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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Plato Papers

Peter Ackroyd

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To purchase The Plato Papers

Title: The Plato Papers
Author: Peter Ackroyd
Genre: Novel
Written: 1999
Length: 173 pages
Availability: The Plato Papers - US
The Plato Papers - UK
The Plato Papers - Canada
Le dossier Platon - France
  • A Prophesy

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Our Assessment:

A- : clever, interesting and often amusing philosophical musings

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
American Outlook . Spring/2000 Gregory Wolfe
Christian Science Monitor A 20/1/2000 Merle Rubin
Daily Telegraph B 29/3/1999 Ian Hamilton
Literary Review B+ 4/1999 David Profumo
The LA Times . 16/1/2000 S.S. Reynolds
The New Republic D 20/3/2000 Peter Green
The NY Times C 16/2/2000 Richard Bernstein
The NY Times Book Rev. B 6/2/2000 John Sutherland
The Observer C+ 28/3/1999 Tim Adams
The Spectator B+ 27/3/99 Philip Hensher
The Sunday Times B- 28/3/1999 Peter Parker
Time A 31/1/2000 Paul Gray
The Times A 25/3/1999 Michèle Roberts
TLS . 2/4/1999 Eric Korn
The Washington Post A 5/3/2000 Michael Dirda

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus whatsoever. Some love it, some think it is terrible. Some think the jokes are hilarious, some that they are not at all funny. Lots don't like the philosophy and politics behind it, lots don't care.

  From the Reviews:
  • "(L)ike the best science fiction, it is allegorical, suggestive, and strikingly imaginative." - Merle Rubin, Christian Science Monitor

  • "(B)rief and fairly frivolous (.....) (Ackroyd) is rather better at imagining the recent past than he is at inventing distant futures." - Ian Hamilton, Daily Telegraph

  • "This thoroughly eccentric book is due to be published on the last April Fools' Day of the millennium. It is full of esoteric flourishes and delicious strokes of fancy (...), and I suspect its appeal may be limited. But still, the hardback is sure to be a smart fashion accessory this spring." - David Profumo , Literary Review

  • "This is a book that shows its reader no mercy. (...) What on earth is all this about, or for? On the face of it, certainly, The Plato Papers seems too vapid a concoction to merit serious attention. It is set in a perfunctorily futuristic context, which is then made the platform for a sour all-out attack on contemporary Western mores. It harks back to the kind of pseudo-antique England celebrated by romantic Catholics such as David Jones or G.K., Chesterton, a reversion further overlaid with borrowings from Plato's Athens. This curdling mixture is then laced with simplistic and drawn-out literary or historical or philosophical jokes, most of them agonizingly flat. None of Ackroyd's characters, let alone the London that they inhabit, is even remotely real." - Peter Green, The New Republic

  • "It is difficult to understand how a writer of Mr. Ackroyd's proven talents could produce a book as anodyne and inconsequential as this one." - Richard Bernstein, The New York Times

  • "It is an odd thing to say of such a slight book, but it has its longueurs -- notably the exchanges between Plato and his soul and the Orphic expedition into the underworld that dominates the later sections. (Have Ackroyd and Salman Rushdie been attending the same writers' workshop recently, one wonders.)" - John Sutherland, The New York Times Book Review

  • "At times, the anorexic narrative threatens to flesh itself out into a semicoherent satire on millennial London. More often, it reads like a string of private cerebral jokes, many of which quietly fall flat." - Tim Adams, The Observer

  • "It's somewhat slight, and a faint odour of crankiness hangs over the whole as it purveys its theories about God, the environment, the universe, in the guise of future history. One doesn't know much about the future society; Ackroyd's interest is only in writing about our times in a tone of indifferent distance. (...) But all the same, even in a squib like this, he remains someone worth engaging with." - Philip Hensher, The Spectator

  • "Some of this is amusing enough, and would no doubt win Ackroyd a prize in a New Statesman competition, but the book is subtitled "A Novel". Like the Age of Mouldwarp, it consists largely of fragments that don't quite add up (.....) Much of the book reads as if it were a Victorian translation of a classical Greek text. This may be intentional, but does not make for a particularly lively read." - Peter Parker, The Sunday Times

  • "(A)n invigorating meditation on the changelessness, after no matter how many eons, of human nature and its uneasiness with the unfamiliar." - Paul Gray, Time

  • "His book is impossible to pigeonhole, being an invigorating mixture of satire, history, philosophy, morality and linguistic investigation. Formally, it combines the stiltedness of classic teaching dialogue with the folksiness of Sufi storytelling. It also reads like a spoof of New Age intellectualism; perhaps it's just a big tease." - Michèle Roberts, The Times

  • "To me the particular stylistic triumph of Ackroyd's book lies in its perfect emulation of the diction found in English versions of Plato's dialogues -- simple, clear and noble, with a philosophic calm suffusing every sentence, as if the speakers were framed against white marble columns with the air perfectly clear and dawn just having broken." - Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Peter Ackroyd's daring fiction The Plato Papers is worthwhile simply for the risks it takes. This "prophesy" is not your usual novel -- but it is not simply different for the sake of being different either. Clever, funny, accomplished, it is a neat little philosophical book for our age.
       The Plato Papers is a short book, 55 chapters generously spread out over its 173 pages. It is set around 3700 A.D., in a very modern London, and centers around a new Plato -- orator, teacher, philosopher.
       Ackroyd leads up to the novel's present first with a table of the names of the ages as seen from that time's perspective -- the Ages of Orpheus (ca. 3500 BC - 300 BC), of the Apostles (300 BC - 1500 AD), of Mouldwarp (1500 AD - 2300 AD), and of Witspell (2300 AD - 3400 AD).
       Four pages of epigraphs, chronologically arranged (from 2030 to 3705), suggest some of the transformations the world underwent in reaching the time of the novel, setting the stage for it.
       The novel itself has four parts:

