Burgess, Anthony (Vol. 4)
Burgess, Anthony 1917–
An English novelist, critic, essayist, and composer, Burgess writes brilliant and fiendishly witty novels. His best known work is A Clockwork Orange. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
Nothing like the Sun is a clever, tightly constructed book, reminiscent in its much smaller and more sensational way of Mann's Doctor Faustus, full of the author's old verbal ingenuity (with something of Shakespeare's to boot), and likely to be one of the most remarkable (if most ambiguous) celebrations of the Bard's quatercentenary—although what it celebrates is pretty clearly something other than the Bard. It is a tour de force: a little too much force has been applied, in the wrong places. Mr Burgess has set himself so awesome a task that it seems hardly proper to complain at all. Only a gifted word-boy could have managed an Elizabethan-style idiom which most of the time strikes one as simply good lively English, if rather gamy. Of minor false notes there are few….
The false note, it seems to me, is not a minor one, and it peals out full-bodiedly. In the case of a book subtitled 'A Story of Shakespeare's Love-life' it would be perverse to complain of the amount of sex present. But the point here is not the amount but the nature of it. Mr Burgess's narrative might help to account for the rougher bits in the Sonnets, for Lear's remarks on the gentler sex, for Othello, Troilus, Leontes—but not for Hermione, Miranda, Imogen, Cordelia, nor exactly for that other dark lady, the serpent of old Nile. WS's sexual history—love-life seems hardly the word—is not so much grim or terrible as horrific and grotesque.
D. J. Enright, "A Modern Disease: Anthony Burgess's Shakespeare" (1964), in his Man Is An Onion: Reviews and Essays (© 1972 by D. J. Enright; reprinted by permission of Open Court Publishing Co. and Chatto & Windus), Open Court, 1972, pp. 39-43.
If language is the house of being, Anthony Burgess has always gone with a pair and three of a kind and, in MF, his thirteenth novel, he has dealt the house of Atreus into play as well. A winner? A house of cards? Well, if you liked A Clockwork Orange and Enderby (revised) better than his others, you may feel that in MF Burgess has brought his special talent to a post-citric fruition….
Unless you like stories whose underpinnings are the myths of Greek tragedy, you are not going to like MF. Unless moral generalizations elevated on the antipodes of incest and miscegenation interest you, you are not going to be interested in MF. One would feel a good deal happier about this novel if it did not seem so open an invitation to be made the subject of interpretative papers in PMLA.
With MF, Burgess invites, even demands, comparison with writers of the ilk of Nabokov and Joyce. And yet, despite his exuberance and creativity and clear delight in all he does, he seems here to have chosen a roadway of fiction on which there is no mirror. Most novels provide forms for experience by insinuating themselves into the kinds of emotion out of which ordinary experience is constructed. A novel like MF assumes language as its subject, language as it has been used in art of the more direct sort but as no longer functioning directly. We are tugged, not toward the concrete or a simulacrum of it, but rather in the direction of abstraction, of bloodless cogitation, and it is on that level, if at all, that this artifact to the second power connects with life, by connecting with abstractions formulated against backgrounds other than art. Could this be said of Nabokov and Joyce? I think not. Burgess suffers from the comparison he invites. The second-order, "literary" delight MF occasions leaves one curiously dissatisfied, or maybe the dissatisfaction is not curious after all. A reader who, like myself, prefers the trilogy The Long Day Wanes and novels like Devil of a State, A Vision of Battlements, The Right to an Answer—indeed Enderby in its original form (Inside Mr. Enderby)—has a way, within the Burgess canon, of explaining his dissatisfaction with MF. Those novels came out of Burgess' entrails; MF, like A Clockwork Orange, issued from his extraordinary mind and no amount of symbolic sex and violence gives them flesh, tactility, artistic substance.
Anthony Burgess is among the half dozen most important English novelists writing today. He is surely one of the most intelligent. No writer can know too much but a writer's knowledge has to be assimilated and rendered almost visceral in order to count in a novel. In most of his novels, Burgess harnesses his learning to his imagination and the results are exceptional eliciters of aesthetic effect…. MF, seen within his oeuvre, appears to be a finger exercise, a display, an unrealized piece of pyrotechnic for which, as for second class relics, we should be grateful.
