A meandering tribute to storied English river

"Thames: The Biography," by Peter Ackroyd; Nan A. Talese/Doubleday; 486 pages; $40

Now in his 60th year, Peter Ackroyd is one of those forces of literary nature that the world of British letters regularly seems to throw up —- 14 novels, five works of nonfiction, 10 biographies, two collections of poetry and two of criticism, a play, television scripts and even a clutch of children's books.

He's also been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and achieved sufficient popular success within his own country to command very handsome advances —- for which he has been resented.

All in all, he's a very English writer, not simply by experience but also by temperament. Once, asked by an interviewer whether he had come away from a biographical project liking his subject, Ackroyd replied, "That is not really a question I can answer. I try and understand him, thus making him live again for the reader. But it is as if you were asking me if I like one of the characters in my novels. You neither like nor dislike them. You have to bring them alive. That is all."

London is the great exception, because Ackroyd long has been deeply in love with the city of his birth. Twenty years ago, he mused that "London has always provided the landscape for my imagination ... and, I suppose, becomes a character —- a living being —- within each of my books. ... All of my books, biography and fiction alike, are single chapters in the book which will only be completed at the time of my death. Then I hope the city itself will be seen as a metaphor for the nature of time and the presence of the past in human affairs."

In 2000, Ackroyd took the plunge and declared his affection more explicitly with his sprawling (and bestselling) "London: The Biography." As we know, however, a river runs through it, and thus this new book, "Thames: The Biography," which, along with "Albion: Origins of the English Imagination," rounds out a triptych of what the author calls "historical sociologies" exploring the spiritual and aesthetic connections in the English sense of place.

Clearly, the author considers the Thames as much more than a river that rises in Gloucestershire and meanders poetically through countryside and capital, then on to Dickens' storied mud flats and the North Sea. In fact, something crucial about Ackroyd's approach to "Thames" can be divined from the British edition's subtitle, "Sacred River," rather than "The Biography," which the American version bears. The Celts, and, perhaps, the indigenous Britons who preceded them, regarded bodies of water —- and particularly rivers —- as sacred.

In part, the book's 15 sections and 44 chapters probably could be read in any order without significant loss of comprehension. "London: The Biography" had a similar wandering structure, but it mirrored the sprawling, wonderfully illogical structure of that great layered metropolis itself. If ever there were a civic monument to the beauty of John Ruskin's "changeful" architecture, it's London. A river, however, rises in one place and ends in another —- even a partially tidal artery such as the Thames, a large part of which rises and falls with the sea. A river needs its story told in just that fashion; it may loop extravagantly through the landscape, but you've got to proceed upstream or down. "Thames" seems to want to do both at once.

That said, Ackroyd is erudite and engaging, and individual chapters are a joy to dip in and out of. His command of primary sources and the vast literature connected to the Thames is impressive. Even there, though, he tends to strain for a spiritual significance —- often through literary allusion —- that the force of the material itself simply doesn't require. For example, a chapter titled "River of Death" explores the Thames' attraction to those contemplating suicide. The blackness and turbulence of the waters, Ackroyd speculates, exert a special pull on those bent on taking their lives. He provides numerous 18th- and, particularly, 19th-century examples —- from badly received poets to despondent footmen —- right down to their shouted farewells. Then, suddenly, this: "The paradigmatic death of Ophelia has emphasized the poetical nature of suicide by drowning, and those who rush to their deaths in the Thames seem to have been in part guided by tradition."

Really?

One would have thought they were prodded by a common experience of unbearable despair. Lacking so elevated a literary association, why, one wonders, do people throw themselves from the Golden Gate Bridge? Or, for that matter, into the Zambezi, the Amazon, the Mekong, the Vistula, the Hudson. ...

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