650 pages is a long volume for me nowadays, although it is certainly a readable 650 pages since its structure is largely chronological, as octogenarian writer Kenneth Toomey recounts his life, friendships and travels between World War One and the 1970s.
In many ways the novel is especially characteristic of Burgess both as writer and man, which perhaps explains its celebrity and its Booker Prize nomination. The narrative moves through many locations, and locations which Burgess knew well: Malaysia, North Africa, London; Italy including the Vatican, the USA including Hollywood, France including the Cannes Film Festival. The lead character name-drops many famous artists: James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Henry Havelock Ellis, Peter Warlock, JB Priestley, George Orwell. Literature and music are widely discussed. There are many detailed descriptions of food and drink, of fashions and furnishings.
Many characters and incidents are based on real-life examples which even the less informed reader enjoys identifying. Toomey is related through marriage to Carlo Campanati, the Catholic priest who becomes Pope Gregory XVII at the exact same time as did John XXIII, although his international fame also hints at the Pope at the time of the novel’s publication, John Paul II. The fictitious Nobel laureate Austrian writer Jakob Strehler whom Toomey greatly admires has written a novel sequence Vatertag which seems rather reminiscent of Earthly Powers itself in some ways – and certainly also of The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil and Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin, both rediscovered and fashionable at the time of Earthly Powers. The exploits of religious cult leader God Manning are clearly modelled on those of Jim Jones and Charles Manson. The Poet Laureate Dawson Wignall seems very similar to John Betjeman with his “themes derived from Anglican church services, the Christmas parties of his childhood, his public school pubescence…” A musical The Blooms of Dublin based on Ulysses is almost identical to a play by Burgess himself.
Although, as mentioned, Earthly Powers’ chronological structure makes it easy to follow and to stay with, it does include a few modernist flourishes which show off Toomey’s and Burgess’ Joycean influences. Vocabulary which is unfamiliar and demanding, some which may well be invented, omissions of punctuation, invented onomatopoeia like “at the card table, flicking a new pack of cards skrirr skrirr with powerful gambler’s fingers”, selections of Toomey’s own writing in different genres.
For me, one especially absorbing part of the narrative is the section about the Vatican as Carlo Campanati moves towards the Papacy. Campanati’s plans for the Catholic Church as revealed to Toomey could be seen as similar to John XXIII’s ideas: “the unification of the churches. The vernacularization of the liturgy” and the awareness of “capitalistic enemies, but … Marxist enemies too”. Around the time of the writing of Earthly Powers in 1978 came the drama of the deaths of both Pope Paul VI and John Paul I and the accession of John Paul II, the first non-Italian Pope in 400 years, a period which prompted regular discussion in the Catholic Church about the pontifical legacy of John XXIII. The vivid African image on the cover of my Penguin paperback edition seems out of place at first since it seems to give undue prominence to a tiny incident from a novel which takes place more often in Europe and the USA, until you notice that the figure in the wooden statue is undergoing a Christ-like crucifixion.
Another favourite strand throughout the novel is the descriptions of food and drink which showcase Burgess the bon viveur as well as the descriptive writer. For example, the expensive Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo where its restaurant serves “Saumon Fumé de Hollande, Velouté de Homard au Paprika, Tourte de Ris-de-Veau Brillat-Savarin, Selle d’Agneau de Lait Polignac…”, or “the crowded smoky (Paris) restaurant (with) potted shrimps, lobster Mornay, a carafe of house Chablis” followed by all brands of cigarettes such as “Gold Flake, Black Cat, Three Castles, Crumbs of Comfort” or Moneta in Italy with its “thick bean soup, tripe stew with gnocchi, fat sausages from the grill, the black wine that is Moneta’s pride”.
Although I did enjoy the belated company in a writer of whom I used to be such a fervent fan, I did feel just a little sense of anti-climax at the novel’s ending. Perhaps because it is the sort of novel which impresses an eager younger reader rather more than a jaundiced older one, and perhaps because of another stronger sense, that this reader and the world in which he was reading were so very different from what they would have been at the time of the book’s original publication.
Reference: Burgess, Anthony (1982) Earthly Powers Harmondsworth: Penguin