Ralph McInerny, in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), May 28, 1971, pp. 290-91.
That superlative writing machine called Anthony Burgess doesn't hit a false note in this deadpan divertissement [One Hand Clapping], which he probably scribbled down over a long weekend.
Audrey Foote, in Book World (© The Washington Post), March 5, 1972, p. 7.
Burgess's love of language is becoming proverbial, and [MF] is a philologist's delight. Many of the words he uses as English are to be found in neither first, second, nor third edition of the unabridged. Browsing through dictionaries, including Classical Greek dictionaries, is part of the fun of reading this book, and was presumably part of the fun of writing it….
MF also manages to be a book about poetry; it is, in short, a Protean work which all lovers of language will have to read. The only flaw is that a single, offhand sentence in the epilogue changes the complexion of the entire book. Are such clues as may exist a fair preparation for the reader, or did Burgess cheat and decide as an afterthought to bomb the reader with a cheap surprise? The book should be read carefully, no matter what the answer to the question.
Thomas Winter, "A Protean Work," in Prairie Schooner (© 1972 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), Spring, 1972, pp. 82-3.
One of the most contemporary pictures of Britain's nagging Götterdammerung is the Malayan trilogy of Anthony Burgess, called in the American edition The Long Day Wanes. In theme and action these three novels—running together to a little over five hundred pages—set about to show the twilight of British rule in Malaya and the dawn of freedom for the Malayan states. Burgess's fidelity in treating the problems of a nation that has often seemed about as fathomable as a gibber of apes at a conference table opens new doors of perception on unpublicized reaches of empire and on the failed British mission. Less interested in exploring the hypersensitivity of Forster's "good" Indians and "bad" Englishmen (or vice versa), the metaphysics of evil of Conrad's, or the grotesque parodies of institutions and people of Waugh's darker continents, Burgess, a writer of wit and incredible verbal control, digs in to the nitty-gritty of the political, religious, and cultural mess in the Far East.
What he comes up with is a tragi-comic view of imperialism and an anatomy of the heart of Malaya. In technique Burgess is close to Waugh, but in sensibility he is closer to Orwell. Both understand the tempers of peoples pitted against the Western brand of progress, self-consciously and nationalistically dedicated to their emergence. But unlike Orwell, who views Burma as a force of homogeneous wills (and consequently one will) bent upon undermining and overturning the white man's power, Burgess sees Malaya in all its heterogeneity; sees its timeless conflicts arising as much from indigenous human nature as from abstractions like "brutality and jingoism" (to quote Orwell on Kipling) of imperialism; sees its people given to the same vices, vanities, frustrations, desires, and excesses, be they black, white, or yellow, English, Chinese, Eurasian, Malaysian, or Indian, Christian, Moslem, Buddhist, or Hindu.
Tough-minded, at bottom an ironist and comedian rather than a satirist, Burgess keeps the proper artistic distance from problems that obviously speak for themselves. Yet he is anything but cautious and tentative….
Throughout the trilogy, history and hero interpenetrate. Both are extremely viable, history being for Burgess not memory but the living pattern that Crabbe (agent, reflector, commentator, pawn) experiences….
Via James Joyce—Burgess is a Joycean scholar as well as a practicing disciple—has come, undoubtedly, a concern with Vico and cyclical theories of history. Burgess is less attracted by Vico's general laws of growth, decay, and regrowth through which all civilizations must pass, than by his analogy of civilizations evolving parallel to children developing—acquiring knowledge, that is, through growing experience. Thus with Crabbe and thus with Malaya. As freedom dawns for the new nation, in the jungle is written the ironic coda to his own education….
