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Books: Paradise rediscovered

Peter Ackroyd's fictional account of Milton's flight to the New World crackles with wit. By Lucy Hughes-Hallett; Milton in America by Peter Ackroyd Sinclair-Stevenson, pounds 15.99
Peter Ackroyd's Milton doesn't write Paradise Lost, he lives it. Unlike his historical counterpart, who went briefly into hiding at the time of the Stuart Restoration but emerged to live undisturbed while writing his great epics, this fictional Milton flees to that terrestrial Eden, that world which seemed to 17th century Europeans as virginal as one new- created: America.

It's a strikingly clever premise for a novel, one lifted above the ruck of historical-hypotheticals by its ingenious aptness, and by the fact that it is not original. The pilgrim fathers and mothers conventionally represented themselves as the First Parents in a New World. The fabulous and far-fetched conceit Ackroyd elaborates when he identifies New England with Paradise has been, for 300 years and more, an essential part of America's self-descriptive rhetoric. This novel is not only full of biblical and literary echoes, it also explores a metaphor which has had tremendous political consequences.

Of itself, though, Milton in America is far from tremendous. It is an elegant, erudite scherzo, at its best when crackling with jokes. Its two main characters, who are also its alternating narrators, are Milton himself and the run-away apprentice whom he has renamed Goosequill, and who acts as his secretary and as his eyes. Milton's voice is (for Ackroyd, a brilliant pasticheur) rather surprisingly unMiltonic but its relative restraint and colloquialism is certainly a better narrative vehicle than the real thing. Goosequill, a quick-tongued Londoner, makes a nice linguistic contrast with his master. When the two of them are conversing Ackroyd's prose fizzes and sparkles as brightly as an electrical misconnection.

They are shipwrecked. Washed up stark naked on the shores of the New World, Milton begins his new life, and rapidly spoils it. He is adopted as leader by a community of pious Puritans whom he incites to fanaticism, violence and warfare. Simultaneously Adam, Eve and the Serpent, he loses Paradise for himself, for those who might have gained it (his fellow settlers) and for those who previously possessed it (the natives, from whom he recoils in abhorrence.)

Quite why he does so is not satisfactorily explained. True, the real Milton was a man of passionate convictions, but he was not a bigot. True, the Milton of this novel is, even before his Fall, over-persuaded of his own superiority, but he is also a subtle, witty man with sweetness in his manner.

The least successful part of the book is that which should be its pivot. Walking alone in the forest, Milton is caught in an Indian's deer-trap. Suspended by one leg, he finds that he can see again. He spends some weeks with the Indians during which time his leg is magically healed by a pow- wow. Eventually he accepts the sexual favours of a squaw. When he refuses to marry her he is turned away and, stumbling back into the forest, finds he is once more blind. On his return to the Brethren's settlement he has become inflexible and furious. The episode is neither plausible in its conception (as the rest of the story is) nor persuasive in its execution. Its excision might have weakened Ackroyd's plan, but it would have made a better novel.

The remainder is consistently entertaining and intermittently exhilarating. Ackroyd is Milton and Goosequill incorporated. He has the former's encyclopaedic frame of reference: quotations and echoes are buried thickly in his text. He has the latter's playfulness and acuity. Goosequill, on first hearing Milton preach, reports "He could put on a better act than any street acrobat or ballad-singer I had ever seen." I'd say the same about their creator, with the same blend of scepticism as to his high purpose and enthusiasm for his dazzling skill.