Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 140
(John) Anthony Burgess (Wilson) 1917–
English novelist, editor, translator, essayist, composer, and critic.
A remarkably prolific writer with a wide range of subjects. Burgess frequently uses his knowledge of music and linguistics in his fiction. Burgess's fascination with languages is evident in many of his novels, most notably A Clockwork...
(The entire section contains 11240 words.)
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(John) Anthony Burgess (Wilson) 1917–
English novelist, editor, translator, essayist, composer, and critic.
A remarkably prolific writer with a wide range of subjects. Burgess frequently uses his knowledge of music and linguistics in his fiction. Burgess's fascination with languages is evident in many of his novels, most notably A Clockwork Orange. Terming himself a "renegade Catholic," Burgess explores free will versus determinism in his novels. Admittedly influenced by James Joyce, Burgess has endeavored to explicate his genius in Here Comes Everybody: An Introduction to James Joyce for the Ordinary Reader. With more than forty titles to his credit, Burgess has often been accused of having an uneven oeuvre. Most critics agree, however, that in Earthly Powers, which took him ten years to write, he regains the top of his form.
(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 4, 5, 8, 10, 13, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2271
[Burgess'] sensitivity to the comic potential of English is apparent throughout his novels, and presumably it was increased by his reading of Joyce. He does not use language, in precisely the same ways that Joyce does, but he makes it, along with situation and character, a principal vehicle of comedy. And, like Joyce,… he does not hesitate to go beyond English and devise a tongue suitable for his artistic purposes.
The influence of Joyce can also be seen in the portraiture of several of his protagonists and, to an extent, in the structure of some of his novels. Victor Crabbe in The Long Day Wanes, Paul Hussey in Honey for the Bears, Edwin Spindrift in The Doctor Is Sick, and Tristram Foxe in The Wanting Seed all share a great deal with Leopold Bloom. They are all sensitive, cultured, well-meaning but ineffectual, cuckolded non-heroes involved in non-heroic Odyssean quests which terminate in some sort of return to a mate who has proved herself to be an unfaithful Penelope. The return may or may not involve an actual reunion. In fact, more often than not, the wanderer merely arrives at a heightened understanding of his mate and his relationship to her. The enlightenment gained is usually a dismal and ironic epiphany. (pp. 235-36)
Intense sexual humiliation is an experience many of Burgess' heroes share with Bloom. Many of them, like Crabbe, are cuckolded. Some, such as Edwin Spindrift, Paul Hussey, and Mr. Enderby, are proven impotent. But whereas Bloom recovers from his sexual humiliation and is reunited with Molly in what promises to be a mutually gratifying relationship, Burgess' heroes usually suffer irreparable losses with their humiliations. Paul Hussey, the homosexual protagonist of Honey for the Bears, loses his wife to a lesbian Russian doctor. Mr. Enderby, a poet who has become impotent through prolonged adolescence, loses his lyric gift after a disastrous marriage. Edwin Spindrift, the philologist-hero of The Doctor Is Sick, after a Ulyssean quest through the seamier sections of London, is reunited with his wife only long enough to acknowledge that their marriage is hopeless. The Wanting Seed concludes more happily in this regard, but the reader still wonders how the hero and his wife will rebuild their marriage in the face of odds posed by their situation. (pp. 237-38)
Burgess' representation of human experience has not been universally admired among critics. Yet even among those who have little sympathy with his ideas there are few who would deny his brilliance as a prose stylist. As I have said, he appears to have learned much from Joyce, although he does not do precisely the same things with language that Joyce does. He seldom uses stream-of-consciousness or interior monologue. He rarely employs the Joycean device of juxtaposing radically differing literary styles for comic or ironic effect. But, like Joyce and Nabokov, he is keenly aware of the auditory value of words and is fond of onomatopoeia. A Clockwork Orange is narrated entirely in an invented language which is rich in onomatopoeic suggestion. Inside Mr. Enderby opens with a flatulent statement that is repeated, with modifications, frequently thereafter as a kind of gaseous chorus. And indeed all of his novels are full of gorgeous word play which is best appreciated when the passages are read aloud.
Also, like Joyce, he laces his prose heavily with literary allusion, and he has clearly revealed his impatience with those who feel that this device is not widely appreciated. In The Right to an Answer a dope-smuggling, woman-beating hoodlum justifies his philosophy of life with reference to Shakespeare, Francis Bacon, and Graham Greene. (pp. 238-39)
Burgess teases his readers. His allusive style is both flattering and vexing. A reader must be fairly well read and have some familiarity with classical music in order to fully enjoy his wit and word play. But even as he flatters his readers with the assumption that they have these prerequisites, Burgess play-fully reminds them that their cultural attainments are shared by the lowliest, most depraved dregs of humanity.
Both as satire and linguistic tour de force, A Clockwork Orange is one of Burgess' most brilliant achievements. If one felt compelled to classify it among recognized sub-genres of the novel, he would probably say that Burgess has combined picaresque with Orwellian proleptic nightmare…. The novel's brilliance as a linguistic feat derives from Burgess' very considerable knowledge of languages and phonetics, as well as his keen musician's ear for the rhythmic potential of verbal patterns.
I should perhaps stress that A Clockwork Orange is much more than a linguistic tour de force. It is also probably the most devastating piece of anti-utopian satire since Zamiatin's We. The fact that its satiric direction has been either overlooked or misunderstood by most reviewers points to no fault in the novel. Like Zamiatin and Swift, Burgess satirizes more than one school of utopian thought. His most obvious target is the utopian dream spawned by the behavioral psychologists, such as B. F. Skinner. It may be pure coincidence, but A Clockwork Orange looks very much like a deliberate refutation of Skinner's Walden Two, a novel which is simply a blueprint for a utopia in which most human problems could be solved by a scientific technology of human behavior. The principles of this behavioral technology rest heavily upon the assumption that man is not free…. The citizenry of Skinner's utopia would "feel free" and be totally unaware of any restraint or compulsion. They would, however, be anything but free…. (pp. 239-41)
In his other proleptic nightmare, The Wanting Seed, Burgess presents a horrifying, though richly comic, picture of life in a world freed of the scourge of war but overpopulated beyond Malthus' most fearful imaginings. An awareness of Malthus' demographic theories is essential to a full appreciation of the comedy and satire, but this is surely not too much to expect of the average twentieth-century reader, and it is astonishing that The Wanting Seed, like A Clockwork Orange, has been so completely misunderstood by some critics. All of Malthus' positive and preventive "checks"—through "misery," "vice," and "moral restraint"—are brought into play and it becomes apparent that even in England circumstances could make them much less distinguishable from one another than Malthus assumed. (pp. 243-44)
In addition to splendid multi-pronged satire, The Wanting Seed contains a complete statement and illustration of a cyclical theory of history which Burgess had partially formulated in his first novel, A Vision of Battlements. In that novel an American officer describes how the Pelagian denial of Original Sin had spawned "the two big modern heresies—material progress as a sacred goal; the State as God Almighty." The former has produced "Americanism" and the latter, "the Socialist process." In The Wanting Seed all government history is seen to be an oscillation between two "phases," a Pelagian phase and an Augustinian. When a government is functioning in its Pelagian phase, or "Pelphase," it is socialistic and committed to a Wellsian liberal belief in the goodness of man and his ability to achieve perfection through his own efforts. Inevitably man fails to fulfill the liberal expectation and the ensuing "disappointment" causes a chaotic "Interphase," during which terrorist police strive to maintain order by force and brutality. Finally, the government, appalled by its own excesses, lessens the brutality but continues to enforce its will on the citizenry on the assumption that man is an inherently sinful creature from whom to good may be expected. This pessimistic phase is appropriately named for the saint whose preoccupation with the problems of evil led him, like Burgess, into Manichaeism. During "Gusphase" there is a capitalist economy but very little real freedom for the individual. There is, in fact, only what Professor Skinner would call "a feeling of freedom." (pp. 245-46)
[The Wanting Seed] is a magnificent black comedy, in many ways Burgess' best. He encompasses far more than either Orwell or Huxley do in their famous dystopias, and he is far more entertaining. The novel's only significant flaw proceeds from Burgess' tendency to be too entertaining and too witty. It is full of playful references to his fellow-novelists and other literary figures. There is, for example, the description of the bearded giant atop the Government Building which is identified from time to time with various figures of cultural and political importance, including "Eliot (a long-dead singer of infertility)." And the reports of cannibalism during the Interphase include the account of how "a man called Amis suffered savage amputation of an arm off Kingsway," and "S. R. Coke, journalist, was boiled in an old copper near Shepherd's Bush; Miss Joan Waine a teacher, was fried in segments." In themselves, these allusions and fantasies are delightful, but they combine with occasional flippancies of tone to deprive the book of some of its potential impact. As with Dr. Strangelove, the hilarity of presentation occasionally tends to make it difficult to bear in mind the seriousness of the themes.