Hegelian thought, too, sifts through The Long Day Wanes. The interpreter of Vico for the post-Renaissance world, the intellectual antecedent of Spengler and Toynbee, Hegel placed the keystone, if not the foundation, of the arch through which all modern students of history must pass. Cold, precise, deterministic in its metaphysics, the Hegelian dialectic is both logical and phenomenological, but ultimately antihumanistic and ethically deplorable to anyone who sees the historical process continually renewing itself at the expense of human beings, to anyone who views as hopeless and nihilistic a process by which ends not only justify means, but are sacrificed to them. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis; the unholy trinity of materialism! And the synthesis that becomes a new thesis in this eternal genesis of organization and reorganization may be stronger, though not necessarily better, as Burgess suggests at the opening of the trilogy's final volume, Beds in the East….
[The] Malayan Trilogy is not just a composite of rhetorical fripperies, wit, puns, flirtations with language, and love affairs with technique. It is not merely a comedy of misplaced idealism, alienation, despair, impotence, or transparent ideologies—through it is, of course, all these as well. It is foremost a continuing drama of change: how one man encounters and experiences it, founders upon and succumbs to it. It is a novel of one man borne by one current while beating against another, of one hard-shelled but vulnerable, of one aloof but involved, of one not deep, but sensitive and sincere. It is a novel of one better than so many, yet, in the end, not quite sufficient.
Robert K. Morris, "Anthony Burgess—'The Malayan Trilogy': The Futility of History," in his Continuance and Change: The Contemporary British Novel Sequence (copyright © 1972 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1972, pp. 71-91.
Anthony Burgess, novelist, composer, prolific book reviewer, and current smash on the college lecture circuit, seems able to be defined only in terms of sharply conflicting opposites of much the same type as those which very wittingly characterized the structure of his novels. A thoroughgoing traditionalist in his moral values and philosophy, Burgess has strong and self-pronounced anarchical tendencies. Seemingly an abrasively satiric critic of the Rock Culture, he is becoming, increasingly, a best-seller in college bookstores. A vigorous advocate of moral commitment, he is a firm antagonist of the simplistic moral viewpoint that so frequently obtains for the zealously committed. An amazingly productive novelist who writes, avowedly, to make money, and who thoroughly understands Pop Art, he is in many ways unmistakeably a Modernist, an embittered disciple of the Old High Art whose death seems likely to be witnessed in our own day.
The Burgess phenomenon is instructive, I think, in that his novels are a marriage—perhaps a violent and almost profane union—of popular and elitist literature. Burgess, a perceptive (even hip) critic of the novel, knows, it would seem, exactly what he is doing: the violent and sudden oscillations of mood and event in his novels are certainly purposeful and could even be termed, with some fair accuracy, metaphysical. He is assuredly one of the most vibrant and intriguing examples of a novelist of the "new sensibility" on either side of the Atlantic, and he is clearly, by far, the most major British novelist of the present day to turn so pronouncedly from high art to popular art. Burgess himself seems to know exactly where he should be placed: in his urbane but tuned-in handbook of the contemporary novel, The Novel Now, he places his own fiction in the chapter titled "On the Margin," the margin that is, between "serious fiction" and "entertainment."…
One might argue that Burgess is, although with some exception, still Modernistically elitist at core, and basically satiric in his intent. Examination will not bear this out. His principal theme, and structural technique, involves always a demonstration of the remarkable interpenetration of seemingly irreconcilable opposites in the world (which, in the case of good and evil, is denoted by Burgess's frequent references to Manicheanism); thus no individual, party, or group has any monopoly on wisdom, morality, culture or goodness. One might possibly suppose that Burgess would advocate, as a remedy to the vulgar debasement and tawdriness of life in our times, a return to the great and ennobling art of the past. Burgess, however, (like William Golding whose grotesques are used to much the same point) sees evil as endemic to man's nature; simplistic solutions such as an advocacy of a return to cultural values he sees as hopelessly and dangerously naive. Characteristically, he exposes the truth about man's moral (largely immoral) nature by means of vigorous paradox….
Burgess does, of course, sometimes satirize what he considers to be tawdry and debased elements in contemporary society, but unlike traditional satire in which certain individuals, groups, or types are exposed to judgment as knaves or fools, Burgess's satire is thoughtful and even ultimately compassionate; it stimulates new ontological and metaphysical perceptions rather than adverse judgments on our fellow men….
