Ackerley: The Life of J.R. Ackerley
by Peter Parker
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 465 pp., $25.00
J.R. Ackerley wrote two brilliant and original novels, Hindoo Holiday and We Think the World of You, and two almost equally brilliant memoirs, My Dog Tulip and My Father and Myself. His rather depressing diaries were posthumously published with the title My Sister and Myself. The self, and the mysteries of its attachments, viewed from a single and subjective center, were always his subject. He was an exclusively autobiographical writer, whether in fiction or in memoir.
Hindoo Holiday, published in 1932 in a bowdlerized version, was based on the diary that he kept during his five months’ stay during the early 1920s as secretary to His Highness the Maharajah Vishwa Nath Singh Bahadur in Chhattarpur, a minor Indian state under native rule. Ackerley had been wounded and taken prisoner as a young lieutenant in 1917 and had written a good but commercially impossible play about his experiences. E.M. Forster recommended him to the maharajah, and it was an inspired suggestion. Hindoo Holiday sweeps the reader into a Firbankian world of total absurdity, in which the wildest fantasies of superstition and of sexual variety and experiment are the daily routines of the palace. His Highness in real life was in pursuit of “the ultimate meaning of meaning,” and he hoped to find the missing clue, if not in George Henry Lewes and Herbert Spencer, then in Marie Corelli, Hall Caine, and Rider Haggard. Ackerley was to help in the philosophic quest. Perhaps the best known incident in Hindoo Holiday was also fact: the maharajah would order his chauffeur to turn his car around if he passed an animal on the ill-omened side so that it might reappear on the other side as a favorable omen.
I learn from Peter Parker that the Aga Khan, who knew the maharajah, preferred Hindoo Holiday to any other English fiction about India, including Kipling’s, and named a racehorse of his Hindoo Holiday. Ackerley understood the maharajah’s metaphysical anxieties, his love of eleven-gun salutes and of his ceremonial umbrella, his love of fantastic decorations and titles, and of his beautiful boy actors called “the gods,” and he understood his final need of an affectionate and literate friend from the West, where the king emperor lived. The novel makes this un-English mixture amiable, even delightful, while also suggesting the wearisomeness of the long dusty months in an Indian court under the Raj. The “ultimate meaning of meaning” slips away, but the maharajah is left “giggling up his sleeve,” as real and enduring in fiction as Christopher Isherwood’s Mr. Norris.
A few years after the publication of Hindoo Holiday, Ackerley became literary editor of The Listener, the weekly journal of the BBC, a job he held until 1959. He was a very successful—one could even again say “brilliant”—literary editor. On the strength of his friendships, and of his reputation for obstinate integrity and independence, he extracted reviews from a variety of distinguished writers of the time, many of whom were normally …