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  Lidia Vianu - Director of CTITC (CENTRE FOR THE TRANSLATION AND INTERPRETATION OF THE CONTEMPORARY TEXT), Bucharest University, Professor of Contemporary British Literature at the English Department of Bucharest University, Member of the Writers’ Union, Romania.


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The mind is the soul

Interview with PETER ACKROYD (born 1949), British novelist
Published in LIDIA VIANU, Desperado Essay-Interviews, Editura Universitatii din Bucuresti, 2006
© Lidia Vianu


LIDIA VIANU: A Desperado author is not happy until his reader gives in to the novel as to a trance. Your books move back and forth in time, between centuries, between minds, pushing the reader into the experience of a perpetual present, which includes all times, all thoughts, all sensibilities. The highly narrative style is mingled with a lyrical suspension of disbelief. Although full of suspense and palpitating stories, your novels are preeminently lyrical experiences. Are you a poet as well? Is poetry more important than prose, when you write?

PETER ACKROYD: I began my literary career as a poet, and for many years thought of nothing else. It is the case that, when I stopped writing poetry, I began almost immediately to write prose. I believe the same sensibility simply migrated into a different medium.

LV. Is it your intention to create a new literary genre, a hybrid of fiction, poetry and drama? Hybridization of literary genres was the discovery of the stream of consciousness, but its real feats have been accomplished between the 1950s and now. Do you resort to it deliberately or instinctively (writing as the novel comes, which is the more plausible answer, but, hopefully, not the only one)?

I am not particularly concerned with generic matters – just as you cannot expect a composer to write only symphonies or only operas, so a writer must be free to explore every available form of writing. You mention the hybrid of poetry and drama and fiction, but I would also like to include historical narrative as part of that mingling, for example. I am interested in creating a form that includes those elements which have been generally classified as ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’.

LV. You create your own reader, the sharing reader, who has to lend himself to the author’s expert hand, and this author is never satisfied till he reaches absolute communion. You almost lead the reader to the point where he becomes author himself. The reader partakes of a sacred rite, which is your imagination. There is in most authors a Desperado stiffness which claims that the reader is not meant to do anything special. Are you aware that your reader is a creative reader? Do you mean your books to go on in the reader’s mind after creation and reading have had their say? Do you accept the reader’s interference in your own creation?

PA. I am quite happy for the readers to enter and recreate the world to which I summon them. Part of the meaning of my work might be seen as an attempt to construct an alternative reality. Or, rather, a heightened reality in which the sacred forces of the world are as plain as any more familiar elements.

LV. You have written the most remarkable biography of T.S. Eliot, which is at the same time a novel and a critical initiation. You mix there fiction, literary history and literary criticism. I should say you are a new kind of critic, the commonsensical, well-informed critic, who despises scholarly digressions from clarity and sense. Are you a critic? Eliot used to say creation itself was a critical act, too. As an Eliot specialist, I owe most of my understanding of Eliot in all his hypostases – stream of consciousness poet, critic and dramatist, master of hybridization – to your book. Yet you place fiction before criticism, I should say. Would I be wrong? How important is literary criticism in the context of your creation?

PA. I do not believe that I am a critic in any familiar or conventional sense. In my biography of Eliot I attempted, for example, to reproduce the cadences of the man within the style of my prose – thus offering the alert reader a means of understanding the true nature of his writing.

LV. You have used Eliot as a source of inspiration. I cannot say he has influenced you, but I find echoes from him in Hawksmoor, English Music, Chatterton. Your mind uses echoes as a technique of rising above time, and this is your major strategy both as a craftsman of the novel and a lyrical sensibility, that willingly becomes an exile from reality. It is your gift to melt together, in the alchemy of your creation, the soul and the story. Which comes first, when you write? Do you start with a story or with a mood? Do you plan your narratives from at first?

PA. The story seems always to introduce itself first, but it cannot really be distinguished from the cadence and ‘mood’ which I am attempting to create.

LV. Death is a recurrent theme, which burdens all Desperado sensibilities, from Graham Swift (Last Orders), to Julian Barnes (Flaubert’s Parrot), Doris Lessing (The Memoirs of a Survivor), Michael Ondaatje (The English Patient). You treat it like a sweet mystery. It is present in all your novels as a physical state, not as an incident. There is a life in death, a life after death, life and death are woven together. You make the reader see death as the courage to live beyond. Crossing the border, crossing all borders, is your lesson. Are you deliberately didactic, do you actually mean to convey a message, or does this lesson flow naturally from your sensibility on to the page, and from the page into the reader’s own sensibility? Would you allow the reader’s reading mood to float freely, without guiding it? How much are you aware of what you really do when you write, of the consequences of your books on other imaginations? What is your priority?

PA. There is no message as such – at least not one that can be identified except in the experience of reading the novels, which must of course differ from reader to reader. I never know the ending of the novels, for example, until the ending happens – it happens instinctively, almost by an act of chance or indirection.

LV. You are a great lover of narratives. Your pastime is to find new narrative modes. Hawksmoor ends one chapter and begins the next with the same sentence, in a new context. English Music plunges the main hero into trance chapters, going as far back as several centuries. You have a critic’s mind, seeing everywhere hints to be decoded, and the soul of a novelist, the dreams of a poet. The three combined make us share the story. Your reader is never excluded, or an outsider. You urge us to witness creation from the inside, to appropriate the text. Do you like your reader to reinterpret the text freely, maybe get out of it something you never thought of putting there? Do you like critics who come up with fancy (mis)readings of your texts? What is the profile of your ideal critic?

