fiction and Goncourt awards, and made him a figure to be reckoned with on the literary scene, especially in Britain. The novel alternates between chapters set in early eighteenth century London and those set in the twentieth century. The former concern the architect, Nicholas Dyer, who was charged by Parliament with building seven new churches, churches historically built by Nicholas Hawksmoor, the exemplar of English Baroque architecture. Dyer is a Manichean whose mystical belief in the pervasive power of evil stands opposed to the more established Sir Christopher Wren's subscription to the empirical, scientific and rational ethos of the Royal Society. Dyer enacts his opposition to the spirit of the Enlightenment, his belief in the powers of darkness, by secretly sacrificing to the demonic powers a virgin boy in the foundations of each of his new churches. His modern counterpart, Nicholas Hawksmoor, is a Detective Chief Inspector who is investigating a strange series of strangulations of boys and child-like tramps that occur on the sites of Dyer's churches. Hawksmoor is Sir Christopher Wren's modern counterpart whose belief in the power of reason fails to solve the murders. His failure brings him close to insanity, but ultimately he is granted a kind of telepathic insight into the mysteries of Dyer's dark world.
Numerous reviewers of the novel have remarked on the influence of Eliot's vision on Ackroyd's portrayal of London past and present. It is as if Ackroyd were re-doing not just the police but London past and present in different voices, transforming his modernist predecessor's disillusioned vision into his own postmodern Gothic rendering of it. One reviewer cited the lines from the last stanza of Section 1 of The Waste Land evoking the "unreal city" at dawn with its ghostly figures flowing down KIng William Street to "where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hour." He comments: "The novel at a crucial point reaches the same mood as well as the identical locale," and suggests that Stetson's corpses are "likewise mimicked in the plot" (Rogers 18). It is natural for a writer who sees no difference between biography and fiction to allow the one book to cast its linguistic and imaginative (if distorted) shadow on the other. There is a passing reference to "hollow men". Dyer has a servant called Eliot. Above all the numerous parallels constructed between time past and time present in the novel seem to be informed by Eliot's meditation on the same theme in Four Quartets. Alan Hollinghurst comments: "What Ackroyd may be saying is that time present and time past are both present in time future, and that the essence of Dyer's possession of Hawksmoor is the simultaneity of experiences centuries apart, to which Dyer's churches are perversely capable of granting access--as all great art may be thought to transcend time" (1049).
Ackroyd has said that when he writes a novel he's "primarily interested in the formal shape of it, the way things are balanced against each other" (McGrath 46). He saw the writing of Hawksmoor "as a sort of linguistic exercise" (45), in which the principal task was to construct an intricate web of parallels between past and present. At the level of ideas, Dyer and Hawksmoor begin as opposed to each other's belief in Satanism and rationality respectively and are drawn together by the end of the book. There are numerous topographical coincidences of which the use of the churches Dyer built are the most obvious. Dyer works at the Board of Works in Old Scotland Yard, Hawksmoor at police headquarters in New Scotland Yard. Both live around Seven Dials. Dyer journeys from London to Stonehenge, Hawksmoor from Stonehenge to London. Each of the two characters glimpses his double in passing as a reflection in a glass. Both hear the same children's songs. At the end both protagonists find themselves in Little St Hugh (the only imaginary church of the seven), both imagine themselves as a child again, and both confront one another as each other's complementaries:
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? (289)
Ackroyd here puts into practice his finding in Notes - that the modernist breakthrough was to show form interrogating itself. In terms of what Genette calls histoire or story the ending of the novel is enigmatic, inconclusive, baffling to many of its reviewers. But seen in terms of narration, of its formal organization of parallel motifs and linguistic patterns, it is an artistic triumph.
