Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3225
Anthony Burgess shares with many postmodernist writers an almost obsessive awareness of his great modernist predecessors—particularly James Joyce. The vision that Burgess inherited from modernism is informed by the anguish of a sensitive soul lost in a fragmented, shattered world. Each of Burgess’s novels reveals one central character virtually “at sea” in a landscape of battered, broken figures and events. Burgess conveys this fragmented worldview by means of many of the literary devices of his modernist predecessors. Often he employs a stream-of-consciousness narration in which his main characters tell their own stories; he also uses what T. S. Eliot, reviewing Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), called the “mythic method,” in which contemporary chaos is compared with and contrasted to heroic myths, legends, religious ceremonies, and rituals of the past. As Eliot remarked, the mythic method “is simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and significance to the intense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.”
Like many postmodernists, convinced that most literary forms are serious games devised to stave off approaching chaos and collapse, Burgess delights in the play of language for its own sake. Here again, Joyce is a prime source of inspiration: surprising images, poetic revelations, linguistic twists and turns, and strange, evocative words nearly overwhelm the narrative shape of Ulysses and certainly overwhelm it in Finnegans Wake (1939). Burgess’s best novels are those in which language for its own sake plays an important role, as in Enderby, Nothing Like the Sun, A Clockwork Orange, and Napoleon Symphony.
At the heart of his vision of the world lies Burgess’s Manichaean sensibility, his belief that there is “a duality that is fixed almost from the beginning of the world and the outcome is in doubt.” God and the Devil reign over a supremely divided universe; they are equal in power, and they will battle to the end of the world. In the Manichaean tradition—most notably, that of the Gnostics—Burgess sees the world as a materialistic trap and a prison of the spirit, a place devised by the Devil to incarcerate people until their deaths. Only art can break through the battle lines; only art can save him. The recasting of a religious commitment in aesthetic terms also belongs to the legacy of modernism. Burgess’s Manichaean vision produces such clashes of opposites as that between East and West, between the self and the state, and between a single character and an alien social environment. These recurring polarities structure Burgess’s fiction.
The Right to an Answer
This principle of polarity or opposition is evident in the early novel The Right to an Answer, in which J. W. Denham, businessman and exile, returns to his father’s house in the suburban British Midlands and finds a provincial, self-satisfied community engaged in wife swapping, television viewing, and pub crawling. He remains a detached observer, longing for a kind of communion he cannot find, and in his telling of his own tale, he reveals himself as friendless, disillusioned, and homeless.
The wife-swapping quartet at the Black Swan pub is disturbed by the entrance of Mr. Raj, a Ceylonese gentleman who is interested in English sociology and in satisfying his lust for white women. He plays by no rules but his own and espouses a kind of deadly Eastern realism that threatens the suburban sport. Moving in with Denham’s father, Raj unfortunately kills the old man by “currying” him to death with his hot dishes. The upshot of this clash of cultural and social values is that Raj kills Winterbottom, the most innocent member of the ménage à quatre, and then kills himself.
Throughout the novel, Burgess explores both Denham’s point of view and Raj’s within the seedy suburban landscape. Their viewpoints reflect the irreconcilable differences between East and West, between black and white, between sex and love, and between true religion and dead ritual. Denham’s stream-of-consciousness narration eventually reveals his own spirit of exile, which he cannot overcome. He remains disconnected from both worlds, from England and the East, and epitomizes the state of lovelessness and isolation that has permeated modern culture. This early novel clearly explores Burgess’s main themes and narrative forms.
Tremor of Intent
In the guise of a thriller à la James Bond, Tremor of Intent explores a world of “God” and “Not-God,” a profoundly Manichaean universe. Soviet spies battle English spies while the real villains of the novel, the “neutralists,” play one camp off against the other purely for personal gain. Burgess derides the whole notion of the spy’s realm, but he insists that taking sides is essential in such a world, whether ultimate good or evil is ever really confronted.
