Thursday, July 7, 2011

Peter Ackroyd's Chatterton

Peter Ackroyd (born 1949) is one of our most celebrated novelists and essayists.  His gathered criticism, The Collection: Journalism, Reviews, Essays, Short Stories, Lectures (2001), reflects a lively and opinionated intelligence; these little gems are among the finest things he’s written
Ackroyd’s biographies are justly famous, and his monumental Dickens (1990) may be the last word on the subject.  Written in the manner of a Victorian novel, Dickens demonstrates the importance of form matched to content.  He has also produced excellent biographies of Turner (2005), Blake (1995) and Thomas More (1998).
His novels include many gems, especially to this reader The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde (1983) and The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein (2008).  However, with Chatterton (1987), this gifted writer is guilty of a miscalculation.
Chatterton concerns Charles Wychwood, a failed poet dying of a brain tumor.  Quite by accident, he comes across a portrait that may be the celebrated poet Thomas Chatterton (1752-1770) in middle age – a mystery, since Chatterton died, a suicide, at age 17.  Coming across further documentary evidence, it’s possible that Chatterton faked his own death and continued to write well into his middle years.
Charles seeks the help of novelist Harriet Scrope, a famous writer who plagiarized the plots of her early novels, to make a splash in the world of publishing.  But the possibility of fame as a literary detective is too strong a temptation for Scrope, and she plots to steal the evidence for her own use.
Running on parallel tracks, but different eras, are the story of poet George Meredith, posing for artist Henry Wallis for the famous painting of the dead Chatterton, and also of Chatterton himself, leaving Bristol for literary fame in London.
If all this sounds beguiling, it is – in theory.  Sadly, Ackroyd abandons his usual clean prose style for a superannuated characterization that left this reader breathless.  Ever player has so many bits of business that it reads like a product of the Daniel Quilp School of Writing.  Here’s a taste:
Harriet Scrope was preparing a sandwich.  “Mustard!” she shouted, and raised the little yellow pot in triumph.  “Pickles!”  She unscrewed the jar.  “Lovely grub!”  She dug her knife into a small tin of Gordon’s Anchovy spread, and smeared it over two slices of white bread before adding these seasonings.
“Look at you,” she said to the pungent meal she had created, “You’re so colourful!  You’re much too good to eat!”  Nevertheless she managed to take large bites and, widening her eyes, swallowed vigorously.  But, even though she enjoyed the prospect of eating, she detested the actual physical process: whenever she ate she looked about anxiously and now, as more large pieces of anchovy, pickle and mustard travelled down her alimentary canal, she stared at Mr. Gaskell as if she were seeing the cat for the first time.  Then she grabbed it and began unmercifully to kiss its whiskers as it struggled in her firm hands.  “I suppose,” she said, “you want some pickles, my loveliness.  But pickles are for human beings.  At least I think that’s what Mother is.”  She held it out at arm’s length, and engaged in one of her ‘staring matches’ with it: Mr. Gaskell blinked first, and with a cry of “Victory!” she kissed it again.  As she did so it began sniffing the traces of anchovy on her breath, and she put it down quickly.  “Tell me,” she whispered, “do you ever dream of Mother?”  She closed her eyes for a moment and tried to imagine the cat world: there were walking shadows everywhere, and she saw the large dark outline of one of her own shoes.  Then the door bell rang.”
Not a minute too soon, in my opinion.
Now, an entire novel of Una O’Connor character parts is a tad too fey to be completely satisfying. Unsatisfying, too, is Ackroyd’s resolution (not disclosed here!).  While Ackroyd neatly ties up any lose threads, this reader had the impression that he didn't really know how to end it.
Ackroyd uses his premise – that fiction is not wholly organic, and that stories often influence both creators and other stories – to say several interesting things about fiction and originality.  But the insights are so deeply buried in his disjointed prose that the reader loses interest in the fine points of his tale.
Ultimately, Chatterton is unrewarding.  Ackroyd’s affinities are clearly with the past – the brief tastes of Chatterton himself and Meredith and Wallis really shine – but he has only an uneasy truce with the present.  Chatterton is a wonderful demonstration of why Ackroyd is one of our finest historical novelists who has not (yet) written an exemplary contemporary novel.

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