In all his books Ackroyd is consistent in the way he treats his various subjects. In Notes he proclaimed that "the emergence of LANGUAGE as the content of literature....has already determined....the death of Man as he finds himself in humanism and in the idea of subjectivity" (9). In The Great Fire of London Audrey is possessed by the fictional character of Little Dorrit so completely that she starts the fire that consumes symbolically and literally the director of the film for his attempting to recreate Little Dorrit within his art form. Ackroyd's Wilde, as was seen, describes himself as an "effect" merely, a linguistic construct that takes shape only in the interpretative minds of others. In his biography of T.S. Eliot Ackroyd was only concerned with creating "an Eliot." He dismisses the very idea that a historical, coherent composite known as the Eliot ever existed.
The same is true of Dyer in Hawksmoor. Ackroyd has claimed that his voice "is a patchwork of other people's voices" as well as his own, "an echo from about three hundred different books" that he had read in preparing to write the eighteenth century portions of the novel. "He doesn't really exist as a character--he's just a little patchwork figure..." (McGrath 44). As always Ackroyd is exaggerating. Nevertheless Dyer is constructed as much from Dr Johnson's Dictionary in particular and numerous obscure eighteenth century treatises on such subjects as gout and necromancy as he is from Ackroyd's inventiveness. A perfect example of the way Ackroyd puts together his characters by a combination of intertextual borrowing and personal adaption of those sources was pointed out by Alan Hollinghurst when he reviewed the novel: "Few will recognize that Dyer's chance exclamation, 'Curved lines are more beautiful than Straight,' is an inversion of a dictum in one of Wren's Tracts, that 'Strait Lines are more beautiful than curved'..." (1049). Ackroyd's ascription of the opposite of what Wren wrote to Dyer is not simply a clever use of sources but thematically pertinent to the novel's ongoing debate between the doctrine of the Enlightenment and the previous era's subscription to superstition.
In choosing Chatterton as the subject for his next book, Chatterton (1987), Ackroyd has focused on a cult figure celebrated by the Romantics as the apogee of neglected genius. At first this might seem anomalous in a writer dedicated to the destruction of the humanistic conception of an originating subjectivity. But on reading the novel it becomes obvious that Ackroyd has specifically chosen this Romantic hero in order to demonstrate how the poet disappears into his own texts which survive him. Within the novel textuality rules.
Thomas Chatterton was born in Bristol, England in 1752. He only lived to the age of eighteen when he took his own life by swallowing arsenic (whether accidentally or on purpose remains an open question) in a London garret. Given some scraps of manuscript that his mother had found in the muniments room of their local church when he was seven, Chatterton fell in love with antiquity. At the age of fifteen or sixteen he invented a fifteenth-century monk called Thomas Rowley whose poems he wrote in authentic medieval style that took his admiring readers in. During his last year when he moved to London, he failed to make a living for himself by writing despite a prolific output. His forgery of the imaginary Rowley's poetry was exposed within a few years of his death and with it he was quickly transformed into a Romantic emblem of the fate of neglected genius.
Wordsworth devotes an entire stanza of one of his best known poems, "Resolution and Independence," to Chatterton and Burns, both poets who in their youth "begin in gladness;/ But thereof come in the end despondency and madness." Ackroyd has one of his characters, Harriet Scrope, a modern woman novelist, quote these two lines in a brief section that precedes the opening of the main narrative of the novel. Having just misquoted the Chorus's epilogue from Marlow's Dr Faustus ( "Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight."), she proceeds to get Wordsworth's word order wrong in an attempt to prove that she can quote correctly when she chooses. Ackroyd is evidently concerned to show from the start of his book that we all appropriate the past for our own purposes and in our own ways. There is no such thing as an objective past, let alone a recoverable figure of Chatterton. Wordsworth and his fellow Romantics had constructed their legend around the recently dead poet, a legend which is itself subject to a sea change by a subsequent age. Ackroyd is intent on undermining the Romantic image of Wordsworth's "marvellous boy," Coleridge's "spirit blest," Keats's "child of sorrow," de Vigny's poète maudit, Oscar Wilde's "pure artist." All that survive from the Romantics' elevation of the alienated gifted artist reliant on his innate imagination are the texts and these are themselves forgeries.
