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A Painful, Witty Oddity

My Father and Myself

by J. R. Ackerley

(Coward-McCann; $5.00)

J. R. Ackerley is not much known in this country and possibly never will be. It is a small loss but a real one. In Britain, although hardly famous, he has long been a connoisseurs' choice. (His admirers include E. M. Forster, Harold Nicolson, Elizabeth Bowen and Angus Wilson.) From 1935 until 1959 he was literary editor of The Listener, the BBC weekly (a very good review section, too). During his life he published only three books--a novel and two books of memoirs--and a play. He died in 1967, aged 71, leaving this posthumous volume of memoirs.

He was a very odd man. It tells little to say that he was an acknowledged homosexual. It tells a bit more to say that his homosexual activity diminished when he fell in love with a dog; and it tells something more to say that he used frankness about his sex and his canine infatuation as materials for literature. Two of his books, his novel and one memoir, are about his deep love for his Alsatian bitch,Tulip, and this posthumous book is dedicated to her. The quality of his feeling for her--no ordinary man-and-dog palship--can be shown by one passage from the novel, We Think the World of You, in which he describes their life together:

     In the morning she would wake me by dabbing a paw in my face;
     sometimes I would be roused to find her lying with all her length
     upon me, her forearms on my shoulders, looking gaily into my eyes.

In this latest book he says:

     One of my friends, puzzled by the sudden change in my
     [homosexual] ways, asked me whether I had sexual intercourse
     with her. It may be counted as something on the profit side of my
     life that I could now receive such a question intelligently. I said no.

Given the oddity of the situation, that last fact may be the oddest of all.

Ackerley would be little more than a psychopathic curiosity except for two connected matters: he wrote extremely well, and the quality of the writing creates a quality for the man. The same facts, told with equal frankness, would be much less interesting if recounted merely adequately or in mere clinical candor. With Ackerley, the reader keeps thinking: "But all this is true of a man who can write like this!" It makes Ackerley affecting, witty, and dignified. The taste and perception that are implicit in his style make us understand more than he actually tells us of how he felt about his oddities.

The most courageous literary act of his life, I think, was writing his play when he did--in the early 1920's. Ackerley had been wounded twice in the First War, captured by the Germans, then invalided to Switzerland in late 1917 where he was interned until the armistice. The Prisoners of War is about a group of British officers interned in Switzerland, and the hero, he says, is himself. (Including the epilepsy?) The plot is built on a discreetly handled but absolutely patent homosexual affair between the hero and another officer. Deprivation is not the argument; these men are quartered in a hotel and have access to women, so the hero is acting by choice, not in desperation. To write that play almost 50 years ago took some steel. (And it took similar steel for Nigel Playfair to produce it--in the West End--in 1925. It ran three weeks.)

Ackerley's first book Hindoo Holiday (1932) is about five months he spent in India with a charming, sexually congenial maharajah. I read it in the '30's, liked it, and, for obvious reasons, was reminded of it when E. M. Forster published The Hill of Devi in 1953. His next book was My Dog Tulip (1956), and his next was his novel on more or less the same subject (1960). Now this last book of his sparse career is an attempt to understand his father's character, their relation, and, through this, to reach some better understanding of himself.

Ackerley senior was an odd man, too--one of the many Victorians who lived wildly unconventional lives in that reputedly staid age. The writer was his second son, born in 1896, but the father and mother did not marry until 1919, although they had been living as man and wife for some time. After the father's death in 1929, it was discovered that he had had another mistress and three daughters. Further, as a young guardsman and immediately after, the father had almost certainly been the consort of two wealthy older men. In fact, the writer spends some time trying to prove that his father had been homosexual when young. (Life simply will not stop making crude jokes. Ackerley p?re eventually went into the fruit business and became known as the Banana King.)

Father and son liked each other very much. Although the father was what the English call "hearty," he understood the son's literary ambitions, offered without prompting to support him, and read the son's play with admiration. A most unusual man. Ackerley says he wrote this book because he never took sufficient advantage of his father's understanding and sympathy. He seems almost to be telling this story to his father, in belated hope of a couple of ribald stories in return, a fiver, and some cheer.

After the war and after Cambridge, Ackerley came to London and tried to be a writer--novels and verse dramas, etc. We can now see quickly what it took him time to discover: he had no creative imagination; he had only style and powers of perception, so could write only about what he saw and what actually happened to him. But that he could do with Edwardian precision and wit, in which sentences click neatly to their end like well played three-cushion billiard shots Speaking of two aunts:

     Over six feet in height, gaunt and flat-chested, with harsh voices
     And large hands and feet, Emily and Sally could easily have
     Masqueraded in the clothes of their youngest brother, my Uncle
     Denton, without the imposture being detected or their prospects
     in life improved.

The main drift of the book is not drily humorous reminiscence: it is an attempt at self-knowledge, with his father as the ground. He clearly admires, without jealousy, his father's social ease, which he seems not to have achieved. He never considers himself "fallen" in the slightest; the only pathos he expresses is that he never knew love until Tulip came along. He had been a haunter of homosexual pubs and promenades before that, even picking up guardsmen (as his father had probably been picked up). Tulip modified all that by loving him. And, quite unlike his father, he ended his life, as he says, with alcohol and animals.

Pity is neither sought nor forthcoming. His coolness deliberately prevents it--such passages as his technical objections to fellatio or the remark that "two or three hundred young men were to pass through my hands in the course of years." (What heterosexual male, however profligate, would have made that remark about girls?) The book can almost be exemplified in one sentence: "For a long time I disliked the smell of semen, unless it was my own." It is shocking; funny; extremely informative though quite compact; poised; and somehow very English. It is Ackerley's autobiography in little.

His style is his preservative and preserver. His jokes are both self-mockery and a mockery of the world for making mockery necessary. (". . . This superficial sketch of myself may be of value when I lie under another sort of sod.") The psychoanalysts of print can easily move in on him--his father arrived late in his life, most of his childhood was spent amongst women, and so forth. But the analysis cannot affect his literary quality. Minor literature, certainly, but any higher stature might have upset him. He was born to be rejected, in considerable measure, and to have the lonely last laugh by writing well about it.

Stanley Kauffman is the film critic for The New Republic.

By Stanley Kauffmann