The Best of Brit Lit
Hallowe’en is nowadays devoted on both sides of the Atlantic to propitiating vengeful children with sugar. Once, it was a night to keep vigil for ghosts. In this sweet and spectral week, Jonathan Barnes discusses three new books of English ghostliness, including an historical treatment by the novelist Peter Ackroyd, not all of whose episodes "are easy to dismiss as hoaxes, delusions or as the consequence of weak digestion."
"To spend time with this compact, handsome volume in the darkening nights of autumn," Barnes writes, "is to lay oneself open to feelings of persistent disquiet. While there is certainly quaintness here, together with mendacity and unchecked superstition, some accounts seem tinged by the plausible, their most common attribute an arbitrary, haphazard quality. They do not possess the kind of satisfying narrative shape that might point to deliberate invention, and they lack also any symmetry or consoling moral. If there exists a context which might make sense of them it is not vouchsafed to us, nor was it to those who professed to have seen these things for themselves."
Ackroyd himself does not declare himself to be either a skeptic or a believer, but in his introduction he notes that it is “stating the obvious to observe that the witnesses here fully believed in the reality of what they had seen or experienced,” adding that “whether the reader chooses to believe in it is another matter.” Some of the glosses and asides that accompany his presentations make it possible, however, to deduce his position. He speculates as to whether it might be “possible that an event can be charged with such powerful emotion that its traces linger in the setting where it occurred”; and he theorizes that “the memory of human form” could be “held in the terrain itself,” toying with the conceit that “the ghosts of the dead are sometimes indistinguishable from ‘real’ people.” “How many,” he asks, “do we pass in the course of a day?”
The TLS also focused this week on politics, including some movements, such as New Labour, that have taken on their own deathly pallor. Michael White finds that even a sympathetic treatment of Gordon Brown "attaches the adjective ‘deranged,' ‘depressed,’ or ‘demented’ to his subject." The journalist, Steve Richards, he says has written "a grown-up book about Gordon Brown, one which gives proper credit to his intelligence and energy, to his idealism and his loyalty—yes, loyalty, sometimes even to Tony Blair—and does so without falling into the familiar biographical traps of sycophancy or disdain that Brown attracts."
Richards argues that both Brown and Blair became excessively slavish to American policies in order to remove the stain of anti-Americanism from Labour's past. White considers it "a persuasive judgment" that neither ever felt secure enough to escape. "To prove he was not anti-American, Blair embraced even George W. Bush and the invasion of Iraq, while Brown embraced Alan Greenspan and the wisdom of lightly regulated markets. They perished respectively in the ruins of Baghdad and Wall Street".
William Dalrymple’s appreciation of Bruce Chatwin, author of In Patagonia and On the Black Hill, addresses the "intriguingly unclassifiable" quality of his work, "mixing reportage and autobiography, archaeology and anthropology, art history and the novel of ideas... in a half-lit area between fact and fiction that Chatwin made uniquely his own." Dalrymple acknowledges that, recently, the "pendulum of fashion has swung against Chatwin," and that in his newly published letters, there is "much ammunition for those who want to dismiss [him] as a social-climbing show-off." But they also contain "insights into his life and writing", and, more than 20 years after his death, are "the closest we are ever going to get to a Chatwin autobiography."
Peter Stothard's latest book is On the Spartacus Road: A Spectacular Journey Through Ancient Italy. He is also the author of Thirty Days, a Downing Street diary of his time with British Prime Minister Tony Blair during the Iraq war.