Did you ever read a book that you didn’t like – and you didn’t know why? It doesn’t happen to me very often (I can usually tell you exactly why I didn’t like it), but this is the story of one of those books.
Chatterton by Peter Ackroyd is a book I read in my graduate Contemporary Fiction class. The book follows several writers in a few different eras, all connected to each other. Sounds good so far, right? Thomas Chatterton ( a real person) was a young poet in the mid-1700s that invented a medieval poet monk and published poems he himself had written, claiming that he’d found them in a church. The poems were very popular and critically acclaimed. Chatteron died before his 18th birthday – apparently a suicide – so we’ll never know if his talent would have grown. He is known as a forger, but of course he wasn’t really a forger. He just lied about being the ghost writer for a non-existent person.
We also meet George Meredith, a real poet who posed for a ‘portrait’ of Chatterton fifty years later, painted by Henry Wallis (the portrait image is on the cover of the book). In modern-day England , we have Charles the poet (fictional) and his family as well as Harriet the novelist (also fictional). Harriet is getting old and still ruled by her guilt and shame for plagiarizing the plots of a few of her novels, and Charles is ill and thinks he’s discovered new information about Thomas Chatterton – like the fact that he faked his death and wrote some of the most famous works of the late 1700s pretending to be famous poets.
The whole book is an exploration of art: What makes art great? Do we read/see art differently based on biographical information about the artist? Where is the line between inspiration and plagiarism? Is any work of art ever truly original? And how can you really know, even if you are the one who ‘created’ it? I don’t think there are any simple answers to these questions, and the book does not try to answer them, it merely gives the reader plenty of food for thought.
I can’t explain why Chatterton does nothing for me. It’s not a bad book. It’s not a boring book. It has interesting themes and characters, and my favorite professor loves it. I reread it to see if I could figure out what I missed the first time around. I did like it better this time around. But in the end, it just didn’t excite me. No light bulb in my head. Maybe because I didn’t feel like Ackroyd really added anything to the conversation on art he was so interested in. Maybe because all the writers in the book are sad creatures that come to sad endings (not poetically sad or lyrically sad, just sad). I don’t know. Still.