Hawksmoor: David Bowie Reading Club No.1

Being such a huge David Bowie fan, you can imagine that I jumped at once at the chance to join the virtual book club initiated by his son Duncan Jones. January’s read was Hawksmoor by Peter Ackroyd and what an interesting experience that was!

I struggled initially with the Samuel Pepys style and orthography in the 17th century timeline (although I enjoyed the diaries of Pepys and Evelyn in my late teens). I certainly preferred the 20th century timeline, perhaps because it felt like a more straightforward crime investigation. But of course it is nothing of the sort. How to describe the plot? In the late 17th century (or perhaps early 18th), Nicholas Dyer is an architect working with Sir Christoper Wren to rebuild London’s churches after the Great Fire. He seems to believe in pagan practices that a durable church building requires a human sacrifice (see the Ballad of Mesterul Manole in Romanian folklore (and similar to legends in all parts of the Balkans). Except that the folklore versions imply that nothing of artistic merit that is lasting and unique can be built without the creator’s self-sacrifice, while Dyer seems more eager to sacrifice other people, usually vagrants he finds on the streets of London. In the 20th century timeline, Nicholas Hawksmoor is a detective who is investigating some serial killings on the site of Dyer’s churches in London’s East End.

Past and present seem to brush against each other. Names, characters, places, events are mirrored, sometimes in unexpected ways, in both narratives, but it takes a very attentive reader to keep precise track of the similarities and differences. Certain themes are handled obsessively in both timelines: dust, shadows and time (running out of time, in particular). London appears as a sulphurous, sinister city, harbouring all sorts of evil thoughts and deeds, riddled with real and metaphorical plagues.

Certain streets or patches of ground provoked a malevolence which generally seemed to be quite without motive.

And for a moment Hawksmoor saw his job as that of rubbing away the grease and detritus which obscured the real picture of the world in the way that a blackened church must be cleaned before the true texture of its stone can be seen.

This is a multi-layered work and therefore open to many interpretations, but one aspect which stood out for me was the struggle between rationality (Sir Christopher Wren’s ordered, mathematical world – and that of Hawksmoor’s assistant Dyer) and irrational urges, impulses or dark passions of the architect Dyer and Hawksmoor himself. As someone who prides herself on being a rational creature of the Enlightenment rather than of dark medieval obscurantism, yet I keep demanding a pathos to go with all the logos, a heartbeat to go with all the analysis, I somehow felt stuck in the middle. But perhaps that’s the point: that these opposing forces exist in most of us. A fascinating read, but a bit exhausting, I have to admit.

I began to wonder if that was the reason why it’s been out of print: that maybe the patience and close attention required for such experimental fiction has fallen out of fashion. In my student days in the 1990s this would have been precisely what would have attracted me to this book: that feeling of co-exploration, of being made to work for your enjoyment. Perhaps true crime podcasts have replaced literary structural wizardry and the detective work required for piecing together clues finds its outlet elsewhere.

10 thoughts on “Hawksmoor: David Bowie Reading Club No.1”

  1. Oh, this does sound interesting, Marina Sofia. I think that dual timelines can work quite well if they’re handled deftly, and it is interesting to think of the duality many of us have as we approach life (logos vs pathos). I know what you mean about a book being exhausting. Those books get you thinking, which is good, but it does take it out of you, too.

  2. I read this back in the day when I seemed to have far more stamina for reading the hard than I do now. In fact, Your final paragraph is particularly interesting – I do sometimes think we live in lazier times, intellectually. Well I do, I am much lazier

  3. The tradition that the keystone of an arch should be fixed with blood-infused mortar opens (and deeply influences) one of the most beautiful books I ever read, and one of those I re-read often: The Left Hand of Darkness, by the recently passed away Ursula K Le Guin.

    In a world less biased against science fiction, and less sexist too, she would have gotten Ishiguro’s Nobel prize.

  4. I read this back in the day too and remember loving it but being a bit flummoxed. Like Lady F, I sometimes think my reading stamina has gone down about (although not the will to read) and I wish I had the reading time to follow the Bowie club but I suspect I would fall at the first post (or a fairly early one).

  5. I really love his non-fiction books – one on Venice, London and also the Thames but I don’t get on so well with his fiction. I end up feeling disengaged and confused!

  6. Ackroyd can be really hard work, and like your other commenters I don’t really have the brain space for it now. All the same, it does sound interesting and I’d like to give it try sometime – maybe when I’ve retired and have time to dedicate to it!

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