Prolific and reclusive, Peter Ackroyd is the master of England’s mythsby DJ Taylor / February 22, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
The most extraordinary thing about Wilkie Collins, the latest addition to Peter Ackroyd’s series of Brief Lives, is the groaning “By the same author” column that adjoins its title page. Here, in a space measuring six inches by four, using one of the smallest typefaces known to print, some compositor has managed to squeeze no fewer than 31 items. Most varieties of the modern literary experience are represented: a heap of novels; fat biographies; buxom historical travelogues; selected journalism winched up from the vault. Yet the mark of this altogether heroic effort in bibliography is its incompleteness. No sign of Ackroyd’s four volumes of poetry, his scarifying theoretical primer Notes for a New Culture or even the Voyages Through Time series conceived for the younger reader. A trawl through the British Council “Writers and their works” website rectifies some of these omissions, but even the 40-odd volumes collected there can look like a serious underestimate.
To nigh-on 50 books, large and small (Wilkie Collins is a bare 200 pages; last autumn’s Foundation, the first tranche of a projected six-volume history of England, has nearly 500) can be added a trackless waste of literary journalism extending into five decades. Ten million words, let us say, in a 40-year career: enough pages to carpet the average town centre. In the context of modern English literature, this kind of fertility is more or less unprecedented, for if anything characterises the spangled literary generation of which Ackroyd (born 1949) is a part—the generation of Barnes, Rushdie, Amis minor and Ishiguro—it is a deep-seated reluctance to put words on paper. No equivalent body of English writers, it could be said, has found it quite so much of an effort to write.
Ian McEwan, its figurehead, dishes up a novel every two or three years. And irked by the seven-year gap that separated The Light of Day (2003) from Last Orders (1996), an exasperated critic in the Times Literary Supplement once calculated that the fatally misnamed Graham Swift worked at the rate of 40 words a day. Set against this school of niggling, Flaubertian revisers, Ackroyd looks like a figure from a vanished age: a pale descendant of the clutch of driven Grub Street titans who populate John Gross’s The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters (1969), a spiritual heir of the prolific Henry Morley, author of First Sketch of English Literature (1873), who christened his house “Inky Villa,” or Wilkie Collins himself, of whom Walter de la Mare once remarked that he was “lapped in the condition of the worm in the cocoon spun out of his own entrails; ink is his nectar, solitude his paradise, the most exhausting earthly work at once his joy, his despair, his anodyne and his incentive.”