Guide to “Thoughts on HAWSKMOOR.”
1.) The Thoughts must be read in linear fashion, though what linear, in this sense, entails is subject to the individual Reader’s interpretation. The review may or may not touch on the points raised in “The Rules of Thoughts on HAWKSMOOR”. Objectivity is of a Third Person stance. Objectivity is from a First Person stance.
2.) The flow of Time moves both ways. Time is not a Measure extending in but one direction; rather it is a Loop. Echoes move both ways around the Circle of the Loop. They may be Cacophonous, they may be whispers.
3.) William Golding’s THE SPIRE can be Referenced.
4.) The oldest Character can be seen in accumulation of stones and mortar for Flesh, passages and highways for Veins. Thoughts are expressions of movement, of building. Height may be seen as a form of higher Thinking; depth may be seen as pollution, corruption. Fever is a fire. Experience of Fever can bring about Change, can allow filth already about the body to prosper and invade new hollows of the city, to spread and exert influence. Reflection is an Echo that runs around the Loop, forever in Flux.
5.) Dissection of bodies may bring Revelation or provide more questions. Dissection of bodies may be an allegory of the search for Truth in an object Deceased and therefore out of the standing of Time; an object no longer travelling in Loop. Dissection of a body can be seen as Enlightenment triumphing over Barbarism. Blood is shed.
6.) At no Time will the Thoughts sink into archaic English and forms of address which may be seen as outré and wearying in the short-term, but which may also, over the course of a narrative so long as a novel, be acceptable for the reader. Said archaic language will not willfully be subject to Slippages, reductions in paragraph length and Accommodations to dialogue attribution more appropriate to a form of address 250 years after the supposed time of said Writing being set on paper and subject to the Telling in the novel.
7.) The Protagonists will be talked about in Mystical Terms. His appearance, as solver of Mysteries, will be ineffable, a reflection on the body-city. His concern will be Time. There shall be Echoes. No one stands Alone. Patterns Repeat. The Antagonist will be forthright, be about his Stool, rank with Bodily Miscretions. (And words may be made up.)
8.) Linearity is not assured.
9.) The Resolution of Mystery is not assured.
10.) The flow of Time will move both ways.
“Thoughts on HAWKSMOOR”
It’s no coincidence that the eponymous protagonist of HAWKSMOOR makes his first appearance midway through this novel, and then is seen as an insubstantial figure, a reflection on the backdrop of London. London is Ackroyd’s great obsession. Here is a novel playing with the concept of time, and with it literary technique and the linear notion of story as well. Characterization and engagement with such is not the novel’s concern, reducing some to ciphers and walking plot devices. What seems set in stone is not quite what we imagine it to be. Human beings are glistening tears of sweat on the stone and brick body-city that is London, without the necessary imagination required to step outside the confines of their narrow limits of perception and therefore understand the longer term point of view someone or something as old as a city might hold on matters of time and change.
Peter Ackroyd’s near delirium-inducing passages are dense – sometimes to the point of losing their meaning to this reader – and they shift from their focus too often, as well as flitting between character perspectives. Too often at the start of one chapter, the Point of View Character is not the person with whom we think we are initially investing our emotions for the length of the narration. This may be an intentional device the author is employing, but can strain the trust between reader and writer, especially when the characters that the reader invests so much time in coming to know are gone never to be seen again in the book.
There are triumphs, though. The at first trying archaic language, with its intentional misspellings of familiar words, eventually gains a momentum if the reader persists, and as the book continues it begins shaping its structure toward the more modern form of storytelling employed to convey the setting circa 250 years on from the original narrative. In reflection of this – and reflections are essential to glean anything close to an understanding of this work – the modern passages dull to a more archaic telling. Dialogue is (intentionally?) stilted, and sounds very unlike speech anyone would recognize as such outside of an Agatha Christie novel.
Foundations and their importance are explored in forms of intertextuality if we consider the book itself as a form of the story being shaped, the writing of which is akin to the building of a church. In William Golding’s THE SPIRE, a priest’s ambitions are too grand for the foundation upon which he attempts to build them; Golding knew, as does Ackroyd, that a shudder from the top of a spire trembles through the heights to the depths of a building, and that it is not always obvious from which direction the reverberations first start moving.
Time is important, and the time this book was written in must be considered. It wasn’t the only piece of work from this period – the mid nineteen-eighties – that explored the establishment of older, often benign pagan rituals being smuggled into new temples. The allegory/metaphor isn’t hard to spot in a time when wealth was the new religion in Thatcherite Britain, and stories were appearing where older Gods – meaning society and goodness of character, the rejection of greed – were secretly hidden in edifices of power. (Harking back, A CHRISTMAS CAROL isn’t much different.)
But for all its cleverness and ambition, does HAWKSMOOR succeed? For this reader only in part. While there’s much to be admired – Ackroyd’s portrayal as London as a character, and his deep and rich knowledge of the past – as a friend of mine told me when I mentioned I was reading it: “It’s a flat book, cold and distant.” I agree; there are no characters in this book that snag you emotionally. You are expected to engage with a conceit almost, rather than any personality. Certainly the role of women in the book is a small one, bordering on the misogynisticly slim.
HAWKSMOOR is the result of someone being clever rather than engaging: a read for reading’s sake, not to be returned to too quickly. It’s trying stuff and you know the ending is going to be ambiguous to the point of a fade out long before you arrive there, and I’ve read far too many endings like that to be happy with them unless the writing’s exceptional. And it wasn’t here.
You could ask, What’s it all about, Alfie? But it wouldn’t matter; the author never knew.
Disclaimer to “Thoughts on Hawksmoor”.