Not all of Burgess' novels are in the black comic vein. One of his most entertaining achievements is a splendid historical romance, Nothing like the Sun, which seems to have been at least partially inspired by Stephen Dedalus' discourse on Shakespeare in the ninth chapter of Ulysses. As the title suggests, most of the qualities Burgess attributes to Shakespeare are revealed in the sonnets, where, as Stephen observes, "there is Will in overplus." WS is a man of boundless sexual vitality, only a portion of which can be channeled into his art. (pp. 247-48)
Some readers may find aspects of this novel rather distressing, expecially Burgess' representation of WS himself. Anticipating their distress, Burgess explained in one of his critical works that he chose the title "to emphasize the impossibility of conveying the authentic effulgence." What he sought to present, and I think successfully, is the material both within the poet himself and about him upon which the effulgence could have been so spectacularly shed. If readers are distressed or disappointed by this novel, I suspect that in most cases, it is chiefly because the poet has been presented as a human being.
Like Burgess' WS, the protagonist of Tremor of Intent is a "potent" hero whose spiritual potency is partially betokened by satyriasis and subjection to appetite generally. Superficially, Hillier resembles James Bond, and on one level Tremor of Intent can be viewed as a satiric treatment of the Flemingesque spy novel. The typical Bond feats of appetite are duplicated and surpassed, sometimes to a ridiculous extent. Hillier's eating contest with the super-villain Theodorescu, for example, recalls Bond's gastronomic adventures, but, unlike the typical Bond interval of indulgence, this spectacular meal sends the hero reeling to a rail where he can empty the delicacies into "that traditional vomitorium," the sea.
But Tremor of Intent is much more than a burlesque of the spy novel. It is also a philosophical and theological investigation. Hillier progresses intellectually and spiritually toward a kind of Manichaeism, according to which the greatest sin is refusal to serve God or "Notgod."… [Significantly, Hillier reaches this conclusion] after he has committed himself wholly to the cause of Rome. It would seem that Burgess envisions a kind of dualism that either is or may in time become compatible with Roman Catholic theology. We cannot be entirely sure…. Just how perilous the ground is for the faithful in Tremor of Intent is not clear. The fact that the villains are shown to be evil solely because they serve only themselves certainly does not in itself imply any challenge to Christian orthodoxy. If anything, the implication of the novel as a whole is more in keeping with a Pauline emphasis on the primacy of conscience than an early Augustinian Manichaeism. And it is clear that while Hillier believes that serving the wrong God is better than failing to serve either God, he personally has been led unerringly to the right God by prayer, meditation, and experience.
As a novel, Tremor of Intent is less successful than the others I have mentioned. We are never allowed to forget that Hillier represents the Bond type, and this makes it extremely hard to accept his very rapid spiritual progress. The fact that he is, in sharp contrast to Bond, an intellectual and that he has had a religious upbringing still does not account for his amazing relinquishment of a self that has been subordinate for so long to the exigencies of espionage. It is a marvelously entertaining book, full of Burgess' wit and linguistic dexterity, but it is not, I feel, wholly convincing.
Even the most enthusiastic admirer of Burgess' novels must admit that he has not yet produced a truly great comic novel. But then, of course, truly great comic novels, such as Tom Jones and Ulysses, are not produced very often. This is not to say that Burgess appears to be incapable of producing a work of this stature. On the contrary, he has provided abundant evidence of the requisite gifts of linguistic genius and largeness of mind. One feels that he could produce a truly great novel if he found a subject worthy of an exhaustive exertion of his gifts. Most of the novels he has produced so far appear to be more or less experimental, and, as I have tried to demonstrate, he has experimented quite successfully with a wide variety of genres and styles. We can only hope that his experimenting eventually yields the fruit it promises. He has given us every reason to maintain this hope. (pp. 249-51)
Geoffrey Aggeler, "The Comic Art of Anthony Burgess," in Arizona Quarterly (copyright © 1969 by the Arizona Quarterly), Vol. 25, No. 3, 1969, pp. 234-51.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 650
The prolific and apparently inexhaustible Anthony Burgess writes like one of those glib and often fascinating Englishmen who are able to talk for hours at no risk of repeating themselves. When he is at the top of his form, as in Enderby, there are few writers who can touch him; when he is off, as in Nothing Like the Sun, he is a crashing bore; and, either on or off, he gives the impression of skating on perilously thin ice over a bottomless lake of utter balderdash, but he almost never falls in. He is not so much intoxicated with words as he is entranced with the phenomena of language, inflection, and his own considerable erudition. Narcissistic though this intoxication may be, it is also communicable through the medium of his prose. Burgess gives good value….
In an informative foreword [to The Eve of Saint Venus] that effectively spikes the guns of any critic who might either take him too seriously or miss some of his finer points, he describes it as a "commedia dell' Aldwych," after the old Aldwych Theatre in London. Breathes there a man with soul so dead who is not lovingly familiar with this hallowed type of British drama, as stylized as the Noh plays and American cowboy movies? Utterly good-hearted and as mechanical and amusing as a clever wind-up toy, the Aldwych drawing-room farces generally took place in the great country houses of a rural aristocracy which Burgess describes, perhaps too harshly, as "silly, ingrown, [and] mainly non-existent." Within this admittedly contrived dramatic frame, Burgess confines a number of characters, most of them stock….