Denis Hillier, aging technician and spy, writes his confessional memoirs in the light of his possible redemption. His Catholic sense of Original Sin never falters for an instant, and he is constantly in need of some higher truth, some ultimate communion and revelation. In the course of the novel, he fights every Manichaean division, drinks “Old Mortality,” sees himself as a “fallen Adam,” and works his way toward some vision of hope. Finally, he abandons the spy game and becomes a priest, exiling himself to Ireland. From this new perspective, he believes, he can approach the real mysteries of good and evil, of free will and predestination, beyond the limiting and limited categories of the Cold War.
Hillier’s opposite in the novel is Edwin Roper, a rationalist who has jettisoned religious belief and who hungers for an ultimately unified universe based on scientific truth and explanation. Such rationalism leads him to the Marxist logic of Soviet ideology, and he defects to the Russian side. Hillier has been sent to rescue him. One section of the novel consists of Roper’s autobiographical explanation of his actions; its flat, logical prose reflects his methodical and disbelieving mind, in contrast to Hillier’s more religious sensibility.
Within the complicated plot of the novel, self-serving scoundrels such as Mr. Theodorescu and Richard Wriste set out to destroy both Hillier and Roper and to gather information to sell to the highest bidder. They fail, owing largely to the actions of Alan and Clara Walters, two children on board the ship that is taking Hillier to meet Roper. The children become initiated into the world of double agents and sexual intrigue, and Theodorescu and Wriste are assassinated.
Burgess displays his love of language for its own sake in exotic descriptions of sex, food, and life aboard a cruise ship. Such language intensifies the Manichaean divisions in the book, the constant battle between the things of this world and the imagined horrors of the next. The very language that Hillier and Roper use to tell their own stories reveals their own distinctly different personalities and visions.
Tremor of Intent insists on the mystery of human will. To choose is to be human; that is good. Thus, to choose evil is both a good and a bad thing, a Manichaean complication that Burgess leaves with the reader. In allegorical terms the novel presents the problems of free will and its consequences, which underlie all of Burgess’s fiction.
Nothing Like the Sun
Nothing Like the Sun, Burgess’s fanciful novel based on the life of William Shakespeare, showcases every facet of his vision and technique as a novelist. Shakespeare finds himself caught between his love for a golden man and his love for a black woman. Sex feeds the fires of love and possession, and from these fires grows Shakespeare’s art, the passion of language. From these fires also comes syphilis, the dread disease that eventually kills him, the source of the dark vision that surfaces in his apocalyptic tragedies. Shakespeare as a writer and Shakespeare as a man battle it out, and from that dualistic confrontation emerges the perilous equilibrium of his greatest plays.
In part, Burgess’s fiction is based on the theories about Shakespeare’s life that Stephen Dedalus expounds in Joyce’s Ulysses. Dedalus suggests that Shakespeare was cuckolded by his brother Richard and that Shakespeare’s vision of a treacherous and tragic world was based on his own intimate experience. To this conjecture, Burgess adds the notions that the Dark Lady of the sonnets was a non-Caucasian and that Shakespeare himself was a victim of syphilis. All of these “myths” concerning Shakespeare serve Burgess’s Manichaean vision: Sex and disease, art and personality are ultimately at war with one another and can be resolved only in the actual plays that Shakespeare wrote.
Nothing Like the Sun is written in an exuberant, bawdy, pseudo-Elizabethan style. It is clear that Burgess relished the creation of lists of epithets, curses, and prophecies, filled as they are with puns and his own outrageous coinings. Burgess audaciously attempts to mime the development of Shakespeare’s art as he slowly awakens to the possibilities of poetry, trying different styles, moving from the sweet rhymes of Venus and Adonis to the “sharp knives and brutal hammers” of the later tragedies.
The book is constructed in the form of a lecture by Burgess himself to his Malayan students. He drinks as he talks and explains his paradoxical theories as he goes along. His passing out from too much drink at the novel’s end parallels Shakespeare’s death. He puns also with his real last name, Wilson, regarding himself as in fact “Will’s son,” a poet and author in his own right.
