Ackerley: The Life of J.R. Ackerley
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 unwilling to write reviews: E.M. Forster, Kenneth Clark, Herbert Read, Wyndham Lewis, W.H. Auden, William Empson, Georges Duthuit, and Leonard Woolf. All these contributors were more or less close friends of his, as were Edith Sitwell, Siegfried Sassoon, and Christopher Isherwood, whose contributions to the paper, if any, I cannot now recall.
Even though The Listener began as a semiofficial publication, being an organ of the BBC and subject to the approval of its bureaucrats, its literary and arts section was led into heterodoxy and controversy by Ackerley with a steady and unvarying purpose. His personal history as a homosexual had made him a campaigner for sexual liberation and for outspokenness, and contributed to his stand against prisons, against militarism and imperialism, and against all forms of censorship. Peter Parker recounts a few of his consequent clashes with authority. In fact, his arguments as literary editor with the BBC authorities were a continuous effort, almost week by week; and with stubborn and gloomy conviction, he contrived to remain his own master as editor, through many a surly rebellion, until his retirement. He hated squeamishness and he hated respectable caution.
It may still not unreasonably be asked whether a life of such a man can be of much interest to those who did not know him or his time in England, and what the grounds of the interest will be. Ackerley himself would have been surprised that anyone would want to read the story of his life, except in the form that he himself had chosen, which was to tell carefully selected parts of it in his three autobiographical works. He had an intense belief in the power of literature to preserve life, but only in virtue of unnatural care in the selection of incident. Holding a clutch of novels and memoirs for review, he would gloomily ask, “Who could be expected to read these? So much stodge.”
With its indirect description, speed in moving from incident to incident, lightness and variety in tone, Hindoo Holiday created its own public. It was written from the point of view of a man unnaturally obsessed with his own reactions, or lack of reaction, to his experience. Truly intelligent writers who know that they are obsessed with themselves, and who make their own specific failures in living the subject of their writing, are left with a common problem: the problem of converting their obsession into a comedy of egoism that will evoke a very general response and recognition. Boswell and Stendhal succeeded at the highest level. Svevo, Isherwood, and Ackerley more modestly succeeded in this century. One reason for reading Peter Parker’s account of Ackerley is to follow the formation of an egotistical writer of high talent, who wrote at least three books that will live for a long time in a quiet corner of English literature, alongside Isherwood’s Mr. Norris Changes Trains and Sally Bowles.
Peter Parker usefully describes the effects on Ackerley of his service on the western front in the First World War and of the death in action of his brother. His lifelong pessimism and detachment had their origin in those few early years. As a young man after the war he kept a diary, always processing and refining the style, at once ironical and elegant, in which he continuously presented to himself his own states of mind, as in the passage from November 1921 quoted by Parker:
I am so young, I think, as to be quite insensible. For I have been through much; wars, bereavement, starvation—there is no end. But have felt nothing, and shall never feel anything. And if I die tonight this, I hope, will remain, as long as my memory lasts, as the final word upon my nature.
He was always to think that his feelings were imprisoned, and that he was chained forever in solitary confinement, unless by chance he could burst out into the daylight of shared experience through some eccentric sexual attachment, which would turn into an authentic passion. In fact he made his escape from numbness twice, once unhappily, then happily, and he described the process with superb irony in We Think the World of You, a small masterpiece, perfect in form, subtle, and funny. He wrote to Stephen Spender about it:
I don’t often have a feeling about what I write, but I believe in this. It has a kind of structural perfection, like an eighteenth-century cabinet, everything sliding nicely and full of secret drawers.
He was right; it is a book without waste, short and profound. Evelyn Waugh’s comment in the Spectator on Hindoo Holiday applies equally to the later novel:
The difficulty is to control one’s enthusiasm and to praise it temperately, for it is certainly one of those books of rare occurence which stand upon a superior and totally distinct plane of artistic achievement above the ordinary trade-market, high-grade competence of contemporary literature. The danger is one of overstatement. It does not qualify for the epithets “great,” “stupendous,” “epoch-making,” etc., so generously flung about by critics, but it is a work of high literary skill and very delicate aesthetic perception….
Both modest about the limitations of their art, Waugh and Ackerley were in the Congreve tradition, which disdains the “stupendous” and rejoices in the limits of comedy: comedy backed in both cases by a deep pessimism and by distrust of themselves.
