I have a hard time thinking of a novel published in 1980 as a "classic." That's only five years older than I am, for goodness' sake! But 32 years is a fairly long time, Anthony Burgess (author most famously of A Clockwork Orange) seems likely to be around for posterity, and Europa Editions has just seen fit to reissue the book. So why not?
Earthly Powers opens as English writer Kenneth Toomey, age 81 and living on Malta in domestic disharmony with his lover, Geoffrey, receives a visit from the local archbishop. His Grace has come about the just-deceased pope, Carlo Campanati, Kenneth's unlikely best friend and brother-in-law. Carlo is a candidate for sainthood, and the archbishop needs Kenneth's testimony about a possible miracle he witnessed decades ago. This visit prompts Kenneth to recall his peripatetic journey through the 20th century's various horrors and farces. Family, religion, sexuality, war, travel, politics and culture (and lack thereof) come in turn to the fore in this motley mosaic of a novel, tied by Kenneth's irresistible narrative voice, which Burgess somehow renders both caustic and elegiac.
Earthly Powers is perfect for anyone who likes . . . well, just about any 20th-century British author. It has the narrative sweep of Anthony Powell, Ford Madox Ford and William Boyd, the geopolitical angst of Richard Hughes, Graham Greene, Ian McEwan and Paul Scott and the biting commentary of Aldous Huxley. Kenneth's melancholy yet clear-eyed attitude toward his sexual orientation and its repercussions also recalls the (American) Violet Quill writers - Andrew Holleran, Robert Ferro, Edmund White, et al. - who had recently begun their careers when Earthly Powers was published.
If you're looking for a satisfying novel to curl up with this winter, Earthly Powers deserves a place on your list. Take it from your soon-to-be-classic blogger.