In keeping with the dramatic form of the novel, the characters do not speak but declaim, improbably and at length, in what Burgess intends as a parody of the self-conscious "literary" plays of Christopher Fry, T. S. Eliot and their imitators. Suffice it to say that he gets away with it….
All of this is great fun and what used to be called a good read. It is not a major novel, does not pretend to be, and can be got through in a single evening. It is less about "the importance of physical love," as Burgess claims, than it is—in both structure and content—about England. It is an England that perhaps never existed but came close to reality, at least in the mind and heart. It was present in those old Aldwych farces—a basic decency, a humane optimism beneath all the silly goings-on, the entrances and exits and multiple deceptions that were, really, all in fun…. The whole atmosphere of the book reminds one of that long summer's afternoon in Essex before the Great War that H. G. Wells evoked so movingly in Mr. Britling Sees It Through—so movingly that one cannot help believe it. Burgess ostensibly set out to write a kind of jape in the manner of Thorne Smith; he has instead delivered a kind of eulogy on a culture.
If the book has a fault, it is one of haste. Burgess skims material that deserves rather more exploration than it gets, and his action is all jammed together a bit breathlessly. Haste, of course, is an occupational hazard of the theatrical form, along with a fluency that occasionally lapses into mere patter, but one wishes that Burgess had made his haste more slowly. He is not only dealing in games and parody but in real ideas and actual myths, and he is too good at them to be allowed to get off with a brief skimming. One is left with the impression that the chosen vessel is too small for the wine, and that we have not had enough time to finish our talk.
L. J. Davis, "The Goddess Speaks with a Greek Accent," in Book World—Chicago Tribune (© 1970 Postrib Corp.; reprinted by permission of Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post), April 19, 1970, p. 3.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 387
[Moses] swings along rather well,
Genial, slack verse that is easy to read,
The rhythms loose and ambulatory,
The line lengths uneven,
The language now formal, now colloquial,
Echoes of the Bible mingling with knowing modern diagnosis,
Hesitant about miracles, but coming down on their side in the end,
Perfunctory in scholarship, but showing signs of reasonable background reading,
Narrating, explaining, interpreting, sympathizing, even one might say
Empathizing with his hero, whom he admires, admires,
And more than admires—likes. For he's on Moses' side all right
And keeps him human while demonstrating his greatness….
Whether this ambulatory verse, chatty (almost) pre-film-script narrative
Tells more of the story, or tells it better
Than the Authorized Version of the Bible
Is not perhaps a tactful question to raise.
For Burgess is sorting out his picture of Moses
For himself, a modern self, not making a holy record
For a people, a chosen people, a people made one by this very Moses.
It's not a search for the historical Moses
But a rendering from selected biblical clues
Of those aspects of the biblical story he thinks he can handle.
The rest he omits, or skips over, or compresses
Because he and his verse must move on, move on,
Seeking always "What next?"
The great hymn of triumph after the crossing of the sea
He does not give or render, but puts in odd bits of hymns
At times, to give the proper early religious flavour.
Many readers I think will see something engaging
In this loose and lucid verse history of Moses.
And if I say that for myself, myself, I prefer the Bible,
The account in the Bible from the first Egyptian enslavement
To the death of Moses on Mount Pisgah
(And for that matter the Bible in its original language,
For I too have my linguistic obsessions)
—If I say that, Burgess cannot be offended,
Not offended, because after all he knows the splendours
Of that language as well as any of us
And leavens his own story with it at critical moments.
Interesting, then; commendable, even; a bit of sport
In the garden of modern poetry. But none the worse for that.
David Daiches, "Ambulant Prophet," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1977; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3906, January 21, 1977, p. 50.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3041
The metaphor of the clockwork universe provides a useful touchstone for considering [some of Burgess's novels] …, and it is a motif extended and developed throughout his work; but Burgess has already beaten clock time as he has transcended national borders through fiction which constantly breaks beyond imposed and conventional thinking. (p. 3)
Burgess doesn't "think that the job of literature is to teach us how to behave," but he does "think it can make clearer the whole business of moral choice by showing what the nature of life's problems is." In other words, he must first define the clockwork enemy; once we see the situation clearly, then perhaps it can be controlled. For Burgess personally and artistically this definition begins with the global holocaust of World War II, which redefined racial, political, individual, spiritual, and temporal values for the modern world. (p. 4)
[A Vision of Battlements] not only examines World War II milieu, but also attempts to draw the battle lines in a new war, a fight for individual identity after the collective nightmare of a world where ordinary politics, art and love are unknown and can be either friend or foe….
Battlements is a rich literary orchestration of serious personal themes set forth in a style which is musically and metrically informed. The fact that it depicts [the hero] Ennis as a struggling composer, haunted by melodies, yet unable to fully realize his conceptions ("Concepcion" is his lover), makes this book a fascinating starting point for becoming acquainted with Burgess and some of his recurring themes and rhythms. (p. 5)
The names and personalities and events [in Battlements] have more to do with Virgil's Aeneid than with remembered actuality…. Burgess deepens the fiction by moving continually along three planes—the personal, the historical, and the mythical—and though three types of temporal dimension are utilized, it is interesting to note that they linger on the past and present, with the future uncertain and indecipherable. Many mythological types appear and develop in his fiction, figures which suggest enduring ancient principles, and some of the characters Burgess invents in this book appear mythically in other writing…. Like the Roman poet Virgil in the Aeneid, Burgess is fully conscious of writing in the shadow of a towering classical tradition. He patterns his hero after Aeneas, with full awareness that his great predecessor James Joyce had already worked greater wonders with the Greek classical epic in his new Ulysses. Aeneas is patently a less original hero than Ulysses or Achilles, a secondary type of epic figure molded and weighed down by literary predecessors, almost as though the character himself were dimly conscious of the chaotic and degraded state of affairs in the present. (pp. 5-6)
Rome (like England in Burgess's day) had started to lose faith when Virgil wrote, and his superhero Aeneas does not ultimately succeed through an overstated heroism in recreating the essential fabric of classical conviction which was then unravelling. Aeneas lacks the cleverness of Odysseus, and the driving, purposeful rage of Achilles; he goes through the motions of epic hero for seven years in Virgil's attempt to connect the great Greek past to the shaky Roman present, and thereby prepare a greater future. Yet Aeneas dies short of his goal to found Rome…. Ennis, too, stops short of his goal; he fails to establish a new life on Gibraltar and finally is shown trying to return to his old home, which no longer really exists. He has no son to complete his failed quest. His name and his actions suggest ends rather than beginnings; and as his name implies, Ennis is in us all. (p. 6)
[The prologue to Battlements is masterful,] introducing the haunting themes of love, time, and isolation, which are more fully developed throughout the rest of the book and in Burgess's later novels as well. Time is shown through a confusing clockwork, its rhythms constantly repeating themselves like the recurring ideas and motifs of a musical composition; repeated mythological references link the present to the past, and both in turn point toward the future (also a factor in the Aeneid). (p. 9)
The fictive and narrative structure which Burgess utilizes in the novel is, in effect, a verbal elaboration of the Passacaglia. The echoing motifs from the Aeneid imply a kinship in theme and variations, all played against the recurring bass line of history and of myth. The fact that the Passacaglia is first performed at the wedding of Ennis's lover (the woman who bears his child) to another man adds a considerable ironic and grotesquely comic angle. Burgess always verges on comedy, though the atmosphere rarely becomes light enough for outright laughter. It is laughter held in check by the pressure of circumstances too dangerous for comedy.
