English Music

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 440

Peter Ackroyd’s novels, like his justly praised biographies of Oscar Wilde, T.S. Eliot and Charles Dickens, are narratively engaging and intellectually stimulating, perfectly wrought gems of intertextual craftsmanship that nonetheless suggest even if they never quite prove the existence of a world beyond the merely physical and the merely verbal as well. This is the world that Timothy Harcombe inherits from his otherwise impoverished, widowed father, Clement, a magician, medium, and faith healer. More specifically, the inheritance is English culture at its most canonical, the compositions, paintings, poems, plays, and novels that Clement collectively terms “English music” and in which Timothy finds a haven in the heartless, and for Timothy literally motherless world of London’s East End and a haven too from the confusions that beset Tim as he gropes his way to early manhood. From the relative security of 1992, Timothy looks back to life with and often without father from 1925 to the mid-1930’s before leaping ahead to the present in the novel’s last few pages.

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That fairly straightforward story is told in the novel’s odd-numbered chapters. The even-numbered tell a different story, all in the third person and each in a different style (or combination of styles): the dreams triggered by events in Timothy’s life but rendered according to the literature he has read (or had read to him), the films and paintings he has seen, the music he has heard. Against the plainsong of simple Bildungsroman, Ackroyd artfully plays the counterpoint of Tim’s pilgrim’s progress, adventure in wonderland, great expectation, tale of detection, vision of Albion, grail quest, and the like. In doing so, he posits a number of vexing as well as parallel relationships: between father and son, original and parody, plainsong and descant, life and literature, faith and artifice. Whether the canonical texts of the English music so superbly parodied here offer any better access to the spirit world than the elder Harcombe did while working the audience at the old Chemical Theatre where all the “spirits of your past come in dumb show before you” is left uncertain. ENGLISH MUSIC is both truth and trick, healing art and pure hokum by an “ingenious contriver,” a perfectly postmodern Prospero.

Sources for Further Study

Chicago Tribune. November 1, 1992, XIV, p. 6.

Library Journal. CXVII, September 15, 1992, p. 92.

London Review of Books. XIV, July 9, 1992, p. 7.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 25, 1992, p. 3.

New Statesman and Society. V, June 5, 1992, p. 38.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, October 11, 1992, p. 7.

The New Yorker. LXVIII, November 23, 1992, p. 142.

The Observer. May 24, 1992, p. 60.

The Times Literary Supplement. May 22, 1992, p. 29.

The Washington Post Book World. XXII, October 18, 1992, p. 7.

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