'Another Look' launches second year with Ackerley's 'My Father and Myself'
Former Stegner Fellow Edwin Frank rescued J.R. Ackerley's overlooked masterpiece – and now the book will launch the second year of the Stanford book club. Terry Castle will moderate the Oct. 29 event with Adrian Daub and Jeffrey Fraenkel.
J.R. Ackerley led an outwardly quiet life between his flat in suburban Putney and his London office at The Listener, the BBC's weekly magazine, where he worked from 1935 to 1959. Though he was the leading literary editor of his generation, he was in no hurry to publish his own work – hence, his controversial memoir appeared posthumously.
Now his following is growing. It's likely to expand further when Stanford's "Another Look" book club takes on My Father and Myself, exploring Ackerley's life as a gay man and his determined outing of long-held family secrets. A book discussion will be held Oct. 29 at 7:30 p.m. in the Stanford Humanities Center's Levinthal Hall. The event is free and open to the public.
The evening will be moderated by Terry Castle, professor of English and author of The Professor and Other Writings. She will be joined by Adrian Daub, an associate professor of German studies, and Jeffrey Fraenkel, founder of San Francisco's Fraenkel Gallery for photography. The event launches the second year of "Another Look," founded by the English/Creative Writing Department.
It's not the first time Stanford has had a role in beating the drums for My Father and Myself. When Edwin Frank, a former Stegner Fellow in Stanford's Creative Writing Program, founded the New York Review Books Classics in 1999, none of Ackerley's books were in print. Frank republished all four – they were among the first titles of the eminent series that rediscovers out-of-the-way classics.
Given current critical esteem, their former obscurity is surprising, but Frank cites several reasons why this was so. "He published one book early on, and it was a success. Then he didn't write anything for years on end. If you do that, you will have a more vulnerable career as a writer," he explained. "My Dog Tulip was published privately. My Father and Myself was posthumous. We Think the World of You was published in 1963 – it was a relatively open picture of a gay relationship between two none-too-appealing people.
"Each of the books is odd," said Frank. "They don't match anybody's expectations. Ackerley's books are not good in the way people expect them to be good."
Ackerley was also an indefatigable editor, picking away again and again at his manuscript and at his memories – never thoroughly satisfied, never reaching definitive conclusions. My Father and Myself took decades to write, and was never quite completed.
"Every now and then I turn, with revulsion, to the family memoir I have been picking at and recoiling from for some 30 years," he told the writer Francis King.
King recalled his friend this way: "He was consumed by an urge both to know everything about himself and his antecedents, and to enable the public to know it. So intense was this hunger for truth-telling that even considerations of libel would not persuade him to make the kind of alterations deemed expedient by lawyers. That was how it happened; and that was how it must be recorded as having happened. If the truth must be fudged or blurred, then he would prefer to delay publication."
Ackerley, in his work at The Listener, admitted he didn't care if he shocked people: "I think that people ought to be upset, and if I had a paper I would upset them all the time; I think that life is so important and, in its workings, so upsetting that nobody should be spared, but that it should [be] rammed down their throats from morning to night. And may those that cannot take it die of it."
Such comments suggest a dour personality. But according to his friends, the witty author grumbled that readers overlooked how funny his books were – "grumbling" about being "funny" typified Ackerley's contradictions.
Castle agrees about the funny part: while she calls My Father and Myself "a revealing, honest, and often touching gay autobiography," she added, "It is also gossipy and hilarious: a marvelous document in the annals of literary indiscretion."
The indiscretion may not be so much the sex or the revelations, however, as much as the meticulous way he describes even the most embarrassing minutiae of daily life. Most readers, for example, don't really need to know that he and his mother were "martyrs to constipation," let alone the details. As Frank said, "It's a very English outrageousness – about most mundane things, and in immaculate prose."
As for his compulsion to tell all the truths whatever the cost, his biographer Peter Parker thought Ackerley's life held an important clue: "[T]he cost of not telling the truth lay all about him in the financial and psychological ruination of his family."
Ackerley's father died of syphilis in 1929, leaving behind not only a widow and two adult children but his "secret garden" – a second family with three daughters, which had been living in poverty a few miles away. Without any sense of contradiction, he left a note for his son: "I am not going to make any excuses, old man. I have done my duty towards everybody as far as my nature would allow and I hope people generally will be kind to my memory." His son kept his father's secret from his mother until her death in 1946.
Cynthia Haven writes for the Stanford English Department.
The "Another Look" book club focuses on short masterpieces that have been forgotten, neglected or overlooked – or may simply not have received the attention they merit. The selected works are short to encourage the involvement of Bay Area readers whose time may be limited. Registration at the website anotherlook.stanford.edu is encouraged for regular updates and details on the selected books and events. The website also has additional articles and information on the upcoming event.
Cynthia Haven, English Department: [email protected]