Where Hawksmoor employed two distinct time periods, Chatterton has three. The first of these concerns Chatterton's own brief life span and uses late eighteenth century patterns of speech. The second centers on the the year 1856 when Henry Wallis completed his portrait of a dead Chatterton that was to supplant in the public imagination the only portrait of the poet to have survived from his lifetime. Wallis used as his model the poet George Meredith whose wife left him for Wallis after the portrait was completed. The third is located in the present with yet another (failed) poet, Charles Wychwood, and his circle of acquaintances that include Harriet Scrope, a novelist who plagiarizes the novels of an obscure Victorian writer, Philip Slack, a failed novelist, and Andrew Flint, a novelist and biographer of--no other than Meredith. Clearly Ackroyd wants these three temporal strata to interact and generate meaning by reiteration beneath a surface difference. One of the most obvious ways this occurs is in the parallels he draws between the way Chatterton disappears into his writings and the way Wallis disappears into his paintings. Charles seeks to make his name through the forged writings of a Chatterton who lived on after his own forged death, and is likely to survive only in the novel Philip hopes to write about Charles's theory of a resurrected Chatterton, a theory that has already been relegated to the realm of fiction. Even Harriet loses herself in the maze of intertextual borrowing that constitutes her fictional output. In every case the subject disappears into the work of art.
Why is this? Because the work of art is itself a reordering of other works of art from the past. Texts, seen as Ackroyd sees them in a poststructuralist light, are not the inventions of unique writers of genius, of the artistic imagination at odds with society. Texts are rearrangements of other texts. Chatterton as a subject only survives through his writings. In Notes Ackroyd quotes approvingly Lacan's dictum: "'I identify myself in Language, but only by losing myself in it like an object'" (139), and concludes, "language speaks us" (140). Of course Ackroyd is simply agreeing with those French theorists who claimed that the notion of what Julia Kristeva termed intertextuality has come to take the place of the notion of intersubjectivity. She proclaims that "every text is the absorption and transformation of other texts" (Kristeva 146). Ackroyd expressed a similar conviction when discussing The Waste Land in Notes:
...in their combination these words cease to be a collection of sources...they have become a new thing. It is not that they possess a meaning which is the sum of their separate parts, nor that they embody the poet's own voice within a tradition of voices. The words have acquired their own density, and their force comes from differences of diction which, although staying in evidence, are mediated by the life of the whole. The source of this life is language itself (52).
He gives artistic body to this proposition in a highly intricately plotted novel where none of the many texts and works of art turns out to be the simple product of an originating artist. "Writing," as Ackroyd wrote in Notes, "does not emerge from speech, or from the individual, but only from other writing" (61).
Chatterton uses intertextuality to show how it operates. An excellent example of this occurs in a passage in which Chatterton is describing the moment when he discovered that he could do more than transcribe the medieval manuscripts he discovered in the muniments room; he could continue writing in the same style on his own: "The very words had been called forth from me, with as much Ease as if I were writing in the Language of my own Age. Schoolboy tho' I was, it was even at this time that I decided to shore up these ancient Fragments with my own Genius: thus the Living and the Dead were to be reunited." (85) Ackroyd employs an anachronistic reference to the the fourth line from the end of The Waste Land ("These fragments I have shored against my ruins") to underscore the difference between the Romantic cult of "Genius" and the modernist sense of a self in ruins. Besides, it turns out that Chatterton's autobiographical "Account" of his life is a forgery committed by Chatterton's Bristol publisher to revenge himself for slanders against him left behind in Chatterton's papers after his death. So the papers are a bookseller's attempt "to fake the work of a faker" (221). As if this double act of forgery were not sufficient, the reader also knows that the bookseller's faked "Account" of Chatterton's memoirs is itself faked by Ackroyd who spent considerable time in the Manuscript Department of the British Museum reading through Chatterton's papers and other contemporary documents.
