Ackerley J.R.

J.R. Ackerley: My Dog Tulip

One of the hidden gems on this blog is J.R. Ackerley’s only novel We Think the World of You. So when I was disappointed by the next book of his I read, Hindoo Holiday, I decided my next visit had to be to the book I understood to be broadly the source material for the novel. (Ackerley’s method of acquisition of his dog – from a lover about to go to prison – is the same as in the novel.)

My Dog Tulip (1956) is presented as non-fiction but for the dog’s name: Ackerley’s dog was named Queenie (the name was changed for fear of causing mirth about the author’s sexuality). The connection with We Think the World of You is clear: the narrator of the novel is indistinguishable from Ackerley here, his strongest identifying traits being love of his pooch and disdain for the working classes.

To describe this book as a love letter to a dog is both accurate and inadequate. Ackerley described the fifteen years he spent with Queenie as his happiest, and when he finally had her put down in 1961, he lost much interest in life. Money brought in from winning the WHSmith Literary Award (for We Think the World of You) and the sale of letters E.M. Forster had sent him did nothing to alleviate his depression; indeed, he viewed the proceeds from the latter as “a sum of money which will enable [his sister] Nancy and me to drink ourselves carelessly into our graves.” This he more or less proceeded to do, dying in 1967.

However in the book there is no reference to this later darkess; My Dog Tulip was published during Queenie’s long life, and only an appendix from (I think) 1965 makes indirect reference to her death. (“She lived to the great age of sixteen-and-a-half.”) The book is composed of equal parts Ackerley’s almost pathological devotion to Queenie (hereafter ‘Tulip’, dammit) – and hers to him – and his frustration at the difficulties presented by daily life with her. One of these is Tulip’s untrammelled devotion to Ackerley, which makes it almost impossible for vets to treat her. Until one of them points out to Ackerley what might have been clear to him all along, had he not been hindered by his own love: “Tulip’s a good girl, I saw that at once. You’re the trouble.”

“Well, she’s in love with you, that’s obvious. And so life’s full of worries for her. She has to protect you to begin with; that’s why she’s upset when people approach you: I expect she’s a bit jealous, too. But in order to protect you she’s naturally got to be free; that’s why she doesn’t like other people touching her; she’s afraid, you see, that they may take hold of her and deprive her of her freedom to guard you. That’s all the fuss is about, I should say. It’s you she’s thinking of. But when you’re not there, there’s nothing for her to do, of course, and no anxiety. Anyone can handle her then, I’m sure. That’s all. Dogs aren’t difficult to understand. One has to put oneself in their position.”

Ackerley never seems entirely keen on putting himself in Tulip’s position, preferring to revel in his own trials with her, though not unsympathetically. We get a good deal on Tulip’s waste (a whole chapter on it, titled “Liquids and Solids”), and the way Ackerley describes his dog’s posture when defecating may give an insight into the level of detail he is prepared to go into: “Her long tail, usually carried aloft in a curve, stretches rigidly out parallel with the ground; her ears lie back, her head cranes forward, and a mild, meditative look settles on her face.” (An aside: did Ackerley really write “sidewalk” when describing where Tulip does her business? This repeated Americanism in the NYRB edition trips up the British reader.) The half-century vintage of the book shows in passages where Ackerley wonders, rhetorically and even incredulously, how on earth people expect him to prevent his dog from fouling the pavement – the standard practice of post-shit bagging evidently being some decades off. This chapter contains some lovely sensitivity born from potential slapstick, as Ackerley stays with friends and Tulip soils their carpets, leading to agonies of guilt for our man, not because of what Tulip did (she was never invited back) but because she had tried to warn him that she needed to go outside, and “I had failed to take her meaning, and nothing I could ever do could put that right.”

