Wednesday, November 18, 2009

`A Tub of Butter...Amounts to a Platonic Idea'

Thanks to a suggestion from Roger Boylan I’m reading The Lambs of London (2006), a short novel by Peter Ackroyd about Charles and Mary Lamb, and a young antiquarian bookseller and confidence man, William Ireland. Earlier I read Ackroyd’s lives of Blake and Shakespeare. He’s a gifted and prolific biographer and historian of Britain who draws on both vocations in his fiction. The Lamb book is headed with a succinct disclaimer:

“This is not a biography but a work of fiction. I have invented characters and changed the life of the Lamb family for the sake of the larger narrative.”

At least since E.L. Doctorow’s cartoon-like Ragtime, fictionalized lives of historical figures have constituted a popular sub-genre of historical fiction. I usually avoid such things, preferring nonfictionalized biographies of those people whose lives and work interest me (like Terry Teachout's much-anticipated Pops, which arrived Tuesday). Exceptions are rare – Thomas Bernhard’s use of Glenn Gould in The Loser comes to mind.

I’m reading The Lambs of London because of my love for Charles Lamb’s essays and letters, and because the novel is only 213 pages long. A mega-fiction of such material would cause indigestion. There’s much melodrama in the real Lamb story – Charles’ drinking and periodic madness, Mary’s fatal attack on their mother, Charles’ guardianship of Mary for the remainder of his life – but for this reader the plot, though skillful, is inconsequential. The pleasure comes from seeing Lamb, the most charming of men and writers, and one of the most admirable, walking about and speaking. Such enjoyment is not sophisticated and recalls the wonder with which early cinemagoers recognized pools of darkness and light dancing on the wall. Also, Ackroyd sprinkles his text, both dialogue and narrative, with references to Lamb’s essays-in-the-making. It’s great fun to recognize shards of “A Dissertation Upon Roast Pig,” “Grace Before Meat,” and “The Praise of Chimney-Sweepers.” (Go here to read these and all of the Elia essays). Near the beginning of the novel, after Charles has retired to his room to “study Sterne,” Ackroyd writes of Mary:

“She could hear Charles pacing the floor, in the room above. She had become accustomed to his footsteps and knew that he was preparing to write; he was placing his thoughts in order before he began. He was treading upon a narrow strip of carpet at the foot of his bed, and after three or four more `turns’ he would sit at his desk and begin. He had been introduced to the editor of Westminster Words, Matthew Law, who had been charmed by the young man’s discourse on the acting style at the Old Drury Lane; he had commissioned from him an essay on the subject, and Charles had completed it only three days later. He had ended with a flourish, on the acting of Munden, when he had said that `A tub of butter, contemplated by him, amounts to a Platonic idea. He understands a leg of mutton in its quiddity. He stands wondering, amid the commonplace materials of life, like primeval man with the sun and stars about him.’”

The passage quoted is the conclusion to “On the Acting of Munden,” the final, three-page essay in Essays of Elia (1823). Food and drink are everywhere in Lamb, and Ackroyd takes note. Mary calls her brother to dinner and he, the inveterate punster, replies:

“There is pork in the air, dear. The strong man may batten on him, and the weakling refuseth not his mild juices.”

“Francis Bacon?”

“No. Charles Lamb. A subtler dish. Buon giorno, Ma.”

For Lambians (Lambkins?), The Lambs of London reminds us why we love our author and reread him with undiminished pleasure. Two sentences before the passage from “On the Acting of Munden” quoted above, Lamb writes:

“So the gusto of Munden antiquates and ennobles what it touches.”

So, too, does Lamb's.

1 comment:

Gaw said...

I thought you might be interested to know that there's a Charles Lamb pub on Elia Street in Islington. A nice pub, which I can recommend. Here's the website in case you're ever in London and wish to make a pilgrimage (the Local Info section reveals it was renamed in 2005 so I imagine the landlord shares your enthusiasm):