PA. If the reader understands the mysteries of time, if he or she is willing to suspend belief in normal realities, if the reader is willing to cross that threshold where life and death are the same, then any further act of guidance on my part seems superfluous.

LV. Poetry opens for you the door into the out-of-time. Most Desperadoes are not that lucky. They are dry and refuse access to the beyond. You are a great lover of words, I should even say a slave to words (in the meaning in which Valéry was a ‘galley-slave of nuances’, as he put it himself). Your sentences are short poems. You are not so much direct as evocative of moods. You combine the love for striking, memorable words of your stream of consciousness predecessors with the matter-of-fact narrative of the Desperadoes. You are a hybrid of two authors: one who means to enslave the soul of the reader, the other one who sets the reader free to find his own way, and watches him enigmatically. How much of yourself are you willing to reveal in your writings? How autobiographical are you? Most of your novels are not. Is there any one novel more autobiographical than others?

PA. There cannot help but be autobiographical elements in the novels. After all, I am writing them. The ‘I’ must reflect upon itself. The ‘I’ must conjure forth its own particular meanings. There are straight elements of autobiography, in terms of location, in First Light. Otherwise not a significant ostensible element.

LV. You ruin chronology in a subtle way. If Lessing is bitter, Lodge and Bradbury humorous, Barnes bitingly witty, you are preeminently tender. Your sensibility ruins the line of the story, diving into islands of is and was at random. History swallows the chronology of the narrative, and whatever the moment, we only know we are still alive, ready to live more, willing to read more. What is your aim when you dive into the past? You said in another interview you wanted to sketch a history of London. I think you want far more than that. You want to outline all history, the sense of history, not only just London. Would it be wrong to say that you are a philosopher of history while being a novelist whose inspiration is the sweet mystery of the past?

PA. The phrase philosopher of history is perhaps a little portentous. I do wish to create a sense of history or, rather, a sense of time passing as a melody. I am interested, too, in the topographical imperative whereby a certain spot of earth can actively fashion or harbour certain patterns of sustained activity over many generations. It is the presence of past time which envelops me.

LV. Unlike most Desperadoes, you are incredibly quotable. Eliot used to say poetry could communicate before it was understood. Do you feel fiction can, too? Because reason is by no means enough for your reader. Your reader must reach beyond mere understanding. You are a striver for the limit of understanding, and your readers learn to accept more than can be logically explained, which brings lyricism back into the picture once again. How do you think you relate to Joyce and Woolf (who flooded fiction with poetry) on the one hand, and T.S. Eliot (who fictionalized poetry) on the other?

PA. I would prefer to put myself in the line of Cockney visionaries, who saw elements of the sacred and the symbolic in their local circumstances. Among them are Blake and Dickens and Turner. I suppose we might count Woolf and Eliot and Joyce as honorary companions of that order.

LV. Virginia Woolf claimed there should be no love interest attached to the novel. An age later, the interest of the Desperado novel moves from the couple (which still existed for the stream of consciousness) to the lonely individual facing life. The character rejects chronological causality: the present is no longer caused by the past, and it does not cause any future to happen. Life is an enticing mystery precisely because it loses the line of love and time. Your novel becomes a communion with the unspeakable. How would you define this unspeakable for a student of your work? If it is not love interest, what words could express your main theme, your major obsession?

PA. My major obsession is with the love of the past for the present, and the present for the past.

LV. I think that by building everyday parallelisms for past ages, you debunk history. Your characters are projected in lines of similar heroes, who melt into one another. Your narrative situations slide in endless lines of similarity. Chatterton, for instance, is a book of fakes. A poet fakes his own death, a painting fakes Chatterton’s image by using another writer as a model, a painter fakes his master, a novelist fakes a good novel by copying the plot of another novelist, a humble librarian fakes family life by stealing it from his dead friend (whose death is probably the only real thing in the book, and the least appealing). Nothing is reliable any more. This love of interpretation as a perpetuum mobile is your way of showing humour. I do believe you have a strong sense of humour. Is that true? Where do you think your reader should look for that very Desperado irony, which no contemporary author can write without? Do you see yourself as sympathetic, detached, ironical, present or absent from your text on purpose?

PA. I do have a sense of humour, I hope, although it veers towards the pantomimic and the theatrical. I am not at all ‘detached’ from the texts, or ironical – I am all too fervently attached to them to be anything other than fully engaged. I suppose there is even some humour to be found in that.

LV. You create a dreamy novel. You mix in your novels fiction, poetry, drama, history, music, thoughts and dialogue. Yet you hate sentimentality, in good Desperado tradition. Because of the refusal to dwell upon the major link in human existence which is love (and which is felt in the background but never exploited as a source of incidents), your narrative is unwilling, it advances against the grain, pushed ahead by a haunted mind. What comes first when you embark on a novel, the mind (swimming in echoes of many arts and ages) or the soul (besieged by irresistible tides of lyricism)?

PA. The mind is the soul.

October 5, 2001


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