It might be said in short that Burgess satirizes nearly everyone and everything—if we are willing, that is, to accept a definition of satire that is broader and more relaxed than the traditional one. But at the same time we must not presume that Burgess is a nihilist or that his intention is to draw a manic image of absurdity, disorder, or evil. Burgess actually comes closer to being a romantic at heart; he shows us the myriad wonders of the earth and the fascinating behavior of its divergent peoples, the pleasures and pains of being human, the good and evil mingled everywhere together in the world. Basically, Burgess is happy to accept the world as it is, although his is an acceptance that is tinged with some satire and with much humor. The art that Burgess gives us is, in fact, very much akin to that of the Pop Artists of the graphic arts, chiefly in the fact that the countless mundane objects he gives us come very near themselves to being the subject matter, although also as in the graphic arts, they are superinflated (in Burgess by a bursting sort of neo-Jacobean language) so as to bring us to new perceptual and ontological levels of awareness….
Burgess is a novelist who is on the margin in many ways. By virtue of real craft and talent he incorporates in an imaginative and integral way the considerable influence of writers so diverse (besides those already indicated) as Shakespeare and Sterne, Nabokov and Graham Greene, James Joyce and Wyndham Lewis. He absolutely defies pigeonholing and would himself obviously resent the attempt. Like other writers of the "new consciousness" he is acutely aware of a pluralistic universe and an ever-changing world; with such a recognition, literary genres, categories, and modes must almost of necessity dissolve. This is altogether congruent with his prime thematic technique—the dark and forceful coming together of opposites. It is likely, too, that Burgess would reject the distinction between elite and popular literature. Not infrequently Burgess uses the standard devices of the modernist elitists—allusion, irony, paradox, ambiguity—but uses them to strikingly original purposes, bouncing them incongruously off more "popular" elements, or even more incongruously, merging them. Brilliant invention and obvious convention (blatant artifice, in fact) tumble strangely over each other in his fiction and finally become indiscernible one from the other. He warns us (only slightly ironically) against trying to extrapolate a paraphrasable meaning from his fiction: "Don't try distilling a message from it, not even an espresso cupful of meaningful epitome or a Sambusca glass of abridgment, con la mosca. Communication has been the whatness of the communication. For separable meaning go to the professors" [MF]….
Neither a zealot of Art, a champion of popular culture, nor an exponent of a programmatic via media, Burgess is simply one novelist who is trying hard to find life-giving forms to impart to his work. He obviously feels, though, that present-day art can be viable only if it honestly and imaginatively attempts to reflect a distinctly contemporary consciousness. For Burgess, a totally switched-on center of energy, this necessarily involves an attempt, from his position on the margin, to forcibly bring together all opposites. Some successful fusions can only help toward restoring the novel form to a state of health and vitality not experienced for a long time.
John J. Stinson, "Anthony Burgess: Novelist on the Margin," in Journal of Popular Culture, Summer, 1973, pp. 136-51.
There are linguistic studies of Joyce which give statistics about the frequency of 'the' in a given work—a calculation more efficiently performed by a computer programmer than a literary critic—but Joysprick is not such a book. Mr Burgess sets out to explore two basic questions: how does Joyce use language, and why does he use it in that way? The answers involve not only linguistics, but practical criticism, literary theory, and biography: language is not isolated from life, words on the page are continually being referred back to their common usage as Mr Burgess picks his way through what he calls 'the wiry heathpacks' of Joyce's prose.
A useful distinction is made at the beginning of this book between the novelist in whose work 'language is a zero quantity, transparent, unseductive, the overtones of connotation and ambiguity totally damped' (Class I), and the novelist who makes his books out of words as well as out of character and incident (Class II). It is to the second category that Joyce belongs—within which, indeed, he is preeminent, and his exploitation of 'opaque language' unparalleled.