Battlements plays out a chain of repeated thematic motifs, including the inability fully to love, or to understand what love means, the inability to compose or conceive (figuratively or literally) without this basic emotion, the overwhelming pressure of time as it determines and influences behavior, the alternative memory of time as it becomes history or myth, and finally, the fact which throws all of these thematic problems into sharpest focus, the ultimate end of time in personal terms—death. Death haunts the edges of this novel—as it does all of Burgess's fiction. It is the certain confrontation that will put an end to all of our excuses about love, and cause us finally to know both eros and thanatos; it is the final measure of definition leading to history, myth, or oblivion. (p. 10)
Ennis, like Burgess, is a "lapsed Catholic," and the shadow of Original Sin, like the shadow of God (which is never clear, and is often mistaken for the shadow of authority [particularly in the Army] or the shadow of death) casts shades of meaning across the book's action. (p. 11)
The novel is a panorama of great conflicts unresolved, the yearning to be creative, to be free, to be loving, all of these aborted and destroyed. Authority seems invested and bestowed without reason. Surely the wrong god is in control. (p. 15)
The final heroic achievement in the book is [its] ability to glimpse a vision of the past as "ridiculous or lovable." It is a detachment born of great pain, but a vision which at least still holds some hope for human feeling and for love. It also allows in its own dwindling measure the absolute end to a charge of hubris; and puts into perspective the petty battlements Ennis has been forced to command…. [In] all this, Ennis, like many a Burgess hero, is a detached observer who finds himself in circumstances beyond his control, particularly at the mercy of societal bureaucracies. Around him and through him we see the certain deterioration of the British empire, combined with the demand of its subject peoples for freedom and independence.
The spirit of revolution is even more evident in Burgess's Malayan trilogy….
The title used for the American publications of these three novels [The Long Day Wanes] serves very well to suggest their temporal concern. We are present at the waning of a "day" which has been artificially long. England's rule over her extensive foreign territories seems both undemocratic and fortuitous, and Burgess reflects seriously on the theme of paternalism in national, educational, and technological affairs. (p. 16)
The first novel in the trilogy [Time for a Tiger] has a wild and woolly sound about it, as if it were going to be a jungle adventure story. But like the civilized veneer the British occupation has imposed atop the native culture, "tiger" has been reduced from its savage jungle danger to the brand name of a beer. The tale is set off by Blake's "Tiger, tiger burning bright / in the forests of the night," and the Manichean "fearful symmetry" which seems so much a part of the Burgess world view. This frightening balance is suggested in the opening inscription from Arthur Hugh Clough: "Allah is great, no doubt, and Juxtaposition his prophet." (pp. 16-17)
Juxtaposition is a technique used frequently throughout the trilogy, and particularly in the first novel. An element typical of comedy, in which the contrast between high and low extremes provokes laughter, this contrast in tension is skillfully maintained to achieve an effect which has been called by some critics "Black Comedy," but which may actually be closer to a slightly detached existential or Kierkegaardian Weltschmerz … or Angst. (p. 17)
The mythic dimension transposes historic time into another realm, and by developing the relationship between history and myth, and showing how one may be perceived as another, Burgess directs his readers to undertake the metamorphosis.
Battlements presented a hero (Ennis) who was struggling to understand his identity through a similar process: "But Ennis pushed his wife back beyond history, to myth. It was the best thing to do; it would ensure a kind of fidelity." In the trilogy Burgess exposes myths about the British way of Empire, as set against the more primitive Malay traditions, including tribal religions and even voodoo. This classic juxtaposition of old and new, East and West, is dropped against a far more complicated and mixed atmosphere than the racial stand-off in Gibraltar…. (pp. 18-19)
The racial mixture is complemented stylistically through the broad vocabulary Burgess employs. Linguistic confusions, multilingual puns, and an obvious delight in the pure sounds and textures of words play significant roles in his fiction. (p. 19)
The first book of the Malayan trilogy is resolved by the pure operation of chance. Whatever the partial breakthrough seemed to signify for [the protagonist] Crabbe, it certainly did not establish his ability to choose and to act decisively in present time. At the end, the characters move into a future which more closely resembles the random spinning of the roulette wheel than [a] clockwork mechanism…. Even the mechanics of the fictional technique seem consciously clumsy at the end. Burgess has employed a Deus ex Machina for deliverance as the long days of empire wane, a slim chance only for the individual characters who find themselves inheritors of the present situation. (pp. 20-1)
At the end of Tiger, Crabbe finds he has been "done in" by "an enemy in the blanket," one of the very students he might have counted on for support. The phrase—with overtones of internal conflict and betrayal, and even the suggestion of a connection between the hotbed of Malaya and the problem-ridden marriage bed Crabbe shares with Fenella—carries over as the title of the second book in the trilogy. The Enemy in the Blanket follows Crabbe even deeper into the East, into the political, cultural, and philosophical turmoil of the heated environment. (p. 21)
There is an accurate and nearly mythic sense to the clarity of vision … [Crabbe attains] at the end of the novel…. [In retelling a] final story to the Malays from his veranda, Crabbe himself becomes myth, the past transformed into eternity: "The story of the man from the far country who tried to help…." There is a union in this mythic realm, an integration of past, present, and future time, a transcendence of a kind. But it is, the reader knows, an exaggerated, highly ironic fiction.
As the Malayan trilogy moves toward its culmination, we are being asked to ponder a major historical and cultural event. The paradigm for Battlements was Virgil's epic and the founding of the Roman empire. That classical precedent lurks behind the Malayan scenario as well, but the more essential historical paradigm in this case is Shakespeare's drama and the British empire…. [The] allusion behind the title of the final book in the trilogy [Beds in the East] is taken … from Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, a work which presents themes of Empire (Roman and British), the meeting of East and West, the closeness of love and of death, the conflicting interests of State and the individual. In Shakespeare's great play, the title phrase of Burgess's book occurs as Mark Antony is expressing his thanks to Caesar for calling him away from the East. Antony explains, "The beds i' the east are soft; and thanks to you / That call'd me, timelier than my purposes, hither; For I have gain'd by it." Crabbe's actions take on added significance when considered against Antony's, for in many ways they are opposite. Crabbe does not allow himself to be called back, and his death is not so much suicide as destiny; allusions enrich Burgess's novels through literary counterpoint. (pp. 26-7)
The trilogy is one of the great works of English twentieth century literature, full of warmth, humor, literacy, charm, and characters with stature and distinction. It exorcises many of the naive idealistic preachments of Ennis in Battlements and puts them to the test of struggle. In the end Victor's death fulfills the recognition he himself achieved: "The past has got to be killed." Burgess's first novels seem to have served something of the same purpose in his own life. They were a way of facing up to the present, to racial conflict with no easy solution, to indifference, sterility, a lack of heroism; a way for the idealist to assimilate the Waste Land by battling it out in the jungle. (p. 33)
Burgess has mastered a broad comic style in [The Doctor is Sick], with more intellectual and slapstick humor than in the earlier works. To be sure, the bleak and serious edge is there, but a greater playfulness with language, more room for outrageous and absurdly exaggerated elements (which can occur freely in the patient's hallucinating state), and a happier use of irony throughout the book make this novel more completely comic. (p. 35)
Perhaps his best known book, both on its own merits and from the Stanley Kubrick film, [A Clockwork Orange] was a radical experiment for Burgess, and a marked departure from his previous fictional techniques. Having shown himself capable of brilliantly constructed traditional novels, Burgess turned to new novelistic sub-genres for variety, hoping at the same time to reach a wider audience. (p. 36)
Clockwork Orange is a masterpiece as both a novel and a film, but the linguistic richness of the book is unsurpassed. The theme is a simple one, yet like most simple but profound themes it has such complexity that it cannot be unequivocally stated. Essentially, Burgess has written another variation on his Manichean dialectic, but the key issue here is freedom of choice. The book suggests that both sides of the dialectic must be allowed to survive, for without them there would be no real choice, and the world would be based on tyranny rather than freedom. (p. 37)
A Clockwork Orange forces us to examine politics, media, and morality, and to ask what kind of fruit we have grown from "the world-tree in the world-orchard that like Bog or God planted." The action is not so far from the arbitrary violence currently occurring in the large cities of the world. In fact, this is a kind of disorder which has always been with us….
