J. R. Ackerley
(New York Review)
Some of us count Hindoo Holiday as one of the great understated classics of between-
the- wars England. It's the story of the six months Ackerley spent in India, as tutor to one of the last great Indian kings. It's sly and witty, reminds one of Jerome K. Jerome with a bit of bite.
My Father and Myself is a totally different experience. It talks of Ackerley's search for his father --- an attempt to figure out what kind of man he was, to learn his true history. Like many of the Edwardian upper class, Ackerley père was a "large top-heavy figure,"
with his Elder Statesman look, his Edward VII hat, umbrella, and eternal cigar, his paunch, his mustache, his swivel eye, his... respectable life, his important business, his dreary office pals, and their eternal yarning about chaps putting their hands up girls' frocks...
Despite this parody of his Edwardian appearance, Ackerley, Sr. managed to create two separate families, completely unknown to each other. It was also possible that had a male lover or two when he was a young man in "The Horseguards." And --- the final twist --- he died completely broke, in 1929, from complications of tertiary syphilis.
Ackerley, Jr., spends a great deal of time berating himself for not getting to know his father before he died. But, as we progress, he spends even more time berating himself for his own life-style. He was gay, but typical of 20s and 30s England --- it was a country that traditionally put gays in prison --- he was secretive, ashamed, and turned his shame into a bitter self-
flagellation, much of which appears on these pages.
He reveals that he may have had 200 - 300 lovers --- none of them satisfactory, most of them lower class tradesmen and soldiers. He eventually fought with the one young sailor that gave him joy --- driving him away with the usual overweening hunger for possession that destroys even the best of relationships. Indeed, as we move further into his world, we realize that his search for his father is more a search for himself: the strongest emphasis is on the years that his father was a possible lover to one Comte James Francis de Gallatin, in a "secret orchard."
J.R. Ackerley's questioning of his father's friends and family takes on a desperate air, as if to say, "I want you to convince me that this desire I have --- the one that has given me no peace --- was also part of my father's life." And we finally get the decidedly strange confession of regret that his father --- in his secret second marriage --- managed to produce only girls:
I would have reproached him --- for failing, in the chance he had, to provide me with some more brothers instead of all those extra sisters. What a thrilling present that would have seemed to me then, some brand-new, teen-age brothers! They might even have yielded the Ideal Friend!
"All those extra sisters...some brand new, teen-age brothers!...the Ideal Friend!" It is a sad confession, made even sadder by the haunting note of regret that underscores his tales of passion. As we come to the end of the book (which was published only after his death in 1967), we find the search-
for- father transmogrifying into a bewailing of a body that never worked sexually, and a heart that never worked emotionally --- giving him nothing but hundreds of meaningless one- night- stands --- a dismal portrait of a balding, toothless old "twank," patrolling the streets in desperation, knowing he will never ever find the "Ideal Friend."
In the very last pages, there comes a conversion. Not to God, nor even to accepting his world of love. Rather, it is a paean to his dog, an "Alsatian bitch," who came into his life and gave him, at last, the love he had been seeking in the pubs and on the streets of London.
J. R. Ackerley's tale is probably one of the most dismal I have ever read. It is written masterfully --- but the self-hate and desperate cries of regret dominate its last pages so that it becomes less an adventure of hunting a secret father than a bitter story of one man's conviction that his days were meaningless and vile.--- Lolita Lark