Any Old Iron
Anthony Burgess, author of more than thirty novels, has said that his novels since A Vision of Battlements (1965) have aimed at “a slow and cruel stripping off of illusion.” This seems an apt description of Any Old Iron, one of Burgess’ most substantive works. It aims at being, among other things, a forty-year chronicle of two families (one Jewish, one Welsh) related through marriage; a probing into the human penchant for romanticism and violence and their relationship; and a report on the catastrophic twentieth century from the sinking of the Titanic through the Russian Revolution, two world wars, and the establishment of the State of Israel. Clearly, a lot of “stripping away of illusion” is wanted here, perhaps too much for any one novel. Inevitably, Any Old Iron becomes diffuse, and Burgess’ vision, amid the welter of people, places, and things, becomes murky. Still, there is much to admire here beyond the sheer audacity of the undertaking. Burgess’ creation of the idiosyncratic characters in the Welsh family, the Joneses, is itself a major achievement.
David Jones, the patriarch of the family, is a survivor. Working his way from Wales to America as a cook on the Titanic, he survives that catastrophe and finds work in a New York restaurant, where he marries the Russian owner’s beautiful daughter, Ludmila Petrovna. When David’s father dies, he and Ludmila return to Wales (narrowly missing booking passage on the Lusitania) to collect David’s inheritance and open a restaurant. David joins the British army, is among the troops sent to quell the Easter uprising in Dublin in 1916, and later serves in France during World War I. Mistakenly reported dead, David again survives, and eventually he and Ludmila opt for a quiet life of running the Black Lion pub and trying to understand their three children, who are the focus of much of the novel: Beatrix, Reginald, and Daniel.
David and Ludmila are particularly scandalized by the behavior of their daughter, the lovely and worldly Beatrix, who picks and chooses her lovers from an admiring throng—including Harry Wolfson, the Jewish narrator of Any Old Iron. On one occasion while they are both university students she invites Harry to her flat for tea and sex, an invitation he futilely hopes will be extended again. Beatrix easily dominates men, but ironically (and to the chagrin of Harry, who is in love with her) she chooses as a husband Irwin Roth, a Jewish-American pseudo- novelist who brutally dominates her. Roth aspires to write the great novel of World War II without ever seeing combat. When his novel is panned by the critics, who compare it unfavorably to Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead (1948), Roth’s drunken abusiveness becomes too much for Beatrix. She leaves her husband in New York and returns to England as a university lecturer in Soviet history, having gained expertise in Russian during her service with the Foreign Office during the war.
Reginald Morrow Jones, the second child, marries Harry’s musician sister, Zipporah, a talented percussionist with the local symphony. Zipporah remains a somewhat unrealized character, but Reg is the central figure in Any Old Iron and Burgess’ chief example of romantic self-delusion. Like a latter-day Don Quixote, Reg, full of idealistic fervor, rushes off to the Spanish Civil War, later joins the Royal Gwent Regiment (his father’s battalion), serves in the British Intelligence Corps in Gibraltar during World War II, and tries to save and liberate Russian citizens. Although Reg loses his sense of smell, part of an ear, and at one point most of his sanity (madly plotting to kill Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden), his romantic illusions remain more or less intact. He is perennially shocked to find impure elements such as greed, corruption, and stupidity among people who are on the “right” side. Not accepting the incorrigibly mixed nature of good and evil, Reg longs to get rid of the bad (projecting it onto an enemy) and embrace only the good. His involvement with the legendary sword of King Arthur, Excalibur (the iron referred to in the book’s title), best reveals his quest for the Absolute, for the good the pure and the holy in a dirty world. But the sword marked with an “A” is itself symbolic of the ambiguity of the modern world: Part of the plunder the Nazis take from Monte Cassino, it becomes Soviet loot when the Russians take over. The stone plinth into which it supposedly fit (inscribed “Glad Art Reg,” possibly meaning “King Arthur’s Sword”) was uncovered in Wales near the Joneses’ pub by Luftwaffe bombs. Reg steals the sword from the Hermitage in Leningrad and returns it to Wales, where it becomes a magical symbol for Welsh nationalists and for Reg a kind of summa of everything missing in the unromantic twentieth century. Disappointed by his own and his wife’s sexual infidelities, disillusioned with the...
(The entire section is 2033 words.)