The clockwork orange state is a rotten mechanical fruit, but on Alex, a ghost who will not be put to rest, Burgess pins the hope that this disturbed spirit may somewhere awaken our sleeping moral sensibilities, that someone will step forth truly to set the time to right.
It is not unreasonable to expect to find strong stylistic, thematic, and generic links between novels written in close proximity, and this is certainly the case with the trio of futuristic fictions Burgess produced in rapid short order. Though published first, Clockwork Orange was the last of these in order of composition. It was written in the first half of 1961, while The Wanting Seed was completed between August and October in 1960, and One Hand Clapping in November and December, 1960. Taken together, the three form a counterpart of the Malayan trilogy which we might call a dystopian trilogy, though Burgess has never indicated they should be read together or in any particular sequence. Seed and Orange are most closely related, both having futuristic settings, while Hand brings the problems more specifically home to contemporary England.
Seed contains the kernel of Orange, as the organic metaphor suggests. It is concerned with the germ, the problem of conception—a familiar problem in Burgess's work from the time he named his first heroine Concepcion. (p. 43)
More hopeful than Clockwork Orange, Seed suggests there is a chance for survival, and even for a positive answer to [Beatrice-Joanna's] prayer "Sea … teach us all sense." Tristram the teacher at the end of the book has walked through death and back to life, with knowledge and vision enriched. Burgess successfully walked the same road through this shadow of death, completing his five novels, and miraculously surviving the death sentence his doctors had pronounced. His teaching and his sense seem to have come clearer for it, and both of these have been sharpened by an awareness of time.
The zen title of this comic and materialistic novel [One Hand Clapping] is only one irony of many in its deceptively simple framework. It promises a philosophical perspective with an Eastern flavor, but merely delivers a miasma of Western materialism and violence. It does truthfully refer, however, to a lack of thesis-antithesis. In fact, the attempt to resist the single-moded value system is as vain a pursuit … as one hand clapping. Who is the enemy, where is the enemy? There is nothing to come up against in this novel … except oblivion. (pp. 50-1)
It is another masterpiece of first person narrative, limited in this case to the mundane and trivial vocabulary of an uneducated woman [Janet] who understands little of what she sees. It succeeds masterfully not only in evoking the emptiness of life in the welfare state, but in conveying the appalling consequences of vacuity. Janet's narrative is a mirror in words of her husband's problem, which in turn mirrors a larger societal problem. (p. 51)
In these books Burgess has fully explored the social-political-temporal parameters of a clockwork universe. Particularly in these central novels, blended of science fiction, fantasy, and social satire, he has created eloquent philosophical moral studies and taken his writings to the limits of time and the universals. (p. 60)
Richard Mathews, in his The Clockwork Universe of Anthony Burgess (copyright © 1978 by Richard Mathews), The Borgo Press, 1978, 63 p.
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By the time I had reached the end of [Earthly Powers] I had accumulated enough notes to make a modest book: a fact that bears witness to the sheer density of the writing, as well as the seriousness of its concern. It is unwise to skim. Only in retrospect can you identify what could safely have been skipped as supererogatory or duplicate. Since complaints will follow—grave matters incur grave complaint—let me say at the outset that Earthly Powers carries greater intellectual substance, more power and grim humour, more knowledge, than ten average novels put together.
[Why has Burgess created his hero, Toomey, homosexual?] Burgess is hardly an author whom one would suppose to be in search of new sensations. It could be … that, heterosex being so awful, homosex has to be a little better…. [It] would be no serious distortion to say that there is only one good gay here, and lots of bad gays. Possibly homosexuality is an extra twist of the thumbscrew Burgess customarily applies to his leading characters. Perhaps it is necessary that Toomey should be a Catholic, and a lapsed one, but lapsed for some reason other than mere intellectual doubt: God made him homosexual and thus forced him to reject God.
And the Word was God. Earthly Powers is theological and linguistic in equal proportions, quite properly. Less properly, it is too heavily both, in the sense that one can have too much of a good thing….
[Is Burgess] too clever for his own good? That is the sort of accusation made by people who really aren't all that bright themselves…. One is near to objecting to what is most Burgessian in Burgess, what one reads him for. There is a sickening, suffocating weight to this book. So, one is meant to be sickened and suffocated. At all events, it is egregiously difficult to say where the author has stepped over the line, because it is hard to know where to draw the line. It has to be one's sense of artistic rightness that draws it, not nervousness, gentility, frivolity or a semiliterate dislike for quibbles and puns. I believe that the author's obsessiveness … falls foul of the awful law of diminishing returns—in terms of quibbles as well as squalor and horrors—and incurs a penalty, though I am not sure how grave the penalty is. Irritation on the reader's part, at the least, followed by lapses of attention; at the most, a loss of credence. Oh for an occasional draught of Thomas Mann's coolness!
D. J. Enright, "Lost Empire" (appears here by permission of the London Review of Books and the author), in London Review of Books, October 16 to November 5, 1980, p. 3.
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Earthly Powers is a novel which engages twentieth-century personalities, events, ideas and problems in a way that makes David Lodge's How Far Can You Go? look like a parish magazine. In the process, it explores the dealings of fiction with the actual: fiction's kaleidoscopic scramblings and refractions of real bits and pieces into a vivid pattern, a pattern made in Earthly Powers out of the combination of an intellectual, witty scheme with the narrative shapings of a more traditional sequential novel.
This scheme is both intensely grim and, in the end, unexpectedly consoling. To write about it intelligibly, it is necessary to give away some of what come in the story as appalling surprises, including one particularly audacious fictional coup. To read it knowing its outcome will be a different kind of experience, and one, like knowing how Lear ends, that has its own bleak rewards. I can think of few recent fictions I would more willingly read again straight away….
