'English Music' celebrates England and its arts

November 22, 1992|By Zofia Smardz


Peter Ackroyd.


400 pages. $23. This latest book by Peter Ackroyd, the energetic British

novelist-critic-biographer, is not, as the title might suggest, a treatise on the brilliance of Purcell and Handel and Britten and other composers of the Sceptered Isle, although their glorious oeuvre is included in the author's far-reaching embrace. Rather, "English Music" is a book about all of English art -- the whole vast canvas of literature, painting and music, reverberating in the life and character of a nation and bringing it wisdom, wealth, honor and immortality all in one.

But Mr. Ackroyd, never one to keep things simple, is not only concerned with paying tribute to the forces that drive the creative soul, but also with examining the mysteries of time; the indivisibility of past, present and future; the fusion of fantasy and reality, and the nature of inheritance -- that invisible mantle of qualities and tendencies that passes inexplicably but inevitably from generation to generation to define a person or a people.

These are rich musings, vast and worthy considerations. What a pity that they're wasted on this slight work. "English Music" is a curious novel-cum-literary pastiche that can't support its author's ambitions,with a slender framework that sags under the weight of its creator's exalted intentions.

In the depressed London of the 1920s, Timothy Harcombe is a young boy, unknowingly possessed of extraordinary powers, who assists his faith-healer father at spiritual meetings in a back-street theater. Together, father and son perform amazing cures and bring comfort to scores of unhappy people, in the process winning their own circle of devoted misfit followers. Away from the theater, they study together the great works of English culture.

This blissful experience is shattered when Timothy's maternal grandparents sue to remove him from his father's care and take him off to the country to live with them. Not much more happens than this. Timothy goes to school, grows up, wonders where he came from and where he's going, seeks out his father again as a young adult.

What distinguishes the narrative is that from time to time (every other chapter, in fact), at various stages and turning points in his life, Timothy goes into odd trances in which he "dreams" himself in the middle of some masterpiece of English culture -- chasing about with Alice in Wonderland, consorting with Pip in "Great Expectations," or wandering through landscapes by Turner.

This is very clever as a way of demonstrating how great works of art permeate the consciousness of a people, how they assist us in times of anxiety, enhance our existence in times of drought. The pastiches themselves are, for the most part, adroitly and convincingly written.

Unfortunately, cleverness is about where it stops. Timothy and his father are metaphorical artists, metaphors for the generations, metaphors for past and present, and not much more. For all Mr. Ackroyd's attempts to give them specific human peculiarities, they never come alive as characters themselves. .

The result is a brilliant exercise in literary form, loaded with philosophical meditations that might have been better served by a real story with real characters. "English Music" is a marvelous paean to England and its arts. But as a work of art itself, it's unlikely to enter the lofty cultural pantheon it celebrates.

Ms. Smardz is a writer living in Washington.

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