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Chaucer's London, in squalor and splendor

The Clerkenwell Tales
By Peter Ackroyd
Doubleday, 213 pp., $24.95

It is becoming increasingly apparent to followers of Peter Ackroyd's work that all of his London narratives represent a single, continuous, unfolding text that demands to be considered as a unified whole. "The Clerkenwell Tales," his eccentric and wayward fictional reimagining of Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrims, inserts itself effortlessly into his long sequence of novels and biographies about significant historical Londoners. The novel is both an act of homage and a brazen case of literary plundering: Ackroyd has borrowed the voices of Chaucer's characters and used them to narrate a very different political story, told in short fragmentary chapters, whose meaning is much closer to Shakespeare's "Richard II" than to the original "Canterbury Tales."

Ackroyd's monumental revisioning of London began in 1982 with "The Great Fire of London," and he has added another book to the sequence every couple of years since then, acquiring an ever-expanding readership as he has done so. Significantly, his interests coincide at many points with those of the spaced-out, unorthodoxly religious English New Age: ley lines, spiritual echoes, paranormal experiences, resonant stones or buildings, and (above all) the tangible presence of figures from the distant past.

The important books in Ackroyd's exploration have been "The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde," "T. S. Eliot," "Chatterton," "Hawksmoor," "The House of Doctor Dee," "Dickens," "Blake," "The Life of Thomas More," and "The Plato Papers." The points of connection between these novels and biographies were made explicit in his grand, totalizing study "London: The Biography."

It is clear from this body of work that Ackroyd's conception of London depends on the idea that the ghosts of the past are imaginatively present in the contemporary city. Each of the ley lines or spiritual vibrations that he identifies is connected to a particular creative artist (invariably male) who is known to have taken an interest in spiritual matters. Whether he is writing about the Renaissance necromancer John Dee or the utopian visions of Thomas More, Ackroyd energetically reanimates his historical characters, and insists that their specters are still part of our contemporary landscape. This method works well enough for artists and writers of the 18th and 19th centuries, whose physical traces are still visible around the city, but with the 14th-century London of Chaucer, Ackroyd is forced to stretch the reader's credulity even further than usual.

Can Ackroyd's books be said to operate as a series of deliberately skewed reconstructions, through which the author conjures into being a haunted urban territory that exists only in the mind? Although his essays and nonfiction works show signs of solid research into the history of the city, the novels are defiantly antischolarly in their methods and procedures. Indeed, a large number of factual errors in "The House of Doctor Dee" were cataloged by Christopher Howse in a letter to the Times Literary Supplement in 1993. This was the first time that Ackroyd's scholarship was publicly called into question. The alert reader is forced to conclude that the documentary basis of Ackroyd's fiction is impressionistic and unreliable, though perhaps deliberately so.

The atmosphere of "The Clerkenwell Tales" is fairly desolate, as the novel sets out to overwrite the bawdy, lusty Chaucerian England of popular mythology with a cityscape that is sinister, threatening, and politically unstable. The Dickensian fog that makes London difficult to penetrate and hard to interpret is a running motif throughout Ackroyd's works. In "The Clerkenwell Tales" it acquires, for the first time, a religious meaning appropriate to an era whose intellectual life was almost entirely preoccupied by theological controversies. The fog and decay that characterize the 14th-century political ambience of this novel are, in Ackroyd's view, "allegories of sin." Yet there is no suggestion that demonic agencies might also be at work, and the fictional villains who inhabit these pages seem to be dementedly Machiavellian rather than, as in "Hawksmoor," genuinely satanic.

Viewed through the eyes of 22 Chaucerian characters, the story is animated by Henry Bolingbroke's plot to depose King Richard II. But Ackroyd posits a conspiracy behind the conspiracy: The Bolingbroke faction is seen to be under the control of a secret society, which goes around London assassinating its political opponents in a variety of bloodthirsty ways.

The conspirators' purpose is to challenge the authority of the pope and the bishops by spreading "outrage and confusion" among the citizens of London. They hope eventually to bring down King Richard and install Bolingbroke on the throne as their puppet monarch.

The Reformation is both an obstacle and an embarrassment for Ackroyd. He keeps reminding us that Chaucer's Catholic England is doomed to destruction, but his proleptic references to the approaching storm of Protestantism look clumsy and anachronistic. In context, it is worth remembering that the permanence and universality of Catholicism were unquestionable truths for the author of "The Canterbury Tales." It works to Chaucer's advantage that religion is a less complicated matter for him than it is for Ackroyd.

Chaucer's habit of poking fun at pardoners and summoners is not so much an example of impiety as a way of demonstrating that the Christianity of his age is solid enough to withstand criticism from within.

There are problems, too, with trying to fit Chaucer's pilgrims -- who are as diverse in their origins as in everything else -- into a story that is solidly focused on London. Ackroyd writes: "The Wife of Bath was as hard as London, some said, and as merry. You could no more rail against her than against the city itself." But he is asking too much if he expects his readers to swallow this, given that Bath is 120 miles away from London (a vast distance in medieval terms). "As hard as London" is an absurd simile to attach to a woman from the far west of England.

What sense can be made of "The Clerkenwell Tales" in relation to Ackroyd's previous works? One answer may be found in his biography of Blake, where he writes about Blake's unrealized project to make new engravings of the Chaucerian pilgrims. It is possible that "The Clerkenwell Tales" is meant to be the prophetic Chaucerian book that Blake planned but never completed. As usual with Ackroyd, dreams, visions, and history are fused together to form a work of tremendous imaginative strangeness. Even if we do not happen to share his apparent belief in spirits and magic, it is hard not to admire the boldness of this attempt to make the Middle Ages breathe again for the benefit of modern readers.

Andrew Biswell lectures in contemporary English literature at Manchester Metropolitan University, England.

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