Dickens – Peter Ackroyd (1990)

It’s been a longer than usual interval between blog posts and this has been for two reasons.  Firstly, I have moved home from the Isle Of Wight to Weymouth, Dorset and have spent the last couple of weeks unpacking boxes and getting to know a new unfamiliar area.  Secondly, I have been reading for the last five weeks this beast of a book which comes in at 1195 pages in this edition.

It was always a bit of a no-brainer for me to get round to this eventually as Peter Ackroyd is my 3rd most read author of all time and Charles Dickens my 4th with between them 10 titles in my yearly Book Of The Year lists and here we have Ackroyd writing about Dickens – at great length!

In 2002 a condensed version appeared but I always had a hankering to read the original and seeing it in a second hand bookshop I could not resist.  And so I have spent the last five weeks lugging around this very heavy volume, keeping it away from removal boxes.  I started it stressed, not knowing whether the move would go ahead at all, it has been a companion through many sleepless nights, I carried on reading during the move which was also stressful to a more calm, settled time when I am beginning to recognise this strange new home I’ve moved to as my own.  It felt appropriate that Dickens who has always been a part of my reading life should have been there for me during this time.

I’d got a little way through and checking my records discovered I had actually read the shorter version of this book in 2007.  I had no memory of this, so this is in fact, a re-read although there is a lot of extra material here.

This is no doubt a labour of love for the author, the research seems meticulous, it is so detailed and you really get to know the subject.  Even though I have read Dickens’ biographies before (surprisingly even Ackroyd’s) I’m not sure how much I had retained about his life, especially as so much seems to bleed into his fiction.  Ackroyd has read everything Dickens wrote including he believes, all surviving correspondence, an extraordinary task in itself.  I’ve read all the novels once, although for some it would be 40 years ago and I haven’t read any of this author for 15 years since I struggled through the unfinished “Mystery Of Edwin Drood” and reading this made me really want to go back through all the novels again and surely that is a sign of a good biography.

Ackroyd stresses the importance of the background of the author in playing its part in the man he was to become.  From the child working in a blacking factory (this was not known by most family and friends until after his death and tainted his relationship with his mother as when he left this hideous working environment she was keen for him to go back to it) and his spendthrift father forming the son into a workaholic driven by his writing and later by his public performances which completely burnt him out and which some saw as his raison d’etre whilst others believed drove him to an early grave. There are occasional fictional interludes from Ackroyd himself bonding the biographer with the author.  These are quirky and change the pace but I am not sure what they add (I don’t recall if these were dispensed with in the shorter version, I suspect not).  The notes are well presented in a very readable commentary form and didn’t slow me down in the way that too many references and footnotes often do.

Back in 2007 I rated the shorter version four stars but this is a five star read, despite and also because of its sheer length.  It certainly has made me want to read more on this subject even though I may have just finished the definitive biography.  Also, lugging this book around at such a significant time in my own life has given it additional resonance.  I will not forget the time spent reading this book and for that it deserves my top rating.

Dickens was first published by Sinclair-Stevenson in 1990.  The abridged version (640 pages) was published by Vintage in 2002

Desire: A Memoir- Jonathan Dollimore (Rowman & Littlefield 2021)

This is a revised and expanded edition of a memoir which first appeared in 2017.  Then it was around 192 pages long, now it comes in at 232 so there’s a significant amount of new material.

On first publication it was critically very well received.  Jonathan Dollimore has a background in academia and is a leading light in gender studies and queer theory.  He has also packed a lot of social life into his time on earth, has suffered periods of depression and is a gay man who later on in life had a fifteen year relationship with a woman and is a father of two daughters.

His memoir is a combination of the academic and autobiographical elements interspersed with his journal writings at the time.  I’m not sure which of these areas has been the most expanded.  It’s all loosely hinged around a study of desire in all its forms including risk, a desire to live dangerously, lust and romantic desire, to occasional desires for death.  The writing is forthright and pulls no punches but it is this linking the memoir to this theme which doesn’t always work for me.  I would have liked this to have been tighter or abandoned.