Ackroyd has been much admired for his ability to mimic the voices of his seventeenth century architect in Hawksmoor, of his eighteenth century poet in Chatterton, and of his nineteenth century wit and writer in The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde. He, however, claims that it is relatively easy to reproduce these voices from the past. He says this is because "the speech we use today contains or conceals previous levels of speech, from the most recent to the most ancient. They are as it were implicit in modern speech, modern writing, and it only takes a little effort to peel back the layers" (McGrath 46). The modern writer's job is to give free rein to the natural play of language in all its historically layered complexity, just as the reader's role, according to Barthes whom Ackroyd quotes approvingly, "does not consist of the subjective experience of an object...but rather of the relation between one text and another" (Notes 114).
In Chatterton Ackroyd gives satirical and frequently camp expression to this essentially Nietzschean view of the triumph of the autonomy of language. Andrew Flint, in particular, is constituted as a fictional subject through his endless quotations from mainly classical writers. He even makes fun of his own reliance on quotations, as when he says to Charles,"The years are incorrigible, aren't they? They never cease. Was it Tennyson who said that? No. Horace. Horace Walpole" (75). Flint's inability to respond to life without resorting to the responses of his classical forebears is parodied at Charles's funeral by Harriet despite, or with the help of, her lack of classical learning.
"Exeunt omnes -" he began to say.
"In vino veritas."
She was clearly parodying him, but he did not mind; in fact he welcomed it. He positively invited it. "Dies irae," he added (177).
Flint welcomes her parody because in this way she becomes a member of his confined/refined intertextual commonwealth. Of course it is only too appropriate that Harriet, nearly all of whose books are prime examples of intertextuality, should enter with such instinctual enjoyment into Flint's intertextual word-play.
At the same time Harriet is one of the leading instances of what Harold Bloom has termed "the anxiety of influence," an anxiety felt among writers seeking to deny the influence of their literary predecessors on their own work. In his book of that name Bloom claims that among poets "the anxiety of influence is strongest where poetry is most lyrical, most subjective, and stemming directly from the personality" (62). Bloom sees the strong poet in precisely the terms that Ackroyd condemned in Notes. The strong poet's "Word, his imaginative identity, his whole being," according to Bloom, "must be unique to him, and remain unique, or he will perish as a poet" (71). To create a space for his or her own uniqueness each new writer is forced to misread his literary forbears, to deny his or her indebtedness to the past. Ackroyd uses the key phrase, "the anxiety of influence," at a critical juncture in the novel to represent the guilt felt by all writers forced to appropriate the writings of their predecessors in their work. Charles has just quoted a phrase of Eliot's to Harriet who has mistakenly attributed it to Shakespeare. She defends herself:
"Well, you know these writers. They'll steal any..." And her voice trailed off as she looked down at her trembling hands.
"Anything, that's right." He leant back in his chair, and smiled benevolently in her general direction. "It's called the anxiety of influence."...
"And of course it must be true of novelists, too." She paused, and licked her lips. "No doubt," she went on, "there are resemblances between my books and those of other writers."
"You mean like Harrison Bentley?" Charles only just remembered Philip's remark of the previous evening, and now brought it out triumphantly as an indication of his wide reading (100-101).