  • The Lectures and Remarks of Plato on the Condition of Past Ages
  • The Journey of Plato to the Underworld
  • The Trial of Plato Charged with Corrupting the Young by Spinning Lies and Fables
  • The Judgment Upon Plato
       The futuristic London of the novel is not a place of technological wonder, filled with men and machines. Instead, it is a very sedate place that, unsurprisingly, on some level resembles ancient Athens (or at least what we generally now think of as ancient Athens). The city has been physically transformed, and almost no one ventures out into the unknown beyond it. It has become an almost literally timeless place, and its citizens seem to live on some ethereal plane.
       Plato is a highly-regarded thinker and orator, and much of the first section of the book is devoted to his lectures and remarks about "the past" -- generally the time that is our present. Only fragments and traces are left of our civilization, and Ackroyd amusingly pieces together a picture of what our world must have been like from these.
       There are some great sections here, notably Plato's discussion of "the comic masterpiece" On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (known to be by a Charles D. -- who is surely Charles Dickens). Plato also considers the works of E.A.Poe, who "described the characteristics of the American empire with great precision" -- and is taken entirely too literally by Plato ("the greatest fear of the Americans, however, seems to have been that of premature burial"). There is also the "comic handbook entitled Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious" by "a clown or buffoon who was billed as Sigmund Freud". Plato is certain that Oedipus was Freud's "straight man" and that they teamed up for a hilarious comic act.
       Plato is also working on a "glossary of ancient terms", allowing for more wordplay:
solitary confinement: a state of mind, much encouraged in the Mouldwarp period.
underground: the title of a painting of great beauty. (...) It is a masterpiece of formal fluency and, although the people of Mouldwarp are considered to be devoid of spiritual genius, there are some who believe this to be their sacred symbol of harmony. It is true that certain spirit names have been deciphered -- angel, temple, white city, gospel oak and the legendary seven sisters -- but the central purpose of the painting is still disputed.
       Finally, there is also "a long strip of images, embossed upon some pliable material" -- a section of film, of course. It is Hitchcock's Frenzy that has been, at least in part preserved, and gives Plato and his countrymen an idea (of sorts) of 20th century London and 20th century life. Needless to say, the picture they form from the few images they have is somewhat (Mould-)warped.
       Ackroyd's futuristic vision, while genuinely amusing, is not always immediately satisfying. Ackroyd relies largely on wordplay, and his use of language suggests that much has been preserved unchanged into the 38th century: his characters know the meanings of a great many of the words from our age. Plato and his fellow Londoners are very strict literalists in how they interpret ancient texts, words with which they are not familiar, literary fragments, and cultural artifacts. Many of their misinterpretations seem just too unlikely or far-fetched -- or simply too simple, jokes for the sake of the joke.
       Ultimately, however, we were convinced by Ackroyd's approach. The clues as to how the book must be seen are liberally sprinkled throughout, from the distance this Plato's time is from ours (some 1700 years) to the many similarities Plato and the future London have with what we think of as the world of ancient Greece (separated from us by a similar time-span). Indeed, most of our interpretation of Greek culture and civilization is similarly literalist (and no doubt as mistaken) as Plato's ideas about 20th century life. If nothing else, The Plato Papers is a convincing example of how easy it is to misinterpret and misjudge ancient (and, by extension, any) civilizations based on the flimsy evidence we have. (Our knowledge of Greek civilization is no more firmly founded than Ackroyd's Plato's is of 20th century life, and based on a similarly fragmented record and arbitrary evidence.)
       The Plato Papers would be a satisfying, amusing little novel if it consisted of nothing more than Plato's lectures and remarks, but Ackroyd is an ambitious author, and he adds another dimension to the novel. Plato begins to question his so firmly held opinions, wondering whether he might not be mistaken about the people of Mouldwarp. And he begins conversing with his soul.
       Plato ventures into the cave, into our world of shadows, and he speaks of this other, possible past world -- talk that does not go over well in that future London. He is charged and tried, and judged. There is nothing left for him to do but suffer the consequences, which he does.
       Ackroyd is never entirely predictable, and the book moves cleverly forward through its unexpected twists. The utopian London of the future allows him much leeway -- he can shape it to his needs -- but everything does have a purpose and it all comes together neatly in the end.
       A true, thoughtful philosophical fiction, The Plato Papers is entertaining throughout. There are bits which are not entirely satisfactory, and some of the jokes are too obvious, but this does little to detract from the overall enjoyment the book provides. Heady fun, it is certainly recommended.

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The Plato Papers: Reviews: Peter Ackroyd: Other books by Peter Ackroyd under review: Also of interest:
  • Fragments Shoring Ruin, a piece from the complete review Quarterly on the T.S.Eliot poem that also figures -- as a fragment -- and is interpreted in this novel.
  • Israel Rosenfield has some fun with Freud's Megalomania in a different exegetic exercise
  • The works of Iain Sinclair with his many London-visions
  • David Jones' classic, The Anathemata, a different kind of British history (with some striking similarities)
  • Ramona Naddaff conisders Plato in Exiling the Poets
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction

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About the Author:

       English author Peter Ackroyd was born in 1949. He has written numerous novels and several literary biographies.

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