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Open Letters Monthly: "Burgess' best, longest, and funniest book."

Date: Dec 4 2012

It’s a shame you can’t recommend an Anthony Burgess book without being asked, “Is it anything like A Clockwork Orange?”

Burgess was a writer famous for one of his most uncharacteristic books, so the answer will always be no. But in the case of Earthly Powers, his best, longest, and funniest book, the answer is, “God no, it’s infinitely better. It’s a story packed with stories. It’ll make you laugh, cry. Take it home.”

The notoriously uneven author had already written twenty-three novels by the time he wrote Earthly Powers (not to mention all the plays, screenplays, operas—some good, some not so good) and Earthly Powers is packed to splitting with more of same. Itself a mockup of a bestseller (the rich and famous adventure all over the 20th Century, all over the world), Earthly Powers encompasses hundreds of stories: a musical comedy about a young man who can’t say “I love you” (Say It, Cecil); a jazz opera about a couple that won’t fall for one another unless their families pretend to feud (I Poveri Ricchi); a pseudo-biblical narrative about the first gay couple in Eden: Adam and Yedid, or ‘Friend’ (called A Way Back to Eden, rather timely, now). To entertain a carpenter on a car-ride across Australia, the novel’s narrator, Kenneth Toomey, describes the whole of the Western Canon as his own latest book:

from Birdum to Daly Waters I told him the story of Beowulf and Grendel, which he pronounced kid’s stuff … From Powell Creek to Tennant Creek I told him The Pardoner’s Tale. This impressed him. ‘Serve the bastards right,’ he delivered.

The story itself, the big one, is a life: “It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday,” Toomey, the self-exiled novelist begins, “and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the Archbishop had come to see me.” Loosely modeled on Somerset Maugham (with a bit of PG Wodehouse thrown in later on), Ken Toomey was born in England in 1889 but has lived in Europe since his thirties, for reasons of both sexual freedom and tax evasion. Born English, Catholic, and gay, he never has it easy. The mother he loves rejects him, his moderate talent denies him the high pure world of art to which he aspires, his self-loathing drives him to self-loathing lovers.

As the novel begins, Toomey, a writer of “watery novels,” is approached by the Vatican to provide written testimony of a miracle preformed by the late Pope Carlo Campanati, a miracle to which Toomey alone bore witness. Toomey is an atheist, but he’ll give it a try. This mission occasions the long—20th century long—biographical reflection that is Earthly Powers.

In a Chicago hospital, in the mid-1930s, then-Bishop Carlo Campanati miraculously saves a boy from the brink of death. Later, that boy grows up to be a fearfully charismatic religious leader closely modeled on Jim Jones (as Carlo himself is closely modeled on John XXIII). Was the Pope an instrument of evil? What separates a pope from a Jim Jones? These were hot questions in the cult-ridden ’70s, but they’re equally interesting today, as are all of the ideas in Earthly Powers: the notion of the “primitive,” the role of the artist, the echo of past relationships, the Faustian pact, the morality of violence.

One of Toomey’s bitchy lovers, the rakish, red-eyed Geoffrey, asserts the novel’s rollicking tone early on, at a posh dinner party in Malta, a birthday celebration for the Maltese poet Sciberras:

To [the girl], whose name seemed to be Janie: “It becomes you, it does really, that chunk of filthy butter muslin, but then you’re the sort of girl who could get away with anything, even having one tit bigger than the other.” He did a comic oenophile act with the bottle of Marsovin: “Oh, I’d definitely say those raisins came from Grima’s backyard not Fenech’s, the north side where that diabetic tomcat goes for a piss, wouldn’t you?” He told Sciberras that the Maltese language sounded like somebody sicking it all up, and no bleeding wonder, mate. It was ill-advised of him to make the similitude. He was telling the Poet Laureate that he ought to give the Maltese and the expats, if any of the sods turned up, and he wouldn’t blame the buggers if they didn’t, a recital of Great Filthy Poems, instead of the muck about sniffing little girls’ knickers that he was probably going to drone out, when his color changed radically. Everybody noticed it but only Sciberras remarked on it.