Earthly Powers is full of … parodic brilliancies, as it is full of caricatured or modified people and events. But if it plays with the processes of fiction, with the transubstantiation of the actual into the preferred, Burgess does the actual itself with all his usual vividness. Gruesome and comic rough-trade scenes are closely realized…. And the natural world is conveyed with a Joycean indulgent rhetoric….
It would be possible to describe these and other aspects of Burgess's novel so as to suggest more not only of their separate value but of their inter-relationship, the way in which the narrative threads … in this sometimes apparently rambling Kunstlerroman come together. One would talk about Burgess's sensitive and unsentimental close-quarters treatment of Toomey's sexuality, and about the importance in the novel of music, about which, of course, Burgess here as elsewhere writes very well. One would talk, too, about the way he succeeds at the near-impossible business of writing in the artist's first person: a problem got over by Joyce through his artist's being, though vain, not yet successful, by Burgess through Toomey's being deeply and convincingly modest about the nature and value of his work—"Those of you here who aspire to be novelists", Toomey tells a crowd of American students, "do please remember that the mechanics of the craft are more important than angling for truths or changing the world. If your work changes the world, well, it will not be because of your purposing."
Toomey's own narrative makes this modesty unnecessary. Earthly Powers is a big, grippingly readable, extraordinarily rich and moving fiction by one of the most ambitiously creative writers working in English.
Jeremy Treglown, "The Knowledge of Good and Evil," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1980; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4047, October 24, 1980, p. 1189.
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Mr. Burgess, who has in "Earthly Powers" made a remarkable recovery from a series of indifferent fictions that began with "MF," chooses to write entirely from the point of view of an octogenarian homosexual….
To be sure, the heterosexuals in "Earthly Powers" fare almost as poorly as the homosexuals, once Mr. Burgess punches the total bar on his adding machine, but the homosexuals range from the opportunistic to the nasty and seem, in the scheme of the novel, to deserve their misery.
As if this moralizing were not sufficiently scandalous, Mr. Burgess invents a twin moon for Toomey, Don Carlo Campanati, a fat priest and exorcist who becomes the people's Pope. Carlo, with the changes he proposes to the Mother Church, sounds suspiciously like Pope John XXIII, except that he may himself be an agent of diabolism. The moons of Toomey and Carlo, in perfect opposition, orbit around a planet we might as well call God, if God in fact bothers to be there. Perhaps all the gravity comes from the devil. We ought to know more about the Arian heresy….
Mr. Burgess is as shameless as Dickens; he won't stop plotting; he just can't help himself. One of his points is that memory is a plot.
The usual Burgess obsessions are to be found in "Earthly Powers." They include food, music, linguistics, Joyce, Dante, Shakespeare, the Far East and the Mediterranean and movies. New to me are his preoccupations with mint, dentistry, cigarette lighters and the adjectives "venerean" and "prolettic." All are deployed in the service of a meditation on the nature of evil….
Mr. Burgess is prodigal. He intends to woo us on behalf of the traditional novel, while making fun of the traditional novelist and at the same time sending up the postmodernism which junks coherence and guilt, which would make of empirical reality a dull linoleum. He has written an entertainment about God, after the laughter stops. No wonder Toomey's brother Tom dies young; only a saint is allowed to make jokes.
Mr. Burgess is also quite serious. He is telling us that St. Nicholas was cheated; that if God is the Father we have come to know, we desperately need a Mother Church; that neither art nor propaganda can outshout senseless evil; that "the horror of surfeit" makes even language throw up. Still, certain words oblige us to cry, and he names them: home, duty, love, faith, shame, pity, death.
I'd rather Toomey weren't a pastiche. Tom, as a character, is insufficiently developed. Hortense is an angry ghost. But the astonishing Mr. Burgess has somehow managed to graft James Joyce onto Somerset Maugham, with a demented laugh track. "My destiny," says Toomey, "is to create a kind of under-literature that lacks all whiff of the subversive." Mr. Burgess, in his best novel, subverts.
John Leonard, "Books of the Times: 'Earthly Powers'," in The New York Times (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 19, 1980, p. C33.
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The phenomena of demonic possession and exorcism seem to be taken seriously in Anthony Burgess's new novel [Earthly Powers]. Has Burgess himself been possessed by a scribbling demon? More than 20 novels in as many years, together with more than 20 titles in a variety of other genres—the record suggests that some agency not quite human might have been at work. Demons traditionally speak in many tongues, as does the polyglot Burgess, who is also capable of making up languages of his own (A Clockwork Orange and other novels, passim). The range of his productions, from children's books to studies of Joyce, hints at multiple possession, at the possibility that the name of Burgess's demon may be Legion. And now, as if all the other manifestations of occult influence had been largely diversionary, we are presented with what has been hailed as a Tolstoyan masterwork, a 600-page novel, 10 years in the making, that offers nothing less than the social, literary, and religious history of our times from World War I to the Jonestown massacre, with extensive stopovers for the Holocaust and the aggiornamento of John XXIII (herein known as Gregory XVII). Tolstoyan or Luciferian? That is the question with which the reviewer of Earthly Powers must wrestle. (p. 32)
So crammed is Earthly Powers with events and plot-turnings that a mere catalogue of them would run to many pages. Toomey is always Johnny-on-the-spot, always popping up where the action is. In this respect he is like Lanny Budd in that series of public-event novels (now forgotten?) that Upton Sinclair used to grind out. Some of this is entertaining, but there are disadvantages to the method. The namedropping is incessant and finally, as in real life, a bore. Too often the dialogue becomes portentous, weighed down by the necessity of speaking for history….
The characterization of Toomey suffers, I think, from his role as witness to the horrors of the age. Much of the time he seems less an agent in his own right than a reactor to the events swirling around him. Another problem is presented by the ready-made associations with Maugham. The loneliness in the midst of wealth, the betrayals endured, the self-deprecation of his art—these are now too familiar a part of the persona to interest or move us very much. The armoring of world-weariness, of irony, of knowingness, is burdensome to sustain over hundreds of pages. While we are clearly intended to sympathize with Toomey's homosexual plight and the anguish it causes him, we end up impatient with his poor taste in lovers….
The dialogue between Toomey and his lovers consists of little more than elaborate bitchiness, sprinkled with "my dears" and cruel or patronizing put-downs—just the sort of thing to give buggery a bad name. The forces of gay liberation have a perfect right to protest.
Carlo Campanati is a more complex creation than Toomey, less bound to his historical prototype. (p. 33)
Though the presentation of this robust and energetic figure seems warmly favorable, including as it does a number of blind spots and foibles, the wary reader begins to notice something dubious, even macabre, about some of the phenomena that accompany the appearances of this peripatetic cleric. He is always on hand for terrible events…. While he seems entirely on the side of the angels, could it be that all along he has been the secret agent of the one who, before his fall, had been the brightest angel of them all?… One can imagine the leer—or rictus, to use one of his favorite words—on the author's face as he inserts a pin into the image of the beloved pontiff. Is Earthly Powers to be read as a covertly reactionary attack upon the whole Johannine revolution, as vengeance for the abandonment of the Latin mass, as a reassertion of St. Augustine's defeat of the heretic Pelagius?