Harrison Bentley is the Victorian novelist whose plots Harriet has been plagiarizing all these years. Charles sees nothing wrong with what he considers a perfectly natural act of literary appropriation. In fact he opens his preface to his planned book on Chatterton: "Thomas Chatterton believed that he could explain the entire material and spiritual world in terms of imitation and forgery, and so sure was he of his own genius that he allowed it to flourish under other names" (126). How fitting that Charles's defence of plagiarism should itself be a double act of plagiarism. In the first place the opening half of Charles's sentence has been lifted verbatim from the catalogue to the exhibition of Art Brut at the art gallery where Charles's wife, Vivien (cf Vivien Eliot), works (cf 109-110). In the second place Ackroyd himself is indebted to his own earlier novel, The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde, in which he has "Wilde" describe Chatterton as "a strange, slight boy who was so prodigal of his genius that he attached the names of others to it" (67). This in turn is indebted to Wilde's lecture of March 1888 on Chatterton: "He had the artist's yearning to represent and if perfect representation seemed to him to demand forgery he needs must forge. Still this forgery came from the desire of artistic self-efacement" (Ellmann 285).
Ackroyd's plagiarism of his own books does not stop here. When Philip accidentally comes across Harrison Bentley's novels in the library the first title he reads is The Last Testament (a flagrant piece of self-plagiarism), a book in which a poet's wife is discovered by his biographer to have been responsible for writing the verses produced at the end of his life that had brought him eternal fame. This is similar in situation to the discovery within the novel that the painter Seymour's assistant, Merk, has painted all of Seymour's last pictures. Another of Bentley's novels is called Stage Fire in which an actor believes himself to be possessed by the spirits of Kean and other famous performers of the past which result in his own triumphant career on the stage. Of course Stage Fire is a sly reference to Ackroyd's own The Great Fire of London in which a character thinks she is possessed by another character from the past. That is not to mention the remark Harriet makes to herself when observing a blindman early in the novel: "'All you need, old man,...is a circle of stage fire'" (30). Ackroyd appears set on overwhelming his readers in a plethora of unending literary borrowing or plagiarism in which he freely admits his own involvement. Charles, for example, consumes pages of Dickens's Great Expectations as he finishes reading them, a trait that Ackroyd told an interviewer was stolen from Oscar Wilde. "That was one of his habits...I use it as a kind of joke. In one of the reviews someone said it was a symbol of what I did with my own fiction--take bits of other people's books and eat them" (Smith 60).
It is significant that when Philip discovers Harriet's plagiarism he casts no blame on her. This stems from his own past attempt to write a novel which he abandoned after some forty pages because they "seemed to him to be filled with images and phrases from the work of other writers whom he admired." He is obviously suffering from a bad case of the anxiety of influence. His novel "had become a patchwork of other voices and other styles, and it was the overwhelming difficulty of recognizing his own voice among them that had led him to abandon the project" (70). So long as he subscribes to the romantic concept of originality Philip is terrified of the the spectral world of language. In the library he has a nightmare vision of books that "seemed to expand as soon as they reached the shadows, creating some dark world where there was no beginning and no end, no story, no meaning" (71). It takes Charles's death and the exposure of the forgery of Chatterton's papers to bring Philip to realize that "The important thing is what Charles imagined, and we can keep hold of that. That isn't an illusion. The imagination never dies." Even more pertinent is Philip's insistence that he must tell the story in his own way. "'And you know,'" he adds, "'I might discover that I had a style of my own, after all'" (232). Style, the creative use of language, is ultimately the writer's principal contribution to the world. Just as Ackroyd has found himself as a writer by exposing himself to the writings of Wilde, Eliot, and Dickens, so Philip finds himself by exposing himself to the real and forged writings of Chatterton. Intertextuality is not inimical to writing but an inextricable part of it.