But this attention to what comes out of Tulip is as nothing compared to Ackerley’s detail in, well, what goes into her, as he attempts to have her mate with a fellow Alsatian of suitable pedigree. (“Although I had no profit-making motive in the matter, so beautiful a creature as Tulip should certainly have children as pretty as herself.”) Here is where even my high appetite for elegant self-enquiring sentences by a man who would be struck dumb if deprived of the semicolon, began to fade. It’s not so much the intimate elements (“Miss Canvey, I’m awfully sorry to bother you again, but where exactly is the vagina?”) as the sheer length of the subject: almost a third of the 200-page book.

Happily, the last chapter, “The Turn of the Screw” ends the book on its highest note, the same elegiac tone which made We Think the World of You so haunting. Ackerley addresses Tulip’s ageing and her closing seasons of fertility (“It is spring, it is winter, it is summer…”), reflecting on how he can “give her everything she wants, except the thing she needs.” (Inevitably, a certain question arises in the reader’s mind about Ackerley’s closeness to Tulip. That tricky subject is discussed, along with much else, in Joan Acocella’s superb profile of Ackerley in the New Yorker, from which I took many of the biographical details above, and which I recommend without hesitation to all, whether familiar with Ackerley or new to him.) Finally My Dog Tulip seems less an individual book than part of something larger, the recreation of his life which Ackerley undertook in his four published works. He comes across as a man difficult to deal with, unclubbable, snobbish, but penetrating and self-revealing. His capability for love, expressed almost exclusively through his “beautiful bitch”, is all the more affecting for the narrow circumstances in which it flourishes, rejecting people as it embraces Tulip. As she enters her final years, Ackerley is walking with her in the woods when he spots shards of a broken bottle, which could damage her paws.

One pounce upon this bottle, with both front feet perhaps… I pick it up. I pick it all up, every tiny fragment. I seek it out, I root it up, this lurking threat to our security, our happiness, in the heart of the wood; day after day I uncover it and root it up, this disease in the heart of life.

Norman Lewis: Naples ’44 / J.R. Ackerley: Hindoo Holiday

Chain bookstores come in for a lot of stick, often justified, but one initiative I applaud wholeheartedly is the Writer’s Table series by Waterstone’s. Here, authors select favourite books which are then promoted across the chain. Philip Pullman’s selection from last year included some very interesting choices: and in a world where prize shortlists and sofa chatshows deal in new titles only, where else would old books get nationwide promotion? The latest Writer’s Table was chosen by Nick Hornby, a writer often looked down upon but whose novel How to Be Good I thought surprisingly worthwhile. One of his choices is by Norman Lewis, whom my brother-in-law Will Self calls “one of the greatest of twentieth century British writers,” adding, for the avoidance of doubt, that “Naples ’44 is his masterpiece”.

Norman Lewis, Naples '44

Norman Lewis, Naples '44

Naples ’44 (1978) is subtitled An Intelligence Officer in the Italian Labyrinth: say what you see, Norm. It’s presented in diary form, covering September 1943 to October 1944. Lewis arrived shortly after the armistice with Italy was signed, and was involved in the considerable task of trying to maintain order after the collapse of the fascist structures. Part of this is the busy invigilation of mail and telephone calls by misguided busybodies:

The prize example so far is one solemnly headed ‘Illegal use of telescope’. This referred to a passage in an overheard conversation between two lovers in which the girl had said, ‘I can’t see you today because my husband will be here, but I’ll admire you, as ever, through love’s telescope.’ … In one case we had to make an entry for a suspect about whom nothing is known but his possession of three teats on the left breast, while another was described as ‘having the face of a hypocrite’.

A recurring theme is the grinding poverty under which the Italians are living, where limpets are prised from rocks and boiled “to add some faint, fishy flavour to a broth produced from any edible odds and ends.” The odds and ends include chickens’ heads and calves’ windpipes. Also “there is a persistent rumour of a decline in the cat population of the city”. We meet characters such as Vincente Lattarullo:

one of the four-thousand lawyers of Naples, ninety per cent of whom had never practised, and who for the most part lived in extreme penury. There are estimated to be at least as many medical doctors in a similar situation; these famished professionals being the end-product of the determination of every middle-class Neapolitan family to have a uselessly qualified son. The parents are prepared to go hungry so long as the son is entitled to be addressed with respect as avvocato, or dottore.

