Hawksmoor by Peter Ackroyd

The author claims that he didn’t know anything about writing fiction. “I can’t bear fiction. I hate it. It’s so untidy. When I was a young man I wanted to be a poet, then I wrote a critical book, and I don’t think I even read a novel till I was about 26 or 27.” Despite this, there are some very vivid descriptions, such as the boy Tommy’s sense of smell and how somebody can become destitute and homeless.

Is it a detective novel? If so, there’s no neat ending. It has been described as an ‘anti-detective novel’ because it subverts the genre.

The spelling on the old sections is hard to follow. If followes unofficial 18th century English (characterized by capitalization and Frenchified suffixes such as can be found in Samuel Pepys‘s diary.

The novel moves between times (the nearest example I can think of, of something similar, is Garner’s Red Shift) though much seems the same: there are still homeless people, the same nursery rhymes and weather conditions appear. One commentator remarked “more and more … reduplications of names, events, actions, and even identical sentences uttered by characters who live two centuries apart, until we are forced to conclude that, in the novel, nothing progresses in time, that the same events repeat themselves endlessly, and that the same people live and die only in order to be born and to live the same events again.”

Our last book was ‘too linear’ whilst this had parallel threads which were, effectively, two linear stories until the last chapter, Maybe some ‘flashbacks’ would have improved it. Postmodern novels organise narrative time in non-linear fashion. Ackroyd called his concept of time in Hawksmoor “the perpetual present of the past” which “re-emerges in the most unlikely ways and propel(s) his readers into a zone of full temporal simultaneity.”

Time is bridged by reincarnation and many of the buildings in the area covered have symbolic meanings. For example: The White Hart pub has re-birth connection because old antlers are shed and new ones grown. Café Evolution suggests continual transformation in order so as to adapt to changing circumstances. The Green Dragon House suggests a rebirth symbol due to the shedding of skin. It also represents power: green for fertility. (For more details, see ‘THE CONCEPT OF TIME IN POSTMODERN FICTION’ at http://facta.junis.ni.ac.rs/lal/lal2009/lal2009-10.pdf For more on Structure and Narrative Mode, Style, Symbolism, also, the historical background, and the occult versus the Enlightenment, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hawksmoor_%28novel%29 This article also discusses literary influences such as William Blake, T S. Eliot and Ian Sinclair’s Lud Heat)

Characters are contrasted. The rationalism of members of the Royal Society is dismissed: “The Company buzzed like Flies above Ordure” and Detective Hawksmoor’s detachment, shown in his  waiting for another murder is outwitted by the irrational.

There is a strong sense of place, known by some as psychogeography. The city is seen by many as modern, a progress of reason and order; for some, it is the New Jerusalem; for Freemasons there is symbolic order meaning in ‘the Square Mile.’ yet Dyer points out that it was Cain, the murderer, who built the first City. Dyer is sceptical of this: “They build Edifices which they call Systems by laying their Foundacions in the Air and, when they think they are come to sollid Ground, the Building dissapears and the Architects tumble down from the Clowds.” (For more details about psychogeography, see Paul Newland’s ‘On an Eastern Arc’: Reading Iain Sinclair’s interest in Christ Church, Spitalfields and its uncanny territory through East End discourse at http://www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/september2005/newland.html)

Wren’s words that “This is our time . . . and we must lay its Foundacions with our own Hands” are criticised by Dyer: “London grows more Monstruous, Straggling out of all Shape: in this Hive of Noise and Ignorance.”

Instead of a new city based on rational thought and science, Dyer sees a monstrous bee-hive, expanding too fast and obsessed with time and news.

Alternatively, it could be said that the East End, with its ‘raw’ life, is being pushed out by trade and capitalism; its chaos being encroached upon by ‘order’ as the buildings of the city’s financial sector grows beyond its boundaries.

Different people inhabit the city at different times of the day: suited businessmen during working hours, criminals by night. Although millions pass by the same landmarks, each has a subjective map of associations inside his head and approaches it from different reference points. However, there is something about Hawksmoor’s churches that draws history towards them. It is as if they were built on leylines.

Maybe some commentators are reading too much into what might just be a hodgepodge that subverts reason and where sanity and madness are mixed up. Maybe the whole thing is really a graphic description of Hawksmoor’s mind as he approaches mental breakdown.

In one review, a woman complained that it is a “very masculine book to me, not many women, lots of action, not so much introspection, and a lot of visceral detail.”

Some our members said it was a ‘page-turner’, not least because one chapter is incomplete without reading the next. Break at the end of one chapter are you are likely to miss the clever resonances and connections that follow

Others found the book irritating and difficult and wondered whether a book should speak for itself rather than readers having to google to get explanations and interpretations.

Maybe some of us might take a tour/pilgrimage to see these churches, stopping at the many alehouse en route.

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