Maggie Roessler's Reviews > English Music

English Music by Peter Ackroyd
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May 29, 2012

Read from May 29 to June 01, 2012

Before the book starts, Ackroyd leaves us a little note, saying that 'literary readers' will notice he used material from a bunch of other English artists, while 'alert readers' will understand why he did so. Um, yeah, most understated preface EVER. Ackroyd, you are not subtle. Just as with Chatterton, you leave no space for the reader to pick up hints or put together pieces for herself. In a series of pedantic conversations, you dunked my head repeatedly into your Theme and held it there.

Happily, while the Theme of English Music is a variation of what you were getting at in Chatterton, the development here was more tender and mystical, less smug pomo. What Tim learns and learns and learns again is that religion doesn't have a monopoly on the life-after-death consolation. Art-lovers get in on that action too, because all great artworks live forever - he often compares it to an unbroken undulating line, like the tops of hills and buildings seen from a car window, or the trajectory of a head bouncing up and down as a person walks along. All artworks - music, poetry, prose, painting, performing, and maybe even dancing (although here he could have gone a lot farther!) - influence one another and so are eternally recurring.

Part Two of the Theme: all artworks are expressions not only of one artist, but of that artist's country or city, i.e. London. Despite its quasi-Jungian charm, that part of the Theme is boring to the point of tedium. It might have helped if Ackroyd had mentioned something about the National or Urban Ethos of other countries and cities. What is so very special about England and English? Yes you had a lot of geniuses, but you talk so much about essential Englishness and without comparison it's hard to understand what you're getting at.

And another thing, why the pastiche? Every other chapter is a dream/vision in which Tim finds himself inside the reworking of English classics. Nice way to show off, but it does your Theme no favors and it definitely destroyed your book's pacing. You insist that the national character is inescapable. So, you should not need to blatantly imitate other authors, their work will come out of your own original stuff anyway! That's why your form doesn't actually help you make your point. It just gives you the chance to put your arguments into the mouths of a bunch of other authors which gets sooooo boring. (Although that said, the mish-mash of Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass together with Pilgrim's Progress was hands-down brilliant and so I forgive you a lot for that one.)

This is all very frustrating, because again, all this theorizing overshadowed really fun stuff. Of course I want to read about mind readers and healers setting eerie moods in gas-lit English theaters in the '30s. Ackroyd, you write fun characters, witty dialogue, and intriguing relationships/predicaments, you just need to get out of your own way with the morals!
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