January 19, 1986'The Highest Passion Is Terrour'
By JOYCE CAROL OATES
t the conclusion of Peter Ackroyd's ''Last Testament of Oscar Wilde'' - a work of fiction imagined in Wilde's own voice - the dying Wilde, exiled and dishonored, fantasizes entering into another man's heart as a way of salvation: ''In that moment of transition, when I was myself and someone else, of my own time and in another's, the secrets of the universe would stand revealed.'' At the conclusion of Mr. Ackroyd's new novel, ''Hawksmoor,'' this mystical transformation occurs as the spiritually exhausted Hawksmoor - a senior detective assigned to investigate a series of murders committed on the sites of certain 18th-century churches - enters into an alliance of sorts with the very murderer he seeks, a devil worshiper named Nicholas Dyer: ''And his own Image was sitting beside him . . . and when he put out his hand and touched him he shuddered. . . . They were face to face, and yet they looked past one another at the pattern which they cast upon the stone . . . and who could say where one had ended and the other had begun?'' It is a measure of the author's ingenuity (and, perhaps, his audacity) that while Hawksmoor is our contemporary, Dyer lived and died in the early 18th century. He is in fact the architect of the very churches in which the series of murders has occurred.
''Hawksmoor'' is a witty and macabre work of the imagination, intricately plotted, obsessive in its much-reiterated concerns with mankind's fallen nature. It is less a novel in the conventional sense of the word (in which, for instance, human relationships and their development are of central importance) than a highly idiosyncratic treatise, or testament, on the subject of evil. ''I like to make Merry among the Fallen and there is pleasure to be had in the Observation of the Deformity of Things,'' Dyer tells the reader. And, elsewhere: ''This mundus tenebrosus, this shaddowy world of Mankind, is sunk into Night; there is not a Field without its Spirits, nor a City without its Daemons, and the Lunaticks speak Prophesies while the Wise men fall into the Pitte. We are all in the Dark, one with another.'' (Half the novel - its most energetic half - is related by Dyer himself in the years 1711-1715. The other half belongs to Detective Hawksmoor, whose voice, like his imagination, is far less inspired.) By the end of the novel the reader is likely to concur with Dyer's conviction that there is ''no Light without Darknesse and no Substance without Shaddowe,'' if simply because Dyer's voice is so skillfully done.
Mr. Ackroyd's sense of drama is fiercest when it involves ideas rather than people. Indeed, ''Hawksmoor'' is primarily a novel of ideas, a spirited debate between those who believe (like Dyer and his fellow mystics) that ''the highest Passion is Terrour'' and those who believe (like Dyer's superior in Her Majesty's Office of Works, Christopher Wren) that the new science of rationalism and experimental method will eventually eradicate superstition. While Dyer argues that man cannot avoid the rage of evil spirits except by participating in evil, Wren and his fellow members of the Royal Society argue that man's reason will one day vanquish ''those wilde inhabitants of False worlds.'' Dyer's is the voice of the most despairing (and exulting) anti-intellectualism, a throwback to medieval notions of the necessary primacy of the irrational; Wren's is the civilized voice in which we should like to believe. As for the luckless Detective Hawksmoor, whose voice is perhaps meant to be our own - he not only fails to solve his case but appears, on the novel's final page, to have fallen victim to the malevolent Dyer himself.
At first glance this singular work of fiction would seem to have little in common with Peter Ackroyd's excellent biography, ''T. S. Eliot,'' published in 1984. But Dyer's obsession with physical corruption - in particular his disgust with sex - echoes the dysphoria of Eliot's most characteristic poems; his evocation of London as the ''Capital City of the World of Affliction'' and his scorn for the optimism of the Enlightenment strike an unmistakably Eliotic tone. Women are sluts and prostitutes. There is even a passing reference to ''hollow men.'' Clearly Mr. Ackroyd shares Eliot's high regard for the language of the Renaissance and for Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. Dyer's voice is often Shakespearean (echoing Iago, Edmund, Thersites, Lear) in its rhetorical brilliance, as well as in the extremity of its disgust, and one of Dyer and Wren's debates is a dramatic set piece that skillfully echoes the characteristic tone (mordant, funny, terse) of Elizabethan-Jacobean drama. Mr. Ackroyd is a virtuoso writer whose prose is a continual pleasure to read.
