martes, 1 de junio de 2010

Chatterton by Peter Ackroyd

Peter Ackroyd’s Chatterton presents an enigma seen from several contrasting, some related standpoints. It seems to deal with the concept of authenticity and its consequences. In general we like things to be authentic. We like the people we meet and the possessions we own to be genuine. But what if they are not? Does it matter?

The historical basis upon which Peter Ackroyd hangs the plot of his novel is the life of Thomas Chatterton, the poet who committed suicide at the slight age of eighteen. Wallis’s iconic painting of the death adorns the book’s cover and its creation in the mid-nineteenth century forms a major element of the book’s plot. There’s also an eccentric English lady who has made money from writing and drinks gin incessantly from a teaspoon. There’s an art gallery offering some works by a famous painter. They are declared fakes.

Charles Wychwood is an ailing, none too successful poet. He has a wonderful relationship with his young son, and a cooler one with his wife who has grown used to supporting her husband’s apparent lack of achievement. One day Charles decides to raise a little capital in a sale-room, but then ends up blowing his money on a painting. It’s a portrait, professedly of a middle-aged Chatterton. So perhaps he faked his own death so he could continue his trade anonymously. The idea captivates Charles because he knows a little of the poet’s background.

Chatterton was born in the later part of the eighteenth century. He became obsessed with a series of medieval texts and started to copy their style. Thus he became the author of bogus medieval poetry, some of which he managed to publish. Unfortunately, he chose to publish not in his own name but in the name of a lost and forgotten medieval writer, thus passing off his own modern work as “genuine”. Writers, like academics, tend to regard plagiarism as a capital offence. But in Chatterton’s case, it wasn’t plagiarism, was it? He wasn’t trying to pass off another’s work as his own. He was merely adopting a pen name which implied that the material came from a different era. One brings to mind the myriad of pop singers, pianists, opera stars, actors or even television personalities who have adapted new names and apparently different personas in their attempts to open doors. What price a genuine article? I recall hawkers parading through Kuta in Bali with their open wooden boxes of watches shouting, “Rolex, Cartier, genuine imitation.”

But Chatterton’s mimic status was uncovered. Scandal ensued and he earned no more. Penniless in a London garret he poisoned himself. Wallis painted the scene, albeit more than a generation later, it’s apparent verisimilitude pure fake. We know the picture. The poet’s red hair contrasts with his death pallor. An arm trails on the floor, the open window above suggesting a world beyond. But, of course, the man in the picture is a model, none other than the novelist, George Meredith. He made it into this picture of faked death only because the painter fancied his wife.

So if the painterly aspects of the canvas might be genuine, its context is mere reconstruction, perhaps invention. Does this devalue it? But what if Chatterton did not die at that young age? What if Charles Wychwood’s painting of Chatterton in middle age is genuine? Did Chatterton fake more than poems? (Even if he did actually write them!)

Charles buys the painting and then visits Bristol to uncover some roots. He meets Joynson, an elderly man who speaks only in riddles. A box of the poet’s memorabilia is secured. Is any of it real? Is any of it genuine?

And so the novel unfolds. What is authentic is often fake and what is genuine is often impersonated. But if a painting is worth looking at, does it matter too much if it is merely the content of a painter’s imagination? Does it have to possess authenticity, even a pedigree to be an artwork? And so what if Chatterton did, or did not die? If he did, he died accused of being a fake, which he wasn’t, because he did write his poetry. If he did not die, then perhaps he was a fake, because in that case we have no idea what else he did not write!

Like all Peter Ackroyd’s writing, Chatterton makes the reader think. And by the way, Chatterton’s characters are themselves creations of the author. They aren’t genuine, are they?

View the book on amazon
Chatterton (Abacus Books)

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