Mr Burgess, a composer as well as a novelist, is very good on the melodies of Joyce's prose. A sentence from Ulysses is shown to play a tune independent of the sense and reveals just how extensively Joyce uses the full keyboard of vowel phonemes: 'By Brady's cottages a boy for the skins lolled, his buckets of offal linked, smoking a chewed fag-butt.' In the style, as Mr Burgess characterises it, of 'one of the American Irvings, say: Stone or Wallace', this might read, 'A boy sent to collect pelts waited languidly outside Brady's cottages with his arm through the handle of a bucket of animal offal; he was smoking a cigarette end.' The differences between Class I and Class II are immediately apparent; the value of this study is that the qualities of each are sensitively analysed in several series of practical criticism, and the fundamentals of Joyce's aesthetic approach to language are explained.
Robert Chapman, "Jabberwocky and Joyce," in Books and Bookmen, September, 1973, p. 60.
In an age of dull prose, jargon of sociology, and psychology, incessant buzz of gossip, journal, the endless dribble of weepy-eyed ghetto hysterics, tin clatter of avant-garde mobiles, hollow academic puling: a reader who delights in succulent phrase, unctuous pap, the zest of word play and a saucy paragraph, must fall on each new work of Anthony Burgess with ravenous appetite. If some of his dishes have been mere dessert tarts, hasty puddings, gooseberry trifles like M/F, I can now rave that a full, groaning, gourmand's table has been set in his present opus, Napoleon Symphony.
Sweeping though the panorama of the French emperor's life, rolling with a beat that makes us feel a Corsican teenager bounding in the general's creamy pants, half hoodlum, half genius, an adolescent whose energy animates an empire; it is of course Burgess, line by line, vibrating in Napoleon's boots. But who is to say that this is not the truest form of biography, for the music, its dashing erratic, brilliant voice, compels us to believe we are in the presence of a Napoleon….
How does Bonaparte/Burgess handle such a vast calendar of battle, civil reform, amour, intrigue? By jumping from critical moment to moment with a dazzling generalship of the raw materials of biography, showing that mastery which bends the rule of the fallacy of imitative form, just enough chaos, confusion, event tumbling upon event in the text for us to feel Napoleon's genius for the exact moment to push, shove, win through, echoed in the chronicler's talent for the precise cut, collage, surprise arrangement in ordering what seems like an endless roster….
[As] myth, fiction, it has that uncanny ring of psalmody whereby we believe that the songs and dreams of the scribe are truly the king's, the emperor's. Despite a far-ranging third person, Burgess's voice and Napoleon's are so well harmonized that Burgess can violate a hundred laws of fictional narrative leaping from Josephine, Louis Antoine, General MacDonald, an anonymous army engineer, without ever losing the shadow of Bonaparte's cloak uber alles….
At the end the author stretches prose credulity to the breaking point in a set of parodies almost as elaborate as his real hero, First Consul James Joyce. Here in a final burst of fireworks, Burgess at his most characteristic, craziest, surpasses the high fun of the invented language in Clockwork Orange. The emperor finishes as a chuckle in the divine symphony. A rococo performance of Prometheus, lovemaking in Poland, past battles, return to haunt Napoleon on Saint Helena, as the author floats into a deft, rapid splicing of the hero's last fevered days, his life now all reflection and therefore all Burgess's, all dreams, all poetry.
Mark Mirsky, "A Musical Offering With Heroic Overtones," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), May 26, 1974, p. 1.
Essentially [Napoleon Symphony] is not so much about Napoleon as about Anthony Burgess writing a novel. As such it has many pleasures. All of the Burgess embellishments are here, and they sing alluringly each to each, even if they don't swell into a larger harmony. (You get it: love-heartburn; water-l'eau.) Burgess's most impressive successes, "Nothing Like the Sun" and "A Clockwork Orange," have been novels in which the play with language and literature has been part of the larger intent, essential to a concerted whole. The flourishes often seem gratuitous here—except of course for the fun of it. And that is saying a good deal. Even when we don't know what all the pyrotechnics are celebrating, we can still enjoy a good display.
Sara Sanborn, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 9, 1974, p. 5.