“You are now very bloody green, mate.” he shouted … Subdued Geoffrey got up, saying nothing, and left the table with speed but dignity.

This sort of thing may be what The New York Review of Books meant when they airily wondered, in their 1980 review, “Why should such a talent for indelicacies be allowed to handle more sensitive material?” Why indeed.

Burgess has found a place for everything in Earthly Powers: Hollywood, Nazis, gay marriage, British dentistry, black magic, Black Power, even A Clockwork Orange (Toomey is beaten on the street by thugs from his own story—rather, thugs inspired by the film of the story). What’s amazing is that it all works. It works beautifully.

In Burgess’ primer for the novice reader of James Joyce, ReJoyce. he describes the kind of writer “many novel-readers” prefer, a writer he would attempt throughout the ‘50s to resemble. Most readers:

want a friend with a somewhat greater knowledge of the world than themselves, one who knows the clubs, a good cigar, Tangier and Singapore, who has perhaps dallied with strange women and read odd books, but remains friendly, smiling, tolerant but indignant when the reader would be indignant, always approachable and always without side.

Early-career Burgess is very much an imitation of this. His prose is swift, vastly informed by tributary disciplines (music, linguistics) and constantly leaping toward connections. In his first full-length novel, A Vision of Battlements, Burgess describes the mind of his alter-ego, Ennis, as one which “could not escape hidden meanings, symbols. For such a rich mind, everything rhymed.”Burgess’ easygoing prose is full of a curious rhetoric resembling logical fallacy, or something between a metaphor and a category error. Of Spanish women, a character in A Vision of Battlements says, “they don’t last long … not out here. The sun ripens them too soon.” The narrator of Earthly Powers concludes a scene of splendid buggery with the phrase, “the moon buttoned itself into its fly of cloud.” Later, the same narrator describes one of one of Mussolini’s lickspittles as “a soft little man whose courage was all in his shirt.” Burgess knew how fast and fun-to-read this prose could be; questions are quickly resolved and solid symbols associated with abstract ideas. The reader grasps the ideas and turns the page.

But that Burgess’ description of the tried-and-true narrator appears in a primer about James Joyce points to another aspect of his work, a source of frustration, failure, and a few impressive successes: his interest in literary experimentalism. Middle-period novels such as MF, Tremor of Intent, and Napoleon Symphony are so obviously strange in tone and structure that the reader and critic are left throwing up their hands, wondering what happened to the comic novelist they remember. Tremor of Intent is both serious and funny, but the balance is not right. MF, a brilliant structuralist fairy tale, is a chore to read. A Clockwork Orange works throughout, as does One Hand Clapping, but mostly as a potboiler.

And all the while he made these monsters, Burgess continued writing comic/satiric little things like the Enderby series (about a chronically flatulent poet). It is as though Pynchon were churning out reasonably good Mad Magazine cartoons while deep into The Crying of Lot 49, or as though Beckett had written Wodehouse-style stuff concurrent with Worstward Ho.

But that’s Burgess all over. The idea that works of high art should appeal to the common man (and vice versa) was always close to his heart. In his second book about Joyce, Joysprick, Burgess—to poke fun at his own explications—rewrites the opening chapter of Ulysses in dry bestseller prose:

“Green mucus,” said Stephen. “Green for Ireland.”

Mulligan moved his plump form to the parapet to look out intently at the bay.

“It’s the color of the sea too, I guess,” he said. “Look at the sea. When you get near the sea it makes your guts tighten, did you know that? The wine-dark sea is what the Greeks called it. Come and look at it.”

Among the books Burgess banged out in the seventies (while composing Earthly Powers) were a Time Life guide to New York City, a novel-in-verse about the life of Moses, Abba Abba, a philosophical novella about Keats’s death in Rome, a short and brilliant biography of Hemingway, and a verse translation of Oedipus the King, in which much of the violence—including the hero’s blinding—occurs onstage.

