Biography 24.3 (2001) 656-658
[Access article in PDF]
Playful and perplexing, ludic and labyrinthine--these words apply equally to this study of Peter Ackroyd as well as to his work. Gibson and Wolfreys's book seems almost to have been pressed from the template of one of Ackroyd's own texts. The young initiator of this project, Jeremy Gibson, fresh out of graduate school, is killed at 29 in a biking accident, with only a portion of the manuscript completed. The publisher hires Julian Wolfreys, author or editor of a dozen books on literary theory and history, to finish the work. The resulting patchwork of voices and styles--living and dead, completed and interrupted--can be read either as a deliberate imitation of Ackroyd's own methods or as happenstance, making the best of a sad, almost Chattertonian, accident. The text, in either scenario, is more labyrinthine than ludic. [End Page 656]
The authors' purpose, declared at the outset, is to focus on nine of Ackroyd's novels, the best known of which are probably Hawksmoor, The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde, Chatterton, and Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem (published in America as The Trial of Elizabeth Cree: A Novel of the Limehouse Murders). An early chapter is devoted to Ackroyd's poetry, which he says he gave up writing in 1978. Gibson and Wolfreys declare off-limits any discussion of Ackroyd's celebrated (and reviled) biographies, Dickens, T.S. Eliot: A Life, Blake, and The Life of Thomas More, or of Ackroyd's own life story. Despite their strict rules, they do succumb to temptation occasionally. They mention one anecdote describing Ackroyd's performative personality at a dinner party, only to pull back from the precipice with a warning to themselves and to us: "this is the closest this book will come to making a connection between 'life' and 'work'; it is done only so as to suggest the futility of any such critical attempt" (19).
If the main body of the text does little more than tease and retreat when it comes to biography and autobiography, the authors nonetheless offer sensible and refreshing views on many aspects of Ackroyd's often unconventional work, nowhere more impressively than in their defense of his playfulness: "Ackroyd's . . . 'unreal' and 'playful' narrative structures can often be more powerful ideologically than realist and social realist narratives in the revelation of the structures of conventional identities, whether these are sexual or national" (31). Gibson and Wolfreys make a persuasive case for reading Ackroyd's "strangeness" as subversive and destabilizing--the trivial made serious and the serious made trivial, in the best Wildean tradition.
For the reader who can not help feeling a little impatient, however, with the sometimes monotonous tracings of the ludic and the labyrinthine in the novels, three substantial interviews with Ackroyd appended at the end offer some consolation. The first two were conducted by Gibson in 1989 and 1995, and the third, after Gibson's death, by Wolfreys in 1997. Gibson's interviews are the more entertaining, not least because we can detect Ackroyd's occasional bewilderment at Gibson's academic language. For example, Ackroyd, who says he "disabused" himself of theory once he turned to novel writing, takes a circuitous question about intertextuality, wrapped around a quotation from a literary theorist about the past being "always already interpreted," and paraphrases it as "Do you mean do I work from sources, textual sources?" (224).
In the 1995 interview, Ackroyd speaks openly about the autobiographical underpinnings of all his writings: "For me they're sort of autobiographical exercises, on the whole, in the sense that I sort of create a character with whom I can identify, and then it helps create my own identity in the process. [End Page 657] So, in a sense the autobiographical impulse is always very strong, in the biographies and in the fiction" (238). By offering the interviewer the choice of...