10 August 2012

J. R. Ackerley: We Think the World of You (1960)

J. R. Ackerley's We Think the World of You is his only novel, although there are obviously strong autobiographical elements in this story in which the first person narrator is middle-class Frank, who is distressed because his married working-class lover Johnny has been imprisoned for burglary, and he now only has very limited access to him. During his imprisonment the reader comes to understand the complex psychological conflicts between Frank, Johnny and his wife Megan, Johnny's parents Millie and Tom, and Johnny's German shepherd dog Evie.

In his Introduction to the novel P. N. Furbank, a biographer of E. M. Forster, who was a friend of Ackerley's, states that '[i]t is a story, really, only about Frank himself', which I'm not convinced is entirely accurate, and the existence of the word 'really' does seem to suggest a slight doubt in Furbank's mind. I see it as a study of how the narrator (an outsider) relates (or rather doesn't relate) to an often antagonistic world, of how he develops a reclusive psychology to cope with outside problems.

Certainly one of the novel's major preoccupations is with jealousy and the triangles created within this affliction: Megan is jealous of Frank's possessiveness for Johnny; Frank is jealous of the length of time Megan spends with Frank; Evie is jealous of anyone coming near Frank, and so on – the world is a hostile place for Frank, and the end brings an oddly comforting (but parodoxically rather chilling) escape.

Ackerley called We Think the World of You 'a fairy story for adults', and perhaps there is something of that to it, but overwhelmingly it comes down to a love story of shifting allegiances. At the beginning of the book Frank loved only Johnny, but Evie begins to become a obsession with him while Johnny is in prison, and on Johnny's release Frank loves them both, but Frank doesn't seem to mind when Johnny disappears from the picture after he sells Evie to him.

Frank's social world shrinks to his flat and a triangle of mutual jealousies when his cousin Margaret moves in as kennel-maid and the dog strives to keep Margaret out of the bedroom Evie shares with Frank. In the end:

'I have lost all my old friends, they fear her and look at me with pity or contempt. We live entirely alone. Unless with her I can never go away. I can scarcely call my soul my own.'

But of course he wouldn't want it differently. The reader can certainly feel pity for Frank, who has effectively willed his exclusion from the outside world, the threatening human world with all its psychological complications, and to a large extent he has anthropomorphized his relationship with Evie. But contempt surely seems a foreign feeling to the reader.

This is an unusual love story about a man and his dog, unusual because of the intensity and the exclusiveness of its passion.

Below is a link to my recent blog post on the movie version of Ackerley's book My Dog Tulip.

Paul and Sandra Fierlinger's My Dog Tulip (2009)

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