Ackroyd reiterates this position throughout the novel, sometimes in somewhat improbable contexts. For instance, the church leaflet on Chatterton that Philip picks up concludes uncharacteristically: "'Chatterton knew that original genius consists in forming new and happy combinations, rather than in searching after thoughts and ideas which had never occurred before'" (58). Yet behind this reiterated message lies a serious comment on the false value that the world attaches to originality and authenticity. The Victorian episodes in which Wallis uses Meredith to pose as the dead Chatterton offer a perfect simulacrum of the world as Ackroyd conceives it in his fiction, fiction which is itself - as Chatterton's publisher says of his forgeries - "an imitation in a world of Imitations" (91). Ackroyd is not adopting a radically idealist view of existence. He readily admits through his character, Meredith, "'Of course there is reality...But...it is not one that can be depicted'" (133). Instead the dead Chatterton is brought to life for succeeding generations by Wallis's realistic depiction of Meredith pretending to be dead. "'I see,'" Meredith observes to Wallis, "'So the greatest realism is also the greatest fakery" (139)? Equally the greatest fakery becomes the greatest realism when Harriet's cat, unable to tell the difference, leaps on the stuffed bird decorating her hat and demolishes it.
In Ackroyd's novels not only is art an autonomous world of its own creation, but art spills over into life, usurps it or becomes indistinguishable from it. Meredith and his wife are in the process of separating during the period in which Wallis is using him as a model. Wallis's representation of Meredith as dead carries a prophetic force that leads to the real death of his marriage to Mary. She attributes the failure of their relationship to his endless play acting: "'he is always in masquerade'" (160). But that is a simplification of the way art and life become necessarily entangled with one another. During one of their bouts of endless banter while Meredith is posing, he says to his wife: "'tragedy is my forte.'" She quips back, "'And comedy is your vice.'" Ackroyd comments: "It seemed to Wallis that this was some theatrical performance they were displaying for his benefit, but then at the same moment he realised that they were also in earnest" (143). Art irrupts into life repeatedly in this book, blurring the boundaries between reality and mimesis. The scene of Chatterton's death is rehearsed three times in the novel. First comes the painted reconstruction of it by Wallis. Next comes Charles's death where he dies in exactly the same posture in which Wallis painted Chatterton. Finally comes Ackroyd's own imaginative reconstruction of Chatterton's death. In the New York Review of Books David Lodge took Ackroyd to task for using "his authority as a story-teller to decide the historically undecidable mystery of Chatterton's death" (16). But the whole point of this novel is to assert the supremacy of the verbal imagination over the irretrievable world of facts. Lodge might have kept in mind Charles's revelation after reading a whole range of mutually contradictory biographies of Chatterton: "it meant that everything became possible. If there were no truths, everything was true" (127).
The novel as a whole is structured to reflect this essentially deconstructive view of the world seen through contemporary spectacles. The book is divided into three parts. Part One entails the discovery first of the painting of a supposedly fifty year old Chatterton and then of manuscripts of his (including a poem by Blake) that Flint dates as early nineteenth century. Essentially Part One questions the authenticity (a dangerous word in Ackroyd's vocabulary) of both painting and manuscript. Part Two confirms the authenticity of Chatterton's continued forgeries of poets like Blake. Part Two is an extended meditation on the authenticity of artistic forgery, using Wallis's faked death scene of Chatterton as its principal extended (possibly over-extended) metaphor. Part Three, half the length of the other two parts, ingeniously deconstructs the whole concept of authenticity. Harriet's response to discovering that the painting of the older Chatterton is a fake is to attempt to fake its restoration only for the painting to completely dissolve in the course of removing its anachronistic details. Similarly after Philip has learnt that the Chatterton manuscripts are forgeries he proceeds to start writing a book based on the imagined assumption that they are authentic. Part Three celebrates the dissolution of the distinctions between authenticity and forgery, originality and imitation, reality and its representation in art. It ends with the historical Chatterton anachronistically imitating Wallis's representation of his death - down to the unlikely smile on his dead face.
