Friday, February 26, 2016

Amalgam of Characters

Earthly PowersEarthly Powers 
by Anthony Burgess

"It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me."

Yesterday was the anniversary of the birth of John Anthony Burgess Wilson, who published under the pen name Anthony Burgess.  He was an English writer and composer who, from relatively modest beginnings,  became one of the best known English literary figures of the latter half of the twentieth century.  Although Burgess was predominantly a comic writer, his dystopian satire A Clockwork Orange remains his best known novel.  In 1971 it was adapted into a highly controversial film by Stanley Kubrick, which Burgess said was chiefly responsible for the popularity of the book. Burgess produced numerous other novels, including the Enderby quartet, and Earthly Powers, regarded by most critics as his greatest novel. He wrote librettos and screenplