Tag Archives: Anthony Burgess

One version of the 20th century

 

 

The drawing of Anthony Burgess by David Levine on the cover of Burgess’ journalism anthology “Homage to QWERTYUIOP“.

 

So finally, after owning a copy of the novel since 1983, I got around to reading Anthony Burgess’  Earthly Powers.

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.

 

Waiting for Pope John Paul II in St Peter’s Square, Rome on Easter Sunday 2002. “Carlo…told the crowd briefly why he had chosen the name Gregory. It was primarily because of Gregory the Great, who had reformed the Church and spread the gospel.”

 

The entrance to Graumann’s Chinese Theatre in Hollwood, USA in 2010. “My situation in Hollywood was a comfortable one. I was glad to get money out of the industry but I did not really need it. I did not have to bow or yes or cringe…I was Kenneth M. Toomey, distinguished British novelist in distinguished early middle age…”

 

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.

 

 

The night-time exterior of Teatro alla Scala in Milan in 2006.”I… telephoned La Scala to ensure that a ticket for the gallery was available for me and would be waiting at the box office.”

 

Barcelona in 2002 with Gaudi’s building La Pedrera on the left. “Ralph and I were at this time more or less domiciled in Barcelona… Why Spain, or rather Catalonia, which is not quite Spain? Because mild fascism seemed to me at the time to be better than confiscatory socialism. Because of the architecture of Gaudi…”

 

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

 

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There was this Catholic boy from Manchester…

 

This year is the centenary of the birth of the writer Anthony Burgess – already noted in the media and surely with further mentions to come.

My admiration of and fondness for Burgess was heavily based on his regularly available journalism in the 1970s and 1980s. Principally the fortnightly Observer book reviews on intimidatingly varied subjects  – as can be judged by a scan through the collection Homage to QWERTYUIOP – from religion to linguistics to Grace Kelly to James Joyce to Adolf Hitler to Russian literature to all types of classical music. Although the regular articles in the Daily Mail about contemporary life reminded you, the star-struck young  fan, that in many ways his experiences and attitudes were rather closer to those of your parents than to yours.

The other part of his appeal was his speaking.  I heard Burgess give a talk in the McLellan Galleries in Glasgow around 1982 or 1983. Shamefully most of the content from that evening is forgotten, but I  do remember one snippet that all of the best writers in the English language of the 20th century  had actually been Celtic rather than English – the best poets being Hugh MacDiarmid and W.B. Yeats, and the best novelist the aforementioned James Joyce. I also recall an attention-grabbing comment that, since he had mostly lived in the Far East and in continental Europe and his wife was Italian, the most memorable of his sexual experiences had been with non-English women – but that was possibly later on television!

His public speaking persona was highly individual. The melodious drawling voice, the way he flaunted his learning while pretending the opposite – “Yes, I’ve read it about 10 or 15 times now..” –  the prickliness he never hid at feeling undervalued compared to some of his contemporaries. All qualities which suited the TV appearances such as the astonishingly erudite Book Game one Christmas with Germaine Greer and Adam Mars-Jones.  His Desert Island Discs broadcast from 1966 is one of the few from that long-running series which are not available to hear currently, but many other TV examples are.

A recent commemorative series on BBC Radio 3 brought the public Burgess back to memory. Simon Rennie, an academic with a suitably Burgessian unconventional route to professorial status, suggested that it was the writer’s working-class Manchester background which gave him the confidence to combine populism with intellectual rigour. In addition, Rennie drew an unlikely but convincing comparison between Burgess and the US musician Frank Zappa:  both intellectual populists and experimental modernists, both political and social conservatives, both careless with their physical health yet prodigiously productive.

Another contributor on the same series, my Scottish contemporary A.L. Kennedy, reminisced about her own youthful experience watching Burgess on TV. It reminds you how he loved to entertain and impress, she said.

Kennedy proposed that it is unusual now to see a literary novelist perform on TV in the way that Burgess did, but you might argue that some current writers, in their alternative guises as commentators and columnists, do appear on discussion programmes like Question Time or on one of those ubiquitous TV slots previewing or reviewing newspapers. I frequently find such appearances annoying rather than stimulating, and so I wonder whether, if I had been older in the 1980s, I might have taken a similar dislike to Burgess and his ability to pontificate on any topic. 

 

           

 

Burgess wrote over 30 novels and many other works in other forms. The only novel I ever read was A Dead Man in Deptford, about Christopher Marlowe, although I also greatly liked Jesus of Nazareth, the TV drama which he co-scripted.  I have also owned a copy of his famous Booker Prize short-list novel Earthly Powers since 1983, so I think this should definitely be the year when I read it, either in an attempt to revive my youthful affections or in honour of its author’s centenary.