Ackroyd shares the poststructuralists' distrust of history as something recoverable. He takes a similar stance to that adopted by Hayden White who ridicules the traditional attempt to authenticate historical and other such discourses by checking them for their fidelity to the facts, because, as White writes, "the discourse is intended to constitute the ground whereon to decide what shall count as a fact in the matters under consideration and to determine what mode of comprehension is best suited to the understanding of the facts thus constituted" (White 3). Harriet puts this viewpoint succinctly to Philip when she admits that none of the story concerning Chatterton's survival beyond his supposed death made much sense: "None of it seemed very real, but I suppose that's the trouble with history. It's the one thing we have to make up for ourselves" (226). Did not Chatterton make up the past, invent the Middle Ages in eighteenth century terms, just as Wallis invented his own version of Chatterton's death scene in 1770 in essentially Victorian terms? Equally Ackroyd's Chatterton expresses a twentieth century postmodernist view when he confesses: "so the Language of ancient Dayes awoke the Reality itself for, tho' I knew that it was I that composed these Histories, I also knew that they were true ones"(85).
Ackroyd's vision is essentially atemporal; past and present interact in the moment. Or you can say that the present consumes the past. Charles jokingly tells his son that he is "eating the past" when licking the dust from the forged painting off his finger (15). Ackroyd has said, "We can live only in the present, but the past is absorbed within that present so that all previous moments exist concurrently in every present moment" (Appleyard 54). Chatterton offers an intricate demonstration of how the past continually surfaces in present-day speech and actions. Chatterton's life and writings radically affect the subsequent lives and work of Wallis, Meredith, Charles and Philip. Just as contemporaries of Chatterton found his supposedly medieval poems more historically authentic than some actual medieval verse, so Mary Meredith finds her husband less real than either Wallis's representation of him on paper or his own poetic writing. The past can best be recaptured by the imaginative act of the artist, not the painstaking researches of the historical scholar. As Karl Miller has put it, "human history is 'a succession of interpretations', a piling-up of imitations, an accumulation of metaphor which will be received as reality" (17).
Ackroyd's attitude to the past, then, is one he shares with postmodern artists and thinkers at large. The past is unrecoverable, being constantly amalgamted into contemporary experience to suit the needs of that experience. Ackroyd's lack of interest in historical fact, his acceptance of history as a discourse subject to linguistic play just as are other more overtly imaginative discourses, has led Denis Donoghue to argue that Ackroyd's novels are not historical novels at all. They are "historical romances, because they refuse to discriminate between the life a character apparently lived and the other lives he or she performed." He goes on to argue that Ackroyd "seems to reject the implication, in the historical novel, that people coincide with themselves and settle for the one life which the decorum of historical narration gives them" (40). Certainly Ackroyd's novels refuse to differentiate between historical fact and imagined fact, between Chatterton the poet who wrote the Rowley poems and Chatterton the poet who wrote some of Blake's poems. Each Chatterton lives and writes as vividly. There is no narrative bias favoring the "historical" over the invented poet.
But "historical romance" is both too confined and too derogatory a label to affix to his fiction. Ackroyd has said of all his historically situated novels, "My own interest isn't so much in writing historical fiction as it is in writing about the nature of history as such... I'm much more interested in playing around with the idea of time" (CA 3). For him the world and its past are constructed within language. Language does not reflect any external sequence of cause and effect. Language produces its own similarities and differences, its own parallels and patterns. And these are what fascinate Ackroyd. The past resolves itself into a series of texts which themselves interact bringing past to bear on present and occasionally present to bear on past - or at least the past as it is textually constituted in and by the present. So Charles comes to glimpse the same (or is he?) child in the house that Chatterton attempts to help just before he dies. Is this the same child painted by Seymour (or should it be Merk?) that Harriet is convinced she has seen before? Charles's son visits the Tate Gallery after his father's death and sees his father lying on the bed in place of Chatterton (who at any rate is Meredith). Meredith dreams that he passes Chatterton on the stairs, just as Charles has a vision of Chatterton in the park. In the final page Chatterton recalls these meetings as his corporeal existence is ending and reflects, "I will not die, then" (234). Evidently he will live on in future representations of him such as those painted by Wallis or passed on from Charles to Philip. But he will live on in the invented image of Wallis's portrait, not dying with the grimace produced by the effects of arsenic but with the smile that both Wallis and now Ackroyd bestow on him. He has entered the free play of art, the web of language.