I was more attracted to the autobiographical elements here- the motorbike loving teen whose life changed direction following a serious accident who becomes a significant figure in higher education (there’s little of this part of his life here) and becomes immersed in gay subculture in London, Brighton, New York and Australia at a time before, during and after HIV changed everything.  Modern autobiographical writing seems to have developed a distinct style over the last few years and its one where we can be offered intimate details yet held back at some distance at other points.  I’ve mentioned this quite a bit recently with Jeremy Atherton Lin’s “Gay Bar: Why We Went Out ” and Armistead Maupin’s “Logical Family” immediately springing to mind.  I’m not convinced it should be possible to read a memoir and end up not feeling that you know very much about the person writing it.  I prefer the writer to really let us into their lives which is why I was so bowled over by Dustin Lance Black and Grace Dent who both made my 2020 Books Of The Year list. Having said all this, Dollimore’s writing is seductive and kept me interested even when I was not totally following the points being made.

My criteria is a 4 star rating is appropriate if I feel the book is worthy of revisiting and I think this is a book which will both remain with me and repay re-reading at some point so this fulfils this criteria.  Dollimore has a good publishing team which will ensure this book gets seen.  I was invited to read this probably because of the other similarly slanted autobiographical works I’ve read and had difficulty accessing a digital copy.  They continued to maintain a conversation with me and sent me a physical copy.  I like it when publishers go out of their way to recognise us bloggers and I was rewarded with a read which often resonated strongly with me.

Desire: A Memoir was published in May 2021 by Rowman and Littlefield.  Many thanks to the publishers especially Tim in the Marketing Department for going over and beyond in ensuring I had a review copy.

City Boy – Edmund White (2009) – A Real Life Review

realives

cityboy

Edmund White is best known for his trilogy of autobiographical novels.  I read the first of these “A Boy’s Own Story” not long after it was published in 1982 and it has since become the classic coming out tale.  I’ve read all three as well as his 2000 novel “A Married Man” which probably ranks as my favourite out of these.  White is a highly esteemed novelist, literary biographer and essayist but I haven’t yet read anything by him which has really blown me away.

From a British gay man’s perspective I value very much his contribution to gay-themed literature but I have never had the emotional response from his work that I have had from Armistead Maupin, Alan Hollinghurst, Sarah Waters, John Boyne, for example.  Compared to these authors I think he can come across as a little too academic in his writing and lacking warmth- perhaps investing his novels with a richness of technical skills rather than empathy.  Admittedly, it has been a while since I’ve read anything by him and I’ve not read all but this is my impression so far and throughout the years I have been choosing my Best Books of the Year he has never featured in my Top 10.

Things could change with this.  Subtitled “My Life In New York During The 1960s and 1970s”, a memoir in which the struggling author relocates to New York and benefits from the cheapness of rents and the richness of the creative and literary minds he is able to surround himself with.  It is a significant period for New York as it heads towards bankruptcy and areas become violent and dangerous as well as a hub for civil rights and in 1969 a fracas at The Stonewall Inn changed lives for gay men and women across the globe.  White was there.

During these years White met many important figures in the Arts and provides almost rapid-fire character sketches and gossip.  Many readers nowadays will only recognise a handful of these names but that doesn’t matter as we’re drawn into White’s associations.  He also catalogues the increasing sexual freedoms of the era as lived mainly by those who escaped the repression of small-town America for New York City life. There are lovers, friends and sex partners and the many men he met tended to fall into one of these separate categories.  It was only in the era of AIDS, White proposes, that one person could fulfil all three roles.

My interest in this book was as much to do with the city in this period as much as the man and he conveys the feel of New York very well.  There are sojourns in San Francisco and Venice but the pull of Manhattan wins out. White takes us to the point at the end of the 1970’s where a new virus is looming menacingly, poised to wipe out many of the characters in this book.  (White moved away from NYC and lived in France for much of the 80’s).  He ends his account with a metaphor which I find effective and very much gives the feel of this book;

“I suppose that finally New York is a Broadway theatre where one play after another, decade after decade, occupies the stage and the dressing rooms- then clears out.  Each play is the biggest possible deal (sets, publicity, opening night celebrations, stars names on the marquee) then it vanishes.  With every new play the theatre itself is just a little more dilapidated, the walls scarred, the velvet rubbed bald, the gilt tarnished.  Because they are plays and not movies, no one remembers them precisely.  The actors are forgotten, the plays are just battered scripts showing coffee stains and missing pages.  Nothing lasts in New York.  The life that is lived there, however, is as intense as it gets.”

“City Boy” recounts Edmund White’s time in this vanished world.

fourstars

City Boy was published by Bloomsbury in 2009.  I read the 2010 paperback edition.