 

Reference:  Burgess, Anthony  (1987)  Homage to QWERT YIOUP : Selected Journalism 1978-1985   London:Abacus

 

 

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As Bloomsday approaches

 

“My literary tastes… have changed hardly at all in the last 45 years,” wrote Anthony Burgess sometime in the 1980s. “I was both disqualified and castigated when, in a school essay competition, I declared that James Joyce’s Ulysses was my favourite book…Now, making the identical declaration, I will be sneered at for the banality of my choice. Everybody knows now that Ulysses is the greatest novel of the century”.

As a great fan of Burgess’ journalism in The Observer during that period, I read him eulogise Ulysses there, and heard him do so at a personal appearance in Glasgow around the same time. Two Scottish novels which have been generally felt to show Joycean influences,  Alan Sharp’s A Green Tree in Gedde and Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, also nudged me further up towards the source.  An imminent first visit to Dublin in 1991 accelerated my first and so far only complete reading of the novel.

A great accompaniment was Frank Delaney’s  James Joyce’s Odyssey , a valuable guide both through Joyce’s writing and the novel’s Dublin locations.  When Delaney published his book, he was keen to help those readers, he said, who had started the book but reproached themselves for not finishing it. It is interesting to muse about  how many (or how few) readers today might reproach themselves for such a failing. A 1997 poll of the best novels of the 20th century, allegedly involving 25,000 members of the public, placed Ulysses only fourth, while a 2009 selection of an “essential fiction library” lowered it to 24.

The modernist structure of Joyce’s novel certainly makes it challenging. The conflation of a character’s thoughts with what he sees or experiences, the avoidance of inverted commas to make conversation harder to discern, the sections which experiment with unusual narrative techniques like the question and answer chapter or the playscript chapter or the 50-page unpunctuated monologue : all these require concentration from the reader to follow the story and the characters. Then there’s the fact that the reader knows that chapters of the novel, although unnamed,  correspond to the adventures of the original Ulysses in Homer’s Odyssey, such as the journey to the Underworld or the blinding of the Cyclops Polyphemus or the encounter with the sweet-singing Sirens, so that is another layer of cultural reference to keep aware of.  Then there’s also the fact, reminds Delaney, that each chapter relates to a part of the body, such as the eyes, the ears, the digestive system…  

It may be that to read or hear sections of Ulysses or to see adaptations is to distract you from tackling the whole thing. However,  I certainly enjoyed reading sections of the book alongside listens to BBC Radio 4’s five-hour adaptation for Bloomsday 2012. A recent viewing of the 1967 Joseph Strick film was more rewarding than I remembered from before : there are some good performances (Milo O’Shea, Barbara Jefford, T.P.McKenna and Joe Lynch as Leopold Bloom, Molly Bloom, Buck Mulligan and Blazes Boylan respectively) and the 1960s black and white cinematography helps to create an distancing effect comparable to the modernist style and the Edwardian setting.

 

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The statue of James Joyce in Dublin city centre.

 

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“He crossed Westmoreland street …Hot mockturtle vapour and steam of newbaked jampuffs roly-poly poured out of Harrisons. The heavy noonreek tickled the top of Mr Bloom’s gullet”. One of the plaques on the Joyce walking trail in Dublin. When this photo was taken in 1991, there was still a restaurant called Harrisons, serving a Joyce-friendly menu.

 

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“A skiff, a crumpled throwaway, Elijah is coming, rode lightly down the Liffey, under Loopline bridge, shooting the rapids where water chafed around the bridgepiers, sailing eastwards past hulls and anchorchains, between the Customhouse old dock and George’s quay”. The 18th century Custom House was already changing its original use at the time Joyce was writing.

 

Nowadays the indefatigable Mr Delaney has extended his help further into Ulysses podcasts, and there is always interesting supporting material on the web-site of the James Joyce Centre.

Does all this assistance stimulate or deflate a reader’s stamina and dedication for a demanding 700 page novel? Delaney reminds us that Joyce himself gleefully said that he had put in enough puzzles to keep the professors busy for centuries.  One solution he himself proposes is to treat the novel as a series of paintings.  Or perhaps as a reference book, something to be dipped into occasionally, rather than worked through from cover to cover?

 

References :

Burgess, Anthony  (1987)  Homage to Qwert Yuiop : Selected Journalism 1978-1985    London : Abacus

Delaney, Frank, (1983)  James Joyce’s Odyssey : A Guide to the Dublin of “Ulysses”   London : Granada

 

 

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