Peter Ackroyd’s bio of a city
BY RICHARD C. WALLS
London: The Biography
By Peter Ackroyd. Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 831 pages, $45.
Peter Ackroyd has a funny sense of time. In his novel Hawksmoor, an evil of the past persists in the stones of present-day churches; in First Light, time folds into itself, making vertiginous connections between distant stars and ancient burial grounds. He’s the Stephen King of mystics, writing horror stories for people who find the idea of infinity more frightening than globs of dismemberment. So it’s not surprising that he begins his London biography ( " history " would be too inert an word for someone who believes there’s a throbbing past that inhabits ostensibly lifeless objects) with this statement of intention: " There are many different forms of time in the city and it would be foolish of me to change its character for the sake of creating a conventional narrative. That is why the book moves quixotically through time, itself forming a labyrinth. " This fair warning is followed by a more explicit one: " The readers of this book must wander and wonder. They may become lost upon the way; they may experience moments of uncertainty, and on occasion strange fantasies or theories may bewilder them. "
What he’s getting at is that the book is a loosely chronological but definitely nonlinear patchwork of topics on the central subject of London. Various aspects of city existence, such as crime, noise, commerce, plant life, and weather, get a chapter each and are treated with mind-boggling erudition. Ackroyd seems to have read everything that’s ever been written on London, but rather than synthesizing it into some vast paraphrase, he’s opted for pastiche. This takes some getting used to, especially in the early chapters, where he’s likely to jump through several centuries (forward and backward) in a few sentences. But once he disposes of the speculative pre-history and inches closer to the middle ages, he proceeds in a more focused manner.
Still, the welter of references is continuous; very late in the book, in a not too long paragraph concerning the infamous madhouse Bedlam, he manages to work in the opinions and observations of Alexander Pope, Thomas Traherne, John Locke, Tobias Smollett, and Matt Bramble. As a result, even when the point being made is obvious or repetitious or obscure, you’re continually impressed by Ackroyd’s unflagging industry, by the way he’s stitched together writers from various centuries in a manner that makes it appear he’s keeping a convened round table on topic.
It may all seem a little showy, but it’s also very deliberate, a continuation of Ackroyd’s preoccupation with the way past and present overlie everything, layered and imposing, with human misery and joy being sucked back into the vortex whence they came. Writing about London noise, he says: " The sound then is one of vast loss, the ‘howl’ of which Shelley writes. In the phrase of T.S. Eliot, a poet whose vision of time and eternity sprang directly from his experience of London, ‘All time is unredeemable.’ London is unredeemable, too, and we may think of its noise as comprising a vast mass of subjective private times continually retreating into non-existence. "
Of course you could make the same claim for almost any city, even those that haven’t occupied the same region for " at least 15,000 years, " and at times Ackroyd’s assertions of ghostly singularity sound like special pleading. But what makes the book eminently readable isn’t its metaphysics but its funkiness. London the city may be indomitable, but its inhabitants have always been all too human, and its biography teems with a huge cast of thieves, drunks, prostitutes, murderers, magi, and madmen living through the horrors of Newgate prison, the insanity of the Gordon riots, the now almost incomprehensible reality of recurring plague — not to mention the town’s nasty habit of burning down. Ackroyd loves London unconditionally, and he’s so adept at evoking its gloom and stink that I feel somewhat let down when he pauses for a brief history of its trees. But even if one skims over the mundane bits, there’s still enough of the sublime and horrible weave of history here to engross. More than enough, for those willing to wander and wonder.
Issue Date: November 1-8, 2001