None of this made much of a mark in either England or the U.S., and Burgess became crippled, he writes, by “extreme depression”:

The books I wrote in the middle and late seventies were meant to be urgencies that justified putting off the great task, though not one of them was urgent … Some people, especially in the United States, wanted to believe that [A Clockwork Orange] was all I had written. In late 1978 I had to get down to showing what I really could do. Ford Maddox Ford had had that intention when embarking on The Good Soldier.

And so Kenneth Toomey was born: the mediocre novelist who knows he’s mediocre. The photo on the back of his first book is a self-described “popular novelist, unlined and with youth’s dreaming eyes but wise with a hard-bought wisdom: a man you could trust but not too much, traveled, of sure taste in the arts, not terrifyingly overintellectual but well-read.”

And so Burgess separates from himself from Toomey, and from the sort of writer he once tried to be, even as he inhabits him, ironically. Frequently worried that his work was too stoic, Burgess makes Toomey a reticent writer as well, one who finds “feelings … the most difficult things to convey.” “No one could tell my feelings,” Toomey writes; “You, reader, cannot tell them.” But of course we can: Toomey’s stoicism is transparent to everyone around him. He blubbers, rages, even faints.

Earthly Powers is a meta-novel, then, an unexpected masterpiece by a mediocre novelist (I mean Toomey, of course), a postmodern collection of stories within stories about the brutality of the 20th century and the homeless wanderers who sifted through it, trying to make it into art. Unlike the works of the modernists, Earthly Powers is packed with that good old-fashioned boil & bang: plot.

Toomey meets all the greats in Paris in the ’30s, but – unlike worshipful Burgess – finds them not to his taste: “Joyce … had a short story mind. Worse, he didn’t like movement if he could avoid it, so that he and [Windham] Lewis were artistically more alike than either would admit.”

Through his thin fictions, Toomey spends his life bringing harmless pleasure to hundreds of thousands, and though not a courageous or a passionate man, he is an unflappably kind one. Carlo Campanati, on the other hand, is more than willing to exercise cruelty toward what he considers a holy end. A glutton, gambler, and bruiser, Carlo sees himself as a soldier of God, an aggressive agent of grace on earth. The question of earthly powers—of how to exercise one’s given talents (and manage one’s temptations) toward a worthy end—is central. Though there’s no easy moral to be drawn.

Taunted by a punning lover who accuses him of “writing about what he won’t do, living by poxy,” Toomey visits a rowdy waterfront bar, where his own close relationship with his sister is used as an excuse to thrash him. “Nothing lower than that,’ Tish or somebody said. ‘Dad and daughter, that’s different, stands to reason. Fuck a bugger that shags his sister which is his own flesh and blood.’”

This mindless violence is the malignancy that haunted the 20th Century, to which Carlo Campanati’s response is to trust in the wisdom of an interventionist God, to preach the abstract “love,” and to perform what miracles he can. Unwittingly, he becomes the instrument of enormous suffering, through the bushmen who misunderstand the symbolic nature of the Eucharist, and through the life of the boy he miraculously saves, the delusional killer Godfrey Manning.

Toomey is chronically without a family or a sentimental home, eventually becoming a man possessed of “habitual loneliness.” At last, sent to Malaya by his publisher (to churn out some Somerset Maugham-style fictions), he falls in love with a good man, a doctor named Shawcross.

Shawcross thinks well of Toomey, has even read some of his books (“Well well, we can’t allow anything to happen to Kenneth Toomey”). They get along so splendidly, Toomey accepts an invitation to room with the doctor in his government villa. The doctor has plans for the evening, but offers to drop them. “We could spend a quiet evening at home,” he offers. “Home,” reflects Toomey, “I felt the promise of the prick of tears at the word, sentimental, noble, nostalgic, yearning, what the hell does it matter?”

Local officials frown not just on homosexual sex but on too-close male companionship. The relationship between Toomey and Doc Shawcross is nonsexual, and Shawcross, a man-too-far-from-home rather than a man-of-the-world, had not realized Toomey was gay. “I never even …” he stutters. “It didn’t cross my … Good God, my blessed innocence.”