Twelve years ago Burgess published A Clockwork Orange and The Wanting Seed, books which made serious play with notions of human freedom and responsibility and with religious definitions of man. A year later, under the name of Joseph Kell, appeared Inside Mr Enderby, in which our embattled hero was first introduced. These three novels are the richest and most verbally dazzling comedies Burgess has written, and there is, not surprisingly, an air of contrivance about the present attempt [The Clockwork Testament, or Enderby's End] (dedicated, for some pleasant reason, to Burt Lancaster) to wind things up….
Burgess is faced both with recalling the distinctive glories of his poet's life-style and showing how that style gets him in trouble when he moves beyond the kitchen or toilet. There are respectable amounts of satisfyingly dyspeptic activity as well as less engaging chunks of poems-in-progress (though an imagined filmscript starring Pelagius and Augustine has its moments). Enderby's students at Manhattan U. are vicious, stupid and lazy; there is no suggestion that the novelist holds any more complicated views of them. And in fact a case could be mounted against Burgess, as sharing enthusiastically his hero's self-pity and misanthropically slobbish grunts toward life—could be mounted, though, only by remaining resolutely impervious to moments of high entertainment and to the stylistic energies infusing them. It is the liveliness of the routines that counts….
William Pritchard, "Exile's Return," in The Listener, June 13, 1974, pp. 776-77.
[Buried] at the foot of the gaudy lettering of the main title [The Clockwork Testament], and set in infinitely smaller type, is a sub-title: Enderby's End. At first glance this seems a somewhat shuffling way to introduce the final volume in the hitherto triumphant trilogy devoted to that dedicated poet and flatulent glutton. By the end of The Clockwork Testament, however, one has to conclude that the subdued introduction strikes just about the right note. This is not, in fact, a very glorious exit. Poor Enderby doesn't so much 'end' here as get mislaid somewhere along the way by a creator who clearly has too many other things on his mind to pay proper attention to his charge.
Briefly, what is preoccupying Mr Burgess in this book is his contempt for American culture and particularly for its academic environment…. Mr Burgess has chosen to let Enderby stand in for him on this issue…. The one thing American educators cannot be said to suffer from is a shortage of advice. It is not ignorance of the alternatives that determines the character of big-city universities in the United States. Rather their development is a result of mainly conscious decisions about what role they should play in their society—and what would have to be sacrificed to attain it. Enderby is entitled to disagree with these decisions, of course. But not to come on like an Old Testament prophet bringing Light to a totally benighted people.
Moreover, Enderby makes a very unimpressive, as well as a redundant, prophet. It is sad to watch his stature shrink in this alien setting. The egotism, the slovenliness, the indifferent poetry, which were all such fun in earlier volumes, seem rather dispiriting now that their possessor is actually proposing himself as an arbiter, even a model, of cultural excellence. And more seriously, Enderby's insularity and his racism—at various times, though prudently only to himself, he refers to his students under such headings as 'cannibal kike', 'black bitch', 'redskin sod'—seem merely contemptible now that he has been translated from the easygoing bigotries of his native turf to this tense, angry city, one of the world's great black and Puerto Rican (and Jewish) capitals. It is all meant to be a jolly joke, of course, just part of Enderby's lovable British rumbunctiousness. Except it looks here like a case of incorrigible immaturity and loutishness, much more grave indeed than the mild juvenile iconoclasm that Enderby diagnoses and deplores among his American students. And unhappily, as with his heart condition, it's clear that Enderby's at least is a terminal case.
Peter Prince, "Intramural," in New Statesman, June 21, 1974, p. 894.
How refreshing it is when a writer these days sets out on a monumentally impossible adventure—in this case to create a musical novel—and admits he's just doing it because he wants to. If "Napoleon Symphony," to take its conceit a step further, were translated into a painting, it would be filled with the breathless plenty of one of those incomparably sunny, baroque Italian ceilings wafting its massive machinery around on rose petals. But it's not all roses: somehow Burgess can sing too of dirty deaths and diarrhea, the gory trails of defeated armies, the insane effects of military errors….