Does Chatterton, then, qualify as a fully fledged postmodernist work of art as defined by Fredric Jameson? -
postmodernism...ceaselessly reshuffles the fragments of preexistent texts, the building blocks of older cultural and social production, in some new and heightened bricolage: metabooks which cannibalize other books, metatexts which collate bits of other texts--such is the logic of postmodernism in general... (96)
Not entirely. The fact is that Chatterton displays, as has been shown, a structural patterning, a carefully ordered division between three sections, that disqualify it from Jameson's definition of postmodernism as a work allowing the free flow of signifiers. Ackroyd might well be problematizing such signifiers as "the authentic" or "the original," but he subordinates the resulting free play between, say, "the authentic" and "the forged" to an aestheyic structure that contains within its confines that free play and limits the problematization of meaning.
This does not imply that Ackroyd is a half-hearted postmodernist. Rather it undermines Jameson's over-neat categorization of the postmodern phenomenon. For instance Ackroyd's scrupulously impartial narrative stance artistically embodies the postmodernist assumption that the subject disappears into the work of art. As William Pritchard has pointed out, each of Ackroyd's fictions "refuses to put forth a central, reliable narrative voice that stands up and delivers judgments about life, that is firmly anchored in a particular historical time" (39). The sections recounting Chatterton's eighteenth century life are told entirely from Chatterton's focus. There is no attempt to distance the reader from Chatterton even indirectly by the use of irony. Similarly the Wallis-Meredith sections are recounted by an unobtrusive narrative voice that employs vocabulary (but not spelling or punctuation) suited to the historical period. Ackroyd wants to disappear into his own work of art, leaving a seamless garment that is both a patchwork of various cloths and yet invisibly sewn together. The only subject allowed to surface in the novel is a textual construct. Even the unification of the three strands of narrative in the book is achieved by a textually contrived and wholly imaginary meeting of Chatterton, Wallis and Charles at the end that transcends temporal logic by bringing the latter two back in time to join Chatterton at the moment of his death. Imaginary closure is achieved by purely fictional means, means that defy any attempt to read the novel in a mode of realism. The ending celebrates the triumph of art and the autonomy of the literary work over the contingencies of life.
Ackroyd went on to write another novel, First Light (1989), a pastoral comedy combining gothic horror, science fantasy and camp satire. Its defiant mixing of genres and its range of wildly divergent voices testify to Ackroyd's continuing postmodern belief in the supremacy of language. This was followed by his massive biography of Dickens (1990). Once again Ackroyd has written a biography in the belief that "there is no truth to tell." He asserts that "because Dickens was such a large figure, such an amorphous figure, he takes whatever shape you want him to take." He hopes "it will read like a novel" (McGrath 46,7). But he does include five Interludes in which he conducts imaginary conversations with Dickens, Dickens has imaginary conversations with the literary pillars of Ackroyd's own writing career, Wilde, Eliot and Chatterton, or with some of his own characters, and one in which Ackroyd recounts a dream he had about Dickens. It is clear that throughout his writing career to date Ackroyd has remained consistent to the principles he outlined in Notes for a New Culture. In Dickens he continues to demonstrate obliquely the truth of what he asserted with such assurance at the start of his writing career: "Once language has retrieved its history, it emerges as its only subject, it is literature, it is about 'nothing'" (59).
- Ackroyd, Peter. Notes for a New Culture. An Essay on Modernism. London: Vision P, 1976.
---. The Great Fire of London. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1982.
---. The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1983.
---. Hawksmoor. New York: Harper & Row, 1985.
---. T. S. Eliot. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1984.
---. Chatterton. New York: Random House, 1989.
---. First Light. New York: Random House, 1991.
---. Dickens. New York: Harper Collins, 1991.
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Copyright 1992 Brian Finney