But they nonetheless forge something like love between themselves, and both agree it is too sacred a thing to be bullied away from them.

“Whatever word I use will probably be wrong,” Toomey says. “We’ve just been here together. We didn’t have to put it into words. I was never so happy in my life.”

But Shawcross is murdered—the victim of a father whose son he couldn’t cure—and Toomey falls into another bad relationship, this time with Ralph Pembroke. An African-American writer resembling both James Baldwin and Richard Wright, Pembroke feels lost and homeless in white America, frequently lashing out at Toomey (”You deprived us of a history. You realize that man?”) and nourishing his homelessness with dreams of returning to his mother country (“I inherited a white culture and I don’t want it anymore”).

On first arriving in Morocco with Toomey, however, he looks around and fails to find himself. “It’s not Africa,” he says, “not real Africa.” He wants to go to Nairobi. Toomey reminds him that Nairobi isn’t where his ancestors came from; rather, he should travel to the West Coast in search of “home,” but Ralph may as well not hear him. For Ralph, Nairobi represents the ideal of a homeland. He relishes the experience of stepping foot on the African continent until he’s assaulted on the streets of Morocco by a group of Berbers. All they see in Ralph is a rich American. “Okay okay okay,” Ralph sobs, “I want to go home.” As Toomey watches him cry, “the vowel of home threatened to prolong into a howl.”

Later, Ralph does leave for Africa, to the invented post-colonial country of Rukwa. To help awaken the continent to its own potential, he accepts that some foreigners may need to be expelled, customary dress and language refined: a nation—a homeland—created as much as revitalized. He writes affectionately to Toomey:

now there has to be expropriation and enforced repatriation and the rest of it… Peaceful unification is another of our slogans, which means working on the tribal mind, as the boss calls it, and instilling the idea of a bigger patriotism… I sign myself as always but I have to think of myself as Kasam Ekuri. Believe it or not, but the name Kentumi exists here. I tell them there’s only one Ken Toomey.”

After Rukwa disintegrates, as so many suddenly re-made nations do, Ralph finds work as a professor of Black Studies at Columbia University. He has returned to New York City with the new knowledge that he cannot entirely escape his Americanness (just as Toomey cannot escape either his homosexuality or his Englishness). Home has pursued them both, even as they fled to it.

After a movie serial’s worth of adventures, Toomey’s life eventually returns to the tonic mode: in rural England, the sexuality that tormented him is obviated by a celibate dotage, his long loneliness assuaged by a woman neighbors assume to be his wife but who he knows to be his long-estranged sister, Hortense.

Toomey had always wrestled with himself, always tried to be kind, and in this he could not be more at odds with his friend Carlo, who believes all words to be propaganda in a cosmic struggle. “A saint,” says Carlo, possibly describing himself, “has to modify the world in the direction of being more aware of the presence of God in it.” A writer, Toomey’s priorities are otherwise: “I can’t accept that a work of fiction should be either immoral or moral. It should merely show the world as it is and have no moral bias.”

“Everyone has a right to be born,” Carlo will preach, “no one has a right to live.” And it is with the knowledge of redemption that Carlo permits an innocent to be tortured in his presence during his interrogation by the Nazis. The children Carlo persuades Hortense to bear will both lead torturous lives, one as an indirect result of Carlo’s teaching, the other as a direct result of the life Carlo saves in a Chicago hospital. As time advances, Carlo’s philosophy begins to resemble that of the sinister magician Mahalingam: “Evil and good are not words to be employed lightly. When we speak of good things we mean good for ourselves, which may not be good for eternal beings.”

After touring death camps at the end of World War II, Toomey decides that “Man had not been tainted from without by the Prince of the Powers of the Air. The evil was all in him and he was beyond hope of redemption.”

The Prince of the Powers of the Air was Burgess’ original title (changed, he said, by “the editor Michael Korda, a very cunning Hungarian”).

