December 8, 2007
J.R. Ackerley: We Think the World of You
Having just done the online equivalent of a trolley dash through the NYRB Classics on Amazon, I warn you to expect more of these handsome volumes cropping up here in the coming weeks. Here we have We Think the World of You (1960), the only novel from literary editor J.R. Ackerley, which is described on the back cover as “hugely funny” (by the Glasgow Herald) and “a fairy tale for adults” (by Ackerley himself). I don’t really agree with either of those, but it’s still a delightful discovery which charmed and disarmed me.
Apparently the novel is a reworking of Ackerley’s memoir My Dog Tulip (that’s one NYRB title I don’t need to get then) and in fact the German Shepherd pictured on the striking cover is his own. Our narrator, Frank, is a well-to-do middle-aged man who is in love with a younger married man called Johnny. We never have explicit details of how intimately they know one another, though Frank’s brief but adoring descriptions of Johnny’s body (“the whole of his smooth, unblemished torso glowed … as though bathed in perpetual sunlight”) reveal enough.
Johnny, a working class boy not made good, is in prison for housebreaking, and Frank (“unwilling to assist him, unable to give him up”) visits; Johnny wants Frank to look after his dog Evie while he’s ‘away’ but is met by rebuff (“Couldn’t you feed ‘er when you come ‘ome of an evening?” “But I don’t always come home of an evening”). Meanwhile Frank, in an attempt to stay close to his beloved, begins to visit Johnny’s family, which is the source of some comic misunderstandings and a fair amount of snobbery:
I noticed at once that, in my short absence, the window had been closed. The working classes, I reflected with a shrug, have an ineradicable belief that the colds from which they constantly suffer are due to fresh air rather than to the lack of it.
As usual, here the first person narrative tells us more about the speaker than his ostensible subject. So it is throughout the book: although it is a story about a dog, and how Evie acts as both a surrogate for Johnny – Frank ends up deeply in love all over again – and a link to him, really the book is all about Frank. Naturally he hates Johnny’s wife Megan, but gets on with his mother Millie (“an exceptionally strong bond united us, we were both bewitched by her son”) but not father Tom. He is jealous of anyone who is close to Johnny, as he rolls in agonies over Johnny’s repeated failure to write to him, or to grant him one of his precious permitted visits. In time his adoration of Evie becomes total and the whole of Frank’s feelings are played out in vigorous exchanges with Millie:
“She had Tom’s slippers last week! You remember, the red ones I gave him for Christmas? And you should have seen Tom’s face when he come home and found what she done. Laugh! You couldn’t ‘elp but laugh! Oh, but he did pay her for that! He took off his belt to her. ‘You didn’t ought to ‘it ‘er like that, Tom,’ I said, but he only told me to mind me business. Oh he did give it ‘er!”
For a moment I could not speak. I was trembling with rage and indignation. Then I said violently:
Millie glanced at me in a startled way.
“Of course he was sorry afterwards,” she said in her slow voice. “I could see that. He made an extra fuss of her that evening.”
“Does he beat her often?” I asked, with a sick feeling looking at the brilliant and extraordinary face by the door.
“I wouldn’t say often,” replied Millie mildly. “He gets a bit ratty with her at times when he’s in a bad mood or his back’s been playing him up. But you mustn’t go thinking that Tom’s a cruel man, for he’s not. He’s a kind man at heart, and he’s fond of her. Oh yes, he thinks the world of her, he do.”
“Just like your Johnny does of me!” I said, getting up.
This phrase, as the superb title suggests, is the key to the book. Everyone in Johnny’s family “thinks the world of” everyone else, when to Frank this is nothing but the cruellest insult as his own feelings seem increasingly unrequited, except by Evie the family dog. And the ‘world’ in question brings to mind the insurmountable class differences in operation too.
Yes, [Evie] knew [Johnny] thought the world of her; but possibly, I reflected, she guessed, as I now did, what the world amounted to, and that what he had just done for us was, of all things she wanted, the most she would ever get, and that she could not count even on that.
We Think the World of You has a formal perfection too, with not only a central character – a non-human one at that – who acts as symbol and representation for so much, and whose purpose changes as the story matures, but also a impeccable ending of solemn resignation and and a warning to be careful what we wish for. My only criticism is that the coda to the main story which leads to this tragic conclusion (“that leads me into deep waters, too deep for fathoming; it leads me into the darkness of my own mind”), introduces an almost new character and seems rushed through. It was nothing I couldn’t live with though, given the unique and brilliant nature of everything before.