The adjective here is ‘colourful’, as Lewis details the intricacies and eccentricities of Neapolitan life, from the near-riot situations which develop as townspeople await the propitious liquefaction of a saint’s blood, to the legendary criminal defence lawyer, who once “delivered a speech lasting two and a half days, in which Browning and Shakespeare were quoted, and the proceedings at one point were held up to allow the judge and jury to regain emotional control.” Throughout, however, Lewis comes across – he would, wouldn’t he? – as sympathetic and gentlemanly, expressing disgust for abuses by British troops and general love for the people and the place he is battling to restore.

The book ends somewhat suddenly – Lewis discovers with a day’s notice that he is to leave Naples – which supports the veracity of the journal format (though no doubt there was a deal of polishing and editing before publication) but does leave the reader lacking a sense of closure of the story arc. Naples ’44 is nonetheless a fascinating and addictive read, and I’m delighted to see that several other titles by Lewis are available from the same publisher, Eland Books. I can see them become a new favourite of mine, with their qualities of elegant type, smooth creamy paper, and pages properly stitched like granny used to make.

Another favourite imprint of mine, needing no introduction on this blog, is Penguin Modern Classics. Recently they reissued J.R. Ackerley’s Hindoo Holiday (1932), which, like Naples ’44, is a travel memoir in diary form. The book is already available as an NYRB Classic, and I thought Ackerley’s novel We Think the World of You a little gem, so for all these reliable reasons my expectations were high. Inevitably, I was disappointed.

Ackerley writes beautifully about himself – his other two books are also memoirs, and the novel is considered strongly autobiographical – but for the most part here he is writing about others. He opens well with an elegant and effective introduction (“An Explanation”) detailing what led him to become Private Secretary to the Maharajah of Chhokrapur (“He wanted someone to love him – His Highness, I mean; that was his real need, I think” – the punctuation alone had me drumming my heels in delight). However, we quickly become bogged down in a repetitive tale featuring indistinguishable characters (a problem perhaps foreseen by the publishers, who provide a dramatis personae at the start by way of a key), some temperamental Indians, some ridiculous British. The latter do provide amusing dialogue for Ackerley to recount.

‘What nice hands you’ve got; too nice for a man. I hate effeminacy in a man.’

‘Yes, they are nice hands,’ I said, looking at them. They were quite clean and I had given up biting their nails. I was genuinely pleased with them.

‘Of course you’re frightfully conceited,’ she observed. ‘That’s such a pity. I hate conceit in a man.’

‘Do you mean about my hands?’

‘Oh no, lots of things. I’ve been watching you. I rather hate you.’

I did not say anything; there seemed nothing to say, and it was perhaps lucky that I didn’t, for shortly afterwards she said:

‘I love you now. You don’t mind me saying so, do you? I always make a point of telling people if I change my opinion of them. I think it’s only fair.’

‘But why have you changed your opinion?’ I asked.

‘I’ve been observing you. Yes, I love you now. You’re a dear. So you must like me too – do you?’

‘Yes, rather!’ I said enthusiastically. But perhaps I overdid it.

‘Well, anyway, you’ve done me good – not making love to me. Every other man I’ve met has. But I’m not conceited. I’m not, am I? I’m nice really, as you’d find out if you knew me better. You don’t know me very well, do you?’

‘Very well enough,’ I couldn’t help saying.

‘You’re the rudest man I ever met!’ she exclaimed. ‘Bar none!’

Otherwise, however, great swathes of conversation and activity passed without catching on my brain, and I’m afraid that by halfway through its 280 pages I felt that I was skimming the book. For that reason I append my comments on it here, shamefaced and secondary, rather than attempt to dignify them with a post of their own. But it is worth bringing to attention, because Ackerley is an interesting writer – I still intend to read his other books, My Father and Myself, and My Dog Tulip – and I expect others will get more out of Hindoo Holiday if they give it a better reading than I did.

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.

We Think the World of You

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:

“How disgusting!”

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.