Earthly Powers is a fat and amazing book, in the same league as Europe Central or The Recognitions. A reprint is long past due. I’ve left out the bit about the rescue of Jakob Strehler, or his mean-spirited son. I’ve left out Toomey’s treason, Carlo’s hilarious gluttony, Tommy Toomey the music hall mensch, Hortense the sculptor, or the absorbing and rewarding feeling the reader experiences watching all of these characters shed their pretensions as they ripen into knowledge.

Burgess’ nightmare was watching good art go neglected or destroyed. I said above that A Clockwork Orange had been included in Earthly Powers and I’ll leave you with this. Here, in an allegory of the nightmare of history, is Toomey, at a showing of the film made from his old story. Toomey watches the film for the thousandth time and reports:

[The third story in the omnibus film] was the one, fairly well known I think, of the aged dilettante who dwells in a fine country house in Sussex surrounded by fine pictures, bronzes, priceless first editions. He has a lovely rosewood harpsichord on which he plays corantos and galliards by Byrd and Weelkes. A faithful old servant serves him exquisite food in dainty portions on a silver plate; he drinks costly wine from a chased Florentine goblet. He is living in an ivory tower or Axel’s Castle. Then the modern world breaks in in the shape of four louts with coshes and razors who proceed to smash up this hermetic retreat, having first beaten up the servants and left them for dead. The horror is that the leader of the louts knows precisely what he is doing. Throwing a first quarto Hamlet into the fireplace he discourses learnedly on the bad 1603 pirated edition of the play. He talks of incunabula. Before slashing Toulouse-Lautrec’s oil (actually in the Kunsthaus in Zurich, but none of the audience seemed to know that) of the Fat Proprietor and the Anemic Cashier, he points out the weakness of the foreground detail compared with the masterly economy of the proprietor’s head. All this time the suffering dilettante sits bound and gagged in a chair, listening incredulously to the sneering erudition of this lout with the cockney wine. The lout plays a coranto by John Bull before giving orders for the smashing of the harpsichord. The camera tracks slowly on to the old gray head and aristocratic features while the noise of gleeful destruction crescendos. The eyes stare, the breath grows more labored, the image blurs as he seems to suffer a cardiac arrest, the image fades out. Fade in of him waking from sleep in a Queen Anne canopy bed. His butler, unharmed and suave, is bringing him tea. It was all a dream, thank God thank God. The audience, aware of being cheated, began to growl.

The aged dilettante, taking a walk with spaniel and silverhead cane in autumnal Sussex, suddenly sees something and starts. It is a group of four young men, identical with those of his nightmare. They have lighted a little fire in a spinney and are cooking turnips on it. They are polite, dispirited. They are jobless and after their half-raw turnip meal will trudge to the nearest casualty ward. The old man empties the contents of his wallet—fifteen pounds in notes and all his silver. The men are grateful but suspicious. They see him as he walks with old man’s bones, spaniel and stick back to a big house on the horizon. The leader of the young men says, in a cockney whine, that if he can afford to give this amount of cash as a handout there must be plenty more where that came from. “Some are born to money,” says the young man, “others to poverty. I’ve studied in the public library and where has it got me? I know all about painters like Toulouse-Lautrec but I can’t afford even a picture postcard of the Fat Proprietor and the Anemic Cashier. Tonight we’re going to break in there and grab what we can.” But they go with their fifteen pounds odd to the nearest village and get drunk and disorderly. They are arrested and put in the lockup. They lie down to fuddled sleep and the educated young man has a vision of vandalism and carnage. He says: “No, that’s not my line.” He drops off. A final shot of the old dilettante in his gorgeous bed, smiling in his sleep. FINE.

We have the paradox of the class system, but we also have Burgess, born poor, and what the road not taken may have been. We have Toomey, born middle-class, moralizing, Jiminy Cricket. We have echoes of The Pardoner’s Tale. We have Burgess’ discontent with his own career, and Toomey’s shame at his success (while real artists eat turnips and bitch).

And Burgess knew we’d be thinking of A Clockwork Orange, which has lodged itself underneath the fingernails of the culture. So there’s irony when Toomey is beaten by thugs the film inspired. There’s irony, too, when we remember that the mansion in the book (and the film) had a name. It was called HOME.

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