There is another theme alongside the maturing of the writer in Peter Parker’s story. For Ackerley homosexuality was both a cause and an addiction. Parker traces the network of similarly inclined friends in the literary world, at whose center stood the greatly respected and properly cautious figure of E.M. Forster. Forster was the governing moral influence throughout Ackerley’s life, his mentor, patron, and critic. Conscious of his secure public reputation as the author of Passage to India, Forster was always alarmed by his friend’s wide-ranging sexual adventures and by his fierce and resolute outspokenness.
There was not much bother about reasonably discreet homosexuality among writers and actors in Britain in the Thirties; but Ackerley was by nature a campaigner for unqualified liberalism and against respectability. In common with many men who had been in the trenches in the war, he detested the civilian equivalents of respected generals and smooth staff officers, whose authority in peace, as in war, was in his eyes really no more than pomposity and pretension. He was determined not to be discreet. For him sexual adventure was an escape from the prison of English middleclass life and from its dimness and its concealments.
His two passionate attachments, first to a young ex-guardsman and then to a German shepherd bitch, began with imprisonments. The guardsman was in prison for a time and later the bitch, Queenie, alias Tulip, was generally kept tied up in a small back yard and only rarely freed for exercise. We Think the World of You describes the metamorphosis of love as Ackerley’s emotions were transferred from the ex-guardsman to the beautiful dog the guardsman owned and imprisoned. The romance is completed in My Dog Tulip, which was intended to shock the public with its evocations of the dog’s world of sharply differentiated smells and of related defecations and urinations. Alongside the chapter called “Liquids and Solids” there is a chapter that is a superbly ironical and amusing account of a visit with Queenie to a vet.
What can be said of the compulsion to shock, the principal source of uninhibited comedy in Wilde, Saki, Waugh, and Ackerley? Parker quotes from a letter of Ackerley’s:
To speak the truth, I think that people ought to be upset, and if I had a paper I would upset them all the time; I think that life is so important, and, in its workings, so upsetting, that nobody should be spared, but that it should be rammed down their throats from morning to night.
About a poem which the young Ackerley had sent to A.C. Benson at Cambridge, Benson characteristically replied: “It touches a region that it is hardly safe to visit.” These were precisely the regions visited by the mature Ackerley. Literature should trample on the genteel pretenses, not for the sake of an ideal aristocratic extravagance, as in Wilde and Waugh, but for the sake of an ideal of spontaneity and freedom from inhibition, which might possibly be found in the working classes.
As London social snobbery, halfserious, gave the energy to superb comic style in Wilde and Waugh, so exaggeration of deviance gave the energy for a subtle comic style in Ackerley. He describes, in We Think the World of You, the end of the dream of the ideal, spontaneous, generous working-class man, and then there comes the fitting last step: falling in love with an undeniably spontaneous, and certainly uninhibited and high-spirited, dog. Ackerley was the only friend I have had who was in love with a dog and who settled down to live with the handsome creature. “In love” is the only possible term for the relation between this particular man and this particular dog. When Queenie died, Ackerley lost interest in living. Even as a busy editor he had arranged his days around Queenie’s need for exercise in open spaces and for the right kind of horse meat from the butcher. Queenie, with her turbulent emotions and changes of mood, dominated his apartment and made visits to him difficult and even occasionally dangerous. She was the center.
Many of his friends, particularly Forster, William Plomer, and Siegfried Sassoon, found this last and greatest of his loves irritating and unintelligible. But it was the natural outcome of a quest, a quest traced with delicacy and care in his books: How may two uncompromising creatures be harmoniously in love, each not interrupting the total self-centeredness of the other? When Queenie, released from her mean back yard, dashed across Putney Heath or Wimbledon Common in pursuit of rabbits, with Ackerley delightedly in pursuit of her, the ideal of love had finally been realized, even if at an unexpected biological level.
Peter Parker has chosen a subject which is some distance away from the mainstream of literary research and he has both justified his enterprise and been remarkably thorough in finding the facts. It is sometimes surprising, but also pleasant, to find traditional methods applied to this untraditional subject. The essential features of the man and the writer are certainly here. This is a feat, because Ackerley was an extraordinary person, turned inward and not much interested in fame. A film of We Think the World of You has been shown in the US as well as in Britain, and now there is Peter Parker’s serious biography. I would never have guessed that this would happen. Perhaps the publicity will introduce Ackerley’s beautifully contrived novels to a wider readership. Excellent comedy is rare, and pomposity is not.