That would be to take the whole performance with undue gravity. Sensationalism—not moral or religious profundity—is what Burgess has to offer. For thick, greasy, loathsome detail, the scenes of exorcism in Earthly Powers match anything to be found in The Exorcist. The horrors of our century are real enough, and Burgess does full justice to them in Toomey's account of his visit to Buchenwald; but to these the author adds scenes of individual cruelty, disease, disfigurement …, and suffering that come to seem gratuitous. When the only pleasant, attractive, and wholesome young couple in the entire novel … go off on an anthropological visit to one of the new African states, the by-then experienced reader knows almost exactly what will befall them. The great theological issues—free will and predestination, God's curtailment of his own omniscience, original sin, the problem of evil—too often have the appearance of being little more than scaffolding upon which to hang glib oppositions. The Augustinian-Pelagian controversy has been used before by Burgess…. As a "Catholic" novel, Earthly Powers bears about as much relationship to the novels of Graham Greene and Mauriac as do Roger Peyrefitte's "exposés" of the inner workings of the Church Militant and Triumphant (The Keys of St. Peter, The Knights of Malta) which titillated and scandalized a wide international audience in the 1950s.
To give the devilish author his due, a good deal of entertainment is to be found in Earthly Powers. Burgess is, as he has demonstrated many times before, a clever, linguistically erudite spinner of words. He can be amusingly nasty on occasion. He purveys lots of rather specialized information. He has a nice instinct for the special, telling details of a period, though he does not always avoid anachronisms. And he can construct a dramatically vivid scene with the best of them—for instance, the Vatican conclave at which Carlo is elected pope after the sudden death of his just elected rival. But in a novel as long as Earthly Powers, Burgess is damaged by his own facility. The words come too trippingly; the sensationalism and sadism pall; the gossip grows tedious. Though much space is devoted to describing states of feeling and to (most irritable) expressions of feeling, nothing seems adequately felt. "Meaty," "fruity," "fatty,"… "flatulent"—such were the gustatory and alimentary adjectives that came to mind as I made my way through the most "oral" of novels, one in which every meal is described in loving detail and in which every spiteful impulse is fully voiced. (pp. 33-4)
Robert Towers, "The Prince of Darkness Is Pope," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1981 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 184, Nos. 1 & 2, January 3-10, 1981, pp. 32-4.
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[Anthony Burgess's] twenty-odd volumes of fiction range over vast immensities of time and space, and are full of flashy erudition and restless experiments with language and form.
In one of his early novels, The Right to an Answer (1960), Burgess proved himself a mordantly funny satirist, expert at the outraged snarl against society that has been a staple of postwar British fiction and that reached comic perfection in the work of Kingsley Amis. In Davil of a State and the trilogy, The Long Day Wanes, drawing upon his colonial years in Malaya, Burgess was a canny and unsentimental chronicler of the death rattle of empire, perceiving it as a tragicomedy of misconception and fatally crossed wires between incongruent races and cultures. But in his later work it has become clear that his unique brilliance lies not in the fields that Evelyn Waugh, E. M. Forster, and Graham Greene have already plowed, but in his Joycean obsession with language. Joyce, indeed, is the taunting ghost that looms behind Burgess….
Where Joyce sought to compress the whole of European civilization into a single moment of historical time, Burgess deployed his erudite fascination with language in a futuristic morality tale. A Clockwork Orange is Burgess's masterpiece, a savage prophecy of a future socialist England…. The novelty of the book consists in an invented language, the Russified slang that is the hoodlums' secret code. Its unintelligibility to others is an emblem of the gangs' sinister power over the poogly chellovecks (frightened persons) and grazhny bratchnies (dirty bastards) they terrorize. The astonishing feat of A Clockwork Orange is the way the seeming gibberish quickly yields its meaning within the context of the gang leader's monologue.
In his account of the Pavlovian conditioning which the state employs to transform the vicious Alex into a docile citizen, Burgess sought to press home his certainty that man, however depraved, must be free to make a moral choice between good and evil…. Burgess in A Clockwork Orange turned the liberal piety of the welfare state on its head, repudiating the simpleminded faith of our age in rehabilitation and social conditioning. More recently Burgess spelled out the point once again in 1985; a rather cranky attempt to bring Orwell's dystopia up to date…. (p. 71)
What Burgess is saying—that moral reform cannot be induced—is presumably indisputable. Yet his implication that the evil of violence, freely chosen, is preferable to the brainwashed passivity of "reconditioned" sinners shrinks the actual human alternatives with ludicrous severity. Any absolute principle, no matter how uncompromisingly it declares itself for moral freedom, becomes twisted in its absolute application. And the lesson of the last thirty years, the lesson that makes a tragedy of the Enlightenment, is that even when virtues are positive they may prove to be irreconcilable. As a thinker Burgess is considerably less persuasive than as a virtuoso of language.
It is not immediately clear as one reads Anthony Burgess's fitfully entertaining new novel, Earthly Powers, whether he conceived it as his magnum opus or as an eccentric attempt to write a best-seller. On the one hand it draws heavily upon his versatility as scholar, linguist, Christian-humanist sage, and satirist. On the other hand it displays with gaudy largesse a talent for the kind of blockbusting fantasy that relies on sensational coincidence, extravagantly unbelievable characters, and exotic locales.
It has never been possible to guess what Burgess might tackle next …, but the imagined autobiography of a popular writer modeled on Somerset Maugham is the last thing one would have expected him to attempt. Why Maugham? For one flippant reason, because he provides Burgess with a socko opener: "It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the Archbishop had come to see me." For another, because a protagonist who roams the world in search of plots and settings enables Burgess, too, to put to practical use all the strange countries he has lived in. Finally, the history of Kenneth Toomey, rich and worldfamous homosexual writer of fluffy novels and plays, allows Burgess to haul in a glittering catch of actual stars whom his peripatetic celebrity would have known in the course of a long and adventurous life….
Burgess also appears to have more serious matters in mind in recounting the saga of Kenneth Toomey. In his youth, the fledgling novelist by chance encounters an earthy priest, Carlo Campanati, and as their lives become deeply intertwined over the next fifty years, the improbable friends find themselves increasingly at odds about the nature of the human soul….
The awesome philosophical differences represented by Toomey and Campanati account for only a single layer of the story. Burgess seems to have been determined to omit no important moment of this malignant century; at every turn of the historical wheel, there is Kenneth Toomey, on the scene and bearing witness. (p. 72)
After a while it begins to look as though Burgess set out to write a tongue-in-cheek version of Upton Sinclair's Lanny Budd and Herman Wouk's Pug Henry, both of whom Toomey must have run across on those well-worn trails of history. Indeed, the further Burgess moves from the image of Somerset Maugham, the more suspect his panorama of history comes to seem. But Burgess is a witty fellow, and to leaven the heavy dose of historical drama, he has a wonderfully funny time with the campy malice of Toomey's dreadful catamites, one of them a black poet who runs off to serve a ruthless African dictator, becomes fed up with his "roots," and migrates back to New York to teach Black Studies at Columbia. With his usual comic agility, Burgess interleaves the decline of the West with brilliant parodies of musical songs, social comedies of the 20's, a homosexual version of the Creation, and the cozy verse of John Betjeman.