Enderby is prototypic of Burgess’s preoccupation with the duality of forces that influence life: the struggle between society’s capacity to do good and the dilemma that human nature inevitably leads to evil. Originally conceived as a whole, Enderby was written as two independent novels, Mr. Enderby and Enderby Outside, for the pragmatic reason that Burgess wanted to tell at least half the tale before he died from his supposed brain tumor. One of Burgess’s most popular characters, the flatulent poet F. X. Enderby, was spawned in a men’s room when the author thought he saw a man feverishly writing poetry as he purged his bowels. Enderby is teeming with opposites, juxtaposing the sublime with the ridiculous. Enderby is catapulted into life-transforming situations as the outside world continually plays on and alters the poet’s sensibilities. Burgess, the writer, examines his creation, a writer, whom he happens to admire in spite of his foibles.
Mr. Enderby and Enderby Outside depict the difference between transformations that originate within the individual and those that society imposes on the individual. In the first novel, the very private poet is lured into marriage with Vesta Bainbridge, who leads him into a pop-art world that strips away his integrity and identity. Enderby achieves some success by prostituting his talent, but he is ultimately outraged when a rival poet gains fame and fortune by stealing his ideas, transforming them into a horror film. Enderby escapes from his wife and public life but is despondent and intellectually withered. He is taken to Wapenshaw, a psychologist, who “cures” him by destroying his poetic muse. Enderby is transmuted into Piggy Hogg, a bartender and useful citizen.
Enderby Outside is the mirror image of Mr. Enderby, transforming Hogg back into Enderby through a series of parallel experiences. Bainbridge has married a pop singer, Yod Crewsey, whose success is the result of poems stolen from Enderby. When the singer is shot, Enderby is accused of the murder and flees, confronting the chaos and confusion of the modern world and falling prey to another woman, the sensuous Miranda Boland. During sexual intercourse with Boland, Enderby is finally struck by inspiration. In the end, he meets a sibylline girl, Muse, who leads him to his art. Enderby is as he began, alone and free, but a poet.
In Enderby, Burgess shows that the master must come to peace with both his body and society before he can indulge in the intellectual. Shortly after the film version of A Clockwork Orange was released, Enderby returned in The Clockwork Testament: Or, Enderby’s End, which satirizes the writer reduced to production assistant by the film industry. Enderby dies of a heart attack when he sees the violent, pornographic film made from his novel. Just as British detective novelist Arthur Conan Doyle was forced to return Sherlock Holmes to life, Burgess resurrects his antihero in Enderby’s Dark Lady. Enderby travels to Indiana, where he writes the libretto for a ridiculous musical about Shakespeare. Burgess directs his satire at American culture, but his exploration of the poetic muse is sacrificed for the comic adventure.
Earthly Powers, Burgess’s longest novel, features perhaps his most arresting first sentence: “It was the afternoon of my 81st birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.” Thus begin the memoirs of Kenneth Toomey, cynical agnostic and homosexual writer, a character based loosely on W. Somerset Maugham.
Toomey’s memoirs span the twentieth century—its literary intrigues, cultural fashions, and political horrors. Toomey is seduced on June 16, 1904, that Dublin day immortalized by Joyce in Ulysses, and he revels in the Paris of the 1920’s, the Hollywood of the 1930’s, and the stylish New York of the 1940’s and 1950’s. His old age is spent in exotic exile in Tangier and Malta in the 1970’s. During his long life, he writes plays and film scenarios, carries on with a host of male secretary-lovers, and experiences the traumas of Nazism and Communism. He abhors the state-controlled collective soul, which he sees as the ultimate product of the twentieth century.
Burgess’s huge, sprawling novel displays a plot crowded with coincidence and bursting with stylistic parodies and re-creations. A priest on his way to becoming pope saves a dying child, only to see the boy grow up to be the leader of a fanatical religious cult akin to that of Jim Jones in Guyana. An American anthropologist and his wife are butchered during a Catholic mass in Africa: The natives there take the commands of the ceremony all too literally and swallow their visitors.
Toomey believes that evil lies firmly within all people and that his experiences of the twentieth century prove that the world is a murderous place. His Manichaean opposite in faith is his brother-in-law, Carlo Campanati, the gambler-gourmet priest who becomes Pope Gregory XVII. Evil remains external to humanity, the pope maintains; humankind is essentially good. In Burgess’s jaundiced view of things, such misconceived idealism produces only further evils. Any similarities between Gregory and Pope John XXIII are strictly intentional.