In boudoir and battle Burgess's narrative powers, putting you half in the character's mind and half behind his back, are magnificent. The sweep assimilates literary as well as military and musical history….
Burgess isn't writing just about Napoleon, but about everything that happened in and around the tyrant—including Beethoven's torn-up dedication to the Eroica. The moral imagination which keeps the monster's tyranny in perspective is Beethoven's, so that you don't get the misleading effects of being shown a world in which there is no mature power to judge the way you do in that other book about a conqueror, "The Clockwork Orange," with its Alexander the Great.
Someday someone will explain Burgess's preoccupation with heroes whose utter lack of second thoughts—never mind moral restraint—unleashes on the rest of mankind instinctual forces of historical dimensions. Impossible to resist speculation in the case of a novelist of Burgess's powers: is it an expression of his own literary restraint and the fact that, with all his gifts, he himself forgoes literary heroism and chooses not to write an entirely unconventional novel?
Not to cavil, "Napoleon Symphony" has splendor.
Martin Washburn, in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; © 1974 by The Village Voice, Inc.), July 4, 1974, p. 19.
In the fertility of his enterprise, his louche congenial knockabout confidence, Mr. Burgess may remind us of one of those Elizabethan professionals, like Nashe or Deloney, who tried their hands at practically every species of literary composition, always coming up with something readable and rewarding, but curiously unsettling too, as if their free-wheeling methods cast a kind of doubt on the more accepted kinds of literary achievement…. Burgess, no less than Nashe, is an artificer in his own line, but he does not seem to take us so far from presentness and actuality as do in their various ways James Joyce or Scott Fitzgerald or Saul Bellow or Anthony Powell….
Mr. Burgess, whenever we remeet him in a literary setting, seems to be standing knee-deep in the shavings of new methods, grimed with the metallic filings of bright ideas. A Clockwork Orange, for example, was a book which no one could take seriously for what was supposed to happen in it—its plot and "meaning" were the merest pretenses—but which contained a number of lively notions, as when his delinquents use Russian slang and become murderous on Mozart and Beethoven. In a work by Burgess nothing is connected necessarily or organically with anything else but is strung together with wires and pulleys as we go.
Thus we can discount at once the claim, hopefully supplied by the blurb, that what we have here [Napoleon Symphony] is "a grand and loving tragicomic symphony to Napoleon Bonaparte." The symphonic stuff—a novel in four movements and so on—is no more than bits of string, and it is one of the many endearing things about this author that he does not really bother us (and possibly irritate us) by pretending it is anything else. He is as enterprising as Nabokov, but his flair does not need pretension to keep it going: he is not an aesthete but a man of letters. Why should he have wanted to write about Napoleon? Probably because of the interesting technical challenge involved—an almost impossible challenge, but writers like Burgess and his predecessors are not worried about finicky matters of possibility provided they can keep a workshop going and amuse themselves and their public….
[Burgess's] Napoleon is reminiscent, it must be admitted, of his portrait of Shakespeare in an earlier historical fantasy, and both have a good deal in common with the durable figure of Enderby, the protofigure of many of Burgess's fictions. They are, that is to say, observant, civilized, distracted, victimized, and endowed with a rich stream of consciousness….
Mr. Burgess's problem, which he cannot be said to have solved, is that his more informed readers cannot really need this kind of thing to imagine themselves into the Napoleonic era, while all the sound knowledge—of corps commanders, horse batteries, Continental System—which he strews so prodigally but inconspicuously around cannot do much to edify his more popular readership….
After the retreat from Moscow Napoleon said that from the sublime to the ridiculous is but a step: he did not, however, add that they are both the same thing. Mr. Burgess is far too intelligent and thoughtful a writer not to have reflected on the curious fact that we can no longer render the past in terms of its pomp and circumstance, the sublime as well as the ridiculous. We can only do it—perhaps we can only do ourselves too?—as creatures of fantasy and farce.
John Bayley, "From the Ridiculous to the Ridiculous," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1974 by NYREV, Inc.), September 19, 1974, pp. 32-3.