Peter Ackroyd, the English novelist and biographer, has published nearly a dozen books, among them "Dickens: Life and Times," "Chatterton," "T. S. Eliot," "The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde" and "Ezra Pound." It's not hard to see from this selected list that one of Ackroyd's major concerns is the writer at work, or to believe that Ackroyd really means it when he says, as he did to The New York Times last year, that he's only "a half-person, a shadow" when he's not writing books. The written word, for Ackroyd, is a force to be reckoned with, and he has spent much of his literary career doing just that: investigating and envisioning writers' relationships with, and effect upon, the world.
Ackroyd's preoccupations are on full display in "English Music," an unconventional novel even for Ackroyd, and of interest more for its shortcomings than its strengths. The title is something of a misnomer, for the phrase \o7 English music\f7 is used by the character Clement Harcombe to refer not to a single art but to all of English history, literature and painting--English culture, in short, everything Harcombe wants his son Timothy to understand and value. Timothy is the central character of "English Music," and what Ackroyd apparently hopes to illustrate through Timothy is the powerful, even magical effects that art can have on the receptive soul.
The book begins conventionally enough, with the elder Harcombe, who advertises himself as "medium and healer," presiding over his periodic spiritual gatherings at a small London theater. He's no charlatan, which we understand even after accounting for the fact that Timothy, the narrator in alternate chapters of the book, writes about his father with great reverence: People are cured of major ailments during these mystical sessions--though later we learn the cures are realized through Timothy, not his father. We understand which Harcombe is truly special long before the son himself does, in part because the healing process often knocks him unconscious, sending Timothy into a dream world as real to him as his flesh-and-blood life.
Healing isn't the only thing that sends Timothy into these virtual-reality dreams, however; so do theatrical films, emotional crises, music, intense physical visions and, of course, sleep itself. We know all this because every other chapter in "English Music" shows Timothy in a dream state roaming through Lewis Carroll's Wonderland, William Hogarth's Gin Lane, Daniel Defoe's deserted island, the classroom of the composer William Byrd, the landscapes of Samuel Palmer and so on. These dreams taken together trace a path through English culture, and each has something to say about the act of artistic creation. "Why is it you, enemy, who always tells the story?" asks Orlick, for example, addressing Pip from "Great Expectations" as Timothy helps Dickens' creation make good his escape. "Why not old Orlick?"
In real life Timothy is sent off by his father to live with his grandparents in Wiltshire in the hopes that the boy will be able to lead a normal childhood. From time to time he returns to London to seek out his father, however, and eventually determines to become a night guard in a city art gallery, as had one of the afflicted his father had supposedly cured. By this time Timothy has begun to understand his power; he enters a Thomas Gainsborough painting of his own free will, a journey that takes him among a hodgepodge of familiar English landscapes and literary characters. Later Timothy joins the circus as part of his father's new magic act--Harcombe, alone, is unable to make a living as a healer--and by the book's close father and son have come to terms with their differing abilities in the course of performing one final, joint cure.
What does "English Music" add up to? That's difficult to say, but it's tempting to say "not much." Part of the problem is the book's unrelenting Englishness: When Ackroyd celebrates fair Albion's artistry in music and paint, the reader is hard put not to wish he were in Germany with Beethoven or France with Delacroix. Another problem is that the novel rarely seems more than an academic exercise; its structure is mechanical, most of Timothy's dreamy vignettes failing to develop interesting lives of their own. And there's always the sense, in the back of this reader's mind at least, that James Joyce did some similar things rather better, that this novel is a distant cousin of "Ulysses," though one written very, very small.
Joyce doesn't make an appearance in "English Music," of course, because like so many great British writers, he was Irish--like Jonathan Swift, G. B. Shaw, and W. B. Yeats, to name just three more. Their absence is notable, and indicates one way in which this book could have been improved: by Ackroyd's expanding his canvas, giving both Timothy's real life and dream life more scope. "English Music," as written, feels insular and constricted, Timothy's potentially powerful story as a novelistic character being diluted by Ackroyd's once-over-lightly rendering of his imagined adventures.