Poor Toms

Karl Miller

  • Chatterton by Peter Ackroyd
    Hamish Hamilton, 234 pp, £10.95, September 1987, ISBN 0 241 12348 8

Peter Ackroyd’s new novel has been caught in the Gadarene rush of fiction brought out in time for the Booker Prize deadline. It won’t be lost in this year’s profusion of titles, and it won’t be harmed by the published assurance of a colleague of his on the Times that it is ‘a sure contender’ for the prize. But it will also have to contend for the admiration of Ackroyd’s readers with its predecessor of 1985, Hawksmoor.[*] These are books which do much to explain one another. Both books mingle old times and new times, and both give expression to fantasies of replication, with Hawksmoor a hard act to follow.

Its old times are brilliantly rendered, and its appeal is in part generic. The biographer of T.S. Eliot, who was himself to speak of the ‘dark’ experience, of the ‘rude unknown psychic material’, incorporated in his poem The Waste Land, can be seen to contribute to the tradition of romantic fabulation which began with the Gothic novel – a tradition in which darkness is privileged, in which a paranoid distrust is evident, in which can be read the evergreen message that the deprived may turn out to be depraved, and in which there can be two of someone.

Hawksmoor speaks the words of romantic duality, and is in a number of ways a double book. It consists of two alternating narratives, one of which is set in the 18th century and the other in the present, with the earlier delivered in the first person. Each of the two principal actors glimpses his double in passing, as a reflection in a glass, and each stands to the other in the same relation – a relation which presupposes, as in many other Gothic texts, some sort of metempsychosis or rebirth. Both of these men are disturbed or mad. Nicholas Dyer is imagined as the builder of Nicholas Hawksmoor’s churches in the East End of London: the enlightened edifices of a rational Christianity are thereby ascribed to a devil-worshipper, while the name ‘Hawksmoor’ is assigned to the Detective Chief Superintendent who, in the later narrative, frets himself into a delirium over a series of stranglings which take place in the vicinity of the churches. The later crimes duplicate those committed by Dyer, who has wished to baptise his churches with the blood of young victims.

Dyer thinks of himself as ‘a stranger to mankind’; his life is led apart, ‘in a Corner’. He has grown up as one of ‘the orphans of the plague’ who roam the streets of the city in the aftermath of the plague and of the fire that followed it. The romantic equation of orphan and monster makes a Satanist of this forlorn Dyer: ‘nor can we but by doing Evil avoid the rage of evil Spirits.’ His is a theology in which Adam is unredeemed, and life itself a plague. London is a necropolis, its every corner the site of a murder, its soil a pudding of blood and tears. Out of this soil soar elegant churches, each of which encodes the symbols of an alien religion: the St So-and-So’s which Dyer has been commissioned to build are so many secret temples of Moloch. The experiments, proofs and improvements espoused by such scientists as Christopher Wren, Dyer’s patron in the building trade, Dyer pisses on. The homicides and post-mortems in the book permit the new religion of science to exercise its power: but they also occasion the necrophile broodings which exude from Dyer. Much of this material – this archaic London, the Hawksmoor churches, their magical meaning, and the tramps who haunt them – comes from the striking poem Lud Heat by Iain Sinclair, where the churches are taken to be geometrically interrelated in the form of a pentacle, the sorcerer’s five-pointed star. The poem is dark, dense and learned – Yeatsian, and maybe also Yatesian, in inspiration, amid much else. Sinclair means his dark stuff, and makes it moving. The poem suggests itself as the work of a devotee; it is a different beast from Hawksmoor. The novel suggests itself as the work of a novelist intent on a gruesome entertainment. Both works, however, may be thought to share a secret, and a set of clues, which bear witness to the recrudescence of a hippy magic.

Peter Ackroyd is all of the formidable pasticheur that he is praised for being, and Dyer’s tale, which affects to be that of someone who lived in the 18th century, and in which the element of imitation, present in writing of every kind, is more obtrusive than it is in the other tale, is the livelier of the two. Pastiche is a dualistic activity, and it is an activity which can lend itself to the expression of paranoid feelings and unacted desires. A writer is copied by ‘someone other’ than himself, and that ‘someone other’ can in a manner of speaking become the writer he copies: the biter bit. The expression I am quoting is uttered by Dyer, and it is an expression which Ackroyd is given to using in his books. In pretending here to be someone other than himself who keeps murdering people, he does a tremendous job: this is a convincing argot for the age in question. The suffering and self-conscious first-person singular manifested in Dyer could be considered a creation of the Gothic novel that came after him, and Dyer can also bring to mind the magus of a time before. But there is no nagging sense of anachronism. How could there be? the novel seems to be saying. There is no such thing as anachronism. All ages are one.

The later stranglings look like a copy of what happened, at the hands of a sorcerer, in the loamy past, and Peter Ackroyd is very interested in copies. The present one is not exact, as indeed is usual in such cases. Dyer’s doings are the same as but also different from those investigated by the fretful man he resembles, just as Hawksmoor’s investigative Scotland Yard is the same as but also different from the architects’ department of that name attended by Dyer. Ackroyd has given some readers the impression that the modern narrative, the paler of the two, is paler on purpose – in obedience, presumably, to the doctrine of time, of its runnings-down and recurrences, which figures in the novel.

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[*] Hawksmoor, reprinted in 1986: Sphere Books, £3.95.