The world of Earthly Powers is Toomey’s world, a bright place with clipped, swift glimpses of fads and fashion. Librettos, snippets of plays, even a re-creation of the Garden of Eden story from a homosexual point of view appear in this modernist memoir. The style itself reflects Burgess’s conception of the “brittle yet excruciatingly precise” manner of the gay man.
Earthly Powers wobbles. More than six hundred pages of bright wit can cloy. Verbal surfaces congeal and trail off into trivial documentation. The pope’s spiritual observations impede the novel’s progress, encased as they are in lectures, sermons, and tracts. Indeed, Gregory is as thin a character as Toomey is an interesting one.
The book proves that Toomey is right: Things are rotten. No amount of linguistic fun, modernist maneuvering, or Manichaean machinations can change the fact that this is the worst of all possible worlds. Chunks of smart conversation cannot hide that fact; they become stupefying and evasive in the end. The nature of free will, however, and its legacy of unquestionable evil in the twentieth century pervade Burgess’s fat book and linger to undermine any “safe” position the reader may hope to find.
A Clockwork Orange
Burgess’s Manichaean nightmare in A Clockwork Orange occupies the center of his most accomplished book. The language of Nadsat, in its harsh, Russian-accented diction, the ongoing battle between the state and Alex the droog, the vision of an urban landscape wracked with violence and decay, the mysterious interpenetration of Beethoven and lust, and the unresolved issues of good and evil reflect and parallel one another so completely that the novel emerges as Burgess’s masterpiece.
The issue raised is an increasingly timely one: Can the state program the individual to be good? Can it eradicate the individual’s right to freedom of choice, especially if, in choosing, the individual chooses to commit violent and evil acts? Burgess replies in the negative. No matter how awful Alex’s actions become, he should be allowed to choose them.
Because the novel is written from Alex’s point of view, the reader sympathizes with him, despite his acts of rape and mayhem. Alex loves Beethoven; he “shines artistic”; he is brighter than his ghoulish friends; he is rejected by his parents. He is in all ways superior to the foul futuristic landscape that surrounds him. When the state brainwashes him, the reader experiences his pain in a personal, forthright manner. The violence in the rest of the book falls on outsiders and remains distanced by the very language Alex uses to describe his actions.
Burgess’s slang creates a strange and distant world. The reader approaches the novel as an outsider to that world and must try diligently to decode it to understand it. Never has Burgess used language so effectively to create the very atmosphere of his fiction. The Russian-influenced slang of the novel is a tour de force of the highest order and yet functions perfectly as a reflection of Alex’s state of mind and of the society of which he is a rebellious member.
The world of A Clockwork Orange recognizes only power and political force. All talk of free will dissolves before such a harrowing place of behaviorist psychologists and social controllers. In such a world, individual freedom remains a myth, not a reality—a matter of faith, not an ultimate truth. Everyone is in some sense a clockwork orange, a victim of his or her society, compelled to act in a social order that celebrates only power, manipulation, and control.
Even the cyclical form of A Clockwork Orange reveals a world trapped within its own inevitable patterns. At first, Alex victimizes those around him. He in turn is victimized by the state. In the third and final part of the novel, he returns to victimize other people once again: “I was cured all right.” Victimization remains the only reality here. There are no loopholes, no escape hatches from the vicious pattern. The frightening cityscape at night, the harsh language, the paradoxical personality of Alex, the collaborationist or revolutionary tactics of Alex’s “friends,” and the very shape of the novel reinforce this recognition of utter entrapment and human decay. “Oh, my brothers,” Alex addresses his readers, as Eliot in The Waste Land (1922) quotes Charles Baudelaire: “Hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère.”
Despite Burgess’s pessimistic vision of contemporary life and the creative soul’s place in it, the best of his novels still reveal a commitment to literature as a serious ceremony, as a game that the reader and the writer must continue to play, if only to transcend momentarily the horrors of Western civilization in the twentieth century.
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