There are numerous set pieces here, all of them well done: a description of London under the siege of the plague; an autopsy performed by, of all persons, Christopher Wren; an evening at a London theater. Dyer's ''romantic'' churches at Spitalfields, Wapping, Limehouse, Greenwich, Lombard Street, Bloomsbury and Moorfields are poetically vivid, as is his encounter, as a boy, with a group of druid devil worshipers who convert him to their beliefs. (The crux of their religion is that ''Sathan is the God of this World and fit to be worshipp'd'' by emulation of his evil acts. The specific demons honored by Dyer's ritual killings are new to me but marvelously named: Beydelus, Metucgayn, Adulec, Demeymes, Gadix, Uquizuz and Sol.) IF ''Hawksmoor'' is less than perfect as a mystery-suspense novel it is primarily because Detective Hawksmoor is no match for his mad 18th-century counterpart: he lacks Dyer's passion as well as his uncanny sensibility. It is not surprising that he fails to catch his man, or even to grasp the pattern underlying the series of seemingly motiveless crimes. Nor is he conscious of the curious fact that he bears the name of the historical Nicholas Hawksmoor, who was Christopher Wren's assistant surveyor - the gifted architect of unconventional work who was responsible for the seven churches in which the novel's murders occur. (Nicholas Hawksmoor's dates are 1661-1736, not identical with Dyer's. ''Dyer'' is evidently a fictitious name, and one presumes the ritual murders are fictitious as well.) Many a reader may find himself as baffled by these baroque turns of the screw as Hawksmoor himself. As Dyer says in an aside, ''There is a Mist in Humane affairs, a small thin Rain which cannot be perceeved in single Drops of this Man or that Man but which rises around them and obscures them one from another.''
But in all, ''Hawksmoor'' is an unfailingly intelligent work of the imagination, a worthy counterpart in fiction to Mr. Ackroyd's much-acclaimed biography of Eliot. It will be interesting to see what this gifted and ambitious English writer will embark upon next.
Joyce Carol Oates, who teaches at Princeton University, is the author of the forthcoming novel ''Marya: A Life.''
'ONE STEP FURTHER!'
It is the Custom . . . to have the Mason's son lay the heighest and last stone on the top of the Tower. . . . This Boy . . . was a sprightly Spark in his tenth or eleventh year and perfectly well made. . . . He was in great good Humour . . . and saw it as a merry Enterprize, climbing out upon the wooden Scaffold and nimbly advancing his Steps to the Tower. The Labourers and the Mason, his Father, look'd up at him and call'd out How do you Tom? and One step further! and such like Observations. . . . But there was a sudden Gust of Wind and the Boy . . . seemed to lose Heart as the Clowds scudded above his Head. He gazed steadily at me for an Instant and I cryed, Go on! Go on!; and at this Moment, just as he was coming up to the spiry Turret, [ he ] fell from the Tower. He did not cry out but his Face seem'd to carry an Expression of Surprize: Curved lines are more beautiful than Straight, I thought to my self, as he fell away from the main Fabrick and was like to have dropped ripe at my own Feet.
- From ''Hawksmoor.''
WANDERING THROUGH HISTORY
Before beginning ''Hawksmoor,'' a novel written half in the cadences of the early 18th century, half in contemporary dialogue, Peter Ackroyd spent four months in the library of the British Museum, poring over tracts and treatises written 250 years ago. ''I wanted to assimilate the voice of the time, to train myself so I could write in that style without self-consciousness,'' Mr. Ackroyd said in a recent telephone interview from his home in London. Writing the book, he said, was like wandering in and out of history. This experience ''teaches you how the past animates the present, but it also makes everything slightly hallucinatory.'' Because of the book's dual time frame, ''I'm not sure whether it's a historical novel set in the present or a contemporary novel set in the past. That's one of the puzzles the book sets for itself.'' While friends have pointed out to him the more macabre aspects of the novel, ''the sinister side of it never really occurred to me,'' Mr. Ackroyd said. ''I see the book more as an intellectual puzzle. I became interested in two different styles and how they commented on the nature of fiction. Everything is slightly more ambivalent seen from two different perspectives.'' Perhaps best known for his acclaimed biography of T. S. Eliot, Mr. Ackroyd is currently working on a biography of Charles Dickens, as well as on another novel. ''Everyone told me I shouldn't write about Eliot because there wasn't enough known about him,'' he said. ''Now they tell me I shouldn't write about Dickens because there's too much known. But that's the challenge.''
-- Elizabeth Kolbert