Why, then, since Burgess has provided so many things to contemplate and savor, does this groaning board of a novel finally seem so meager? Why should a work that strikes so many chords of significance sound so tinny? Part of the trouble stems from Burgess's chronic exhibitionism, which he has never been able to control and which is especially obtrusive in Earthly Powers, with its solemn air of high seriousness. The swaggering displays of knowledge have no genuine connection with Burgess's thought or characters, and soon become merely exasperating…. And Burgess's addiction to uncommon words in common contexts—anaphebe, infangthief, gaudiated, obliterans—instead of refining his meaning just buries it.
But the heart of the problem with Earthly Powers is more complicated than verbal ostentation. Burgess has sought to weave two very different fictions into a cluttered skein. On one level he has, in his odd fashion, written a lurid, amusing, speciously intellectual saga of the man who is there at every right historical moment, and in so doing has squandered his narrative gifts on the tricks of Ragtime and Hollywood. Into this hollow frame he has tried to squeeze a Christian meditation on man, God, and the Devil that is dimly reminiscent of Graham Greene but much less affecting, since in Burgess the conflicting views are embodied in such artificially calculated opposites—the homosexual novelist and the priest who becomes Pope. Threaded through both the Holly wood epic and the spurious moral philosophy is the other Burgess tinsel of Joycean puns and coruscating verbal resources. The huge unwieldy structure cannot be taken seriously, though reviewers on both sides of the ocean have done just that. Once again we are made aware that a game, however intricate and dazzling, is still not a novel. (pp. 72-3)
Pearl K. Bell, "Games Writers Play," in Commentary (reprinted by permission; all rights reserved), Vol. 71, No. 2, February, 1981, pp. 69-73.∗
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The Burgess bibliography lists twenty-one novels. (There are rumors of esoterica under a pen name.) "The Long Day Wanes," an autobiographical trilogy set in Malaya, launched the Burgess canon. It remains perhaps his most poignant, unguarded performance. "A Clockwork Orange" brought celebrity when it was made into a striking movie. But the fiction is subtler than Stanley Kubrick's package and points to that in Burgess's politics and alertness to science-fiction which connects his writings to those of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. "Honey for the Bears" is both a political fable and an ingenious meditation on language. It is one of a cluster of works, fiction and nonfiction, in which Burgess seeks an imaginative grip on the ominous charms of the Russian tongue and of its native speakers. "Enderby," "Nothing Like the Sun," and "ABBA ABBA" form a sparkling trio. They are studies of the writer's odd condition, of the pathologies and carnivals of poetic inspiration. The first is a wry mirroring of Burgess himself; the second is just about the only convincing fictional recreation we have of the young Shakespeare; the third is a witty but also moving evocation of Keats in the season of his passing. "Napoleon Symphony," a novel on Beethoven, combines Burgess's frank obsession with the titans of the past and his virtuoso knowledge of music, his rare cunning in finding a verbal counterpoint to musical effects (another decisive link with Joyce). "1985," a "semi-fiction," begins where Orwell and "A Clockwork Orange" left off. "Moses" and "Man of Nazareth" are potboilers aimed at, occasioned by, more or less Neronian treatments on television and film. Yet even here there are touches of mandarin originality. All in all, a prodigious catalogue.
Take its several items, add to them ingredients from Burgess's nonfiction, from his monographs on Joyce and on the English language, from his portrait of Hemingway and other forays into Americana, top off with some of his acrobatics of translation, and you will have what Coleridge called, self-teasingly, an omnium-gatherum. Burgess's collectanea—another word beloved of listmakers and lexicographers—masks itself in the guise of a leviathan novel, "Earthly Powers."… And there are spacious stretches of fiction in it. But it is Anthony Burgess's polymath persona, his cat's lives, the appetites of his intellect, the syncopations of thought and feeling so peculiarly his own which furnish the great creature with its life force and (partial) unison. (pp. 156, 159)
Connoisseurs of Somerset Maugham's life and manner will almost "preconsciously"—and therein lies Burgess's control—pick up the underlying thread. They will know within moments that Burgess has undertaken the implausible task of composing the memoirs of an eighty-one-year-old panjandrum and world celebrity of letters who is a homosexual and, under the alias of Kenneth Marchal Toomey, none other than Willie Maugham. (p. 159)
The "Maugham level" is adroitly sustained. "Willie" is himself often alluded to in the third person, and his tales of empire and sunset lust are subtly interwoven with Burgess's own Malaya. The style of the first-person narrative wickedly renders the aging carnivore's malice, sexual needs and panics, self-punishments, and bitchy hauteur. Here is a memorable study of an immensely successful middlebrow writer cursed with just that dram of unsparing lucidity which shows him, which makes him discern in the judgment of others, the final fiasco: the ephemerality of his most acclaimed works. Burgess's ability to slip into the old man's flaccid hide, to bring to fetid yet poignant expression the sexual lunges and humiliations of the old and of the invert, is uncanny. But writers have long been Burgess's meat, and they crowd this canvas: Joyce, Steinbeck, Huxley, J. B. Priestley, Arnold Bennett, either in propria persona or transparently referred to, together with dozens of lesser lights. (p. 160)
The other main strand in "Earthly Powers" is the saga of Don Carlo Campanati…. Campanati—and the bells peal literally in his name—is among the most ambitiously conceived, intellectually exciting agents in recent fiction.
Dozens of subplots wind around these two main stems…. Much of the latter part of the book is taken up by an often acute but hurriedly imagined presentation of the Manson case, of the mass suicide at Jonestown, and of a general slide of young America into mysticism and mindless violence. As with one of Beethoven's unwilling codas, so with "Earthly Powers" one has the impression not so much of a logical close as of a halt, reluctantly imposed, on a continuing pulse of energy.
This is a taxing novel. Not only because of the innumerable conundrums, acrostics, cross-echoes, veiled citations, and historical-literary references that make up its opulent texture. Not only because of a vocabulary in which terms such as "metathesis" and hints out of "Finnegans Wake" are common. Not only because a reader innocent of Christian soteriology, English metrics, and antique mythology will be deprived of numerous apprehensions and pleasures. "Earthly Powers" is taxing simply because it has set out to reclaim for the current art of the novel those domains of intellectual debate, of political modelling, of formal and anarchic religiosity, of adult confrontations with humbling sexuality and the wastage of death which have been, so very largely, yielded to high journalism, to discursive prose, and to the uneasy hybrid of "fact/fiction." Burgess honors his readers in purposing them to be almost as omnivorously aware and intelligent as he is.
At a first reading, one is not confident that the venture has "come off"—that the monster has, in Henry James's phrase, achieved "deep-breathing and organic form."…
["Earthly Powers" is] a feat of imaginative breadth and of intelligence which lifts fiction high. The whole landscape is the brighter for it. (pp. 160-62)
George Steiner, "Scroll & Keys," in The New Yorker (© 1981 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LVII, No. 8, April 13, 1981, pp. 156, 159-62.