Burgess, Anthony (Vol. 4)

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Burgess, Anthony 1917–

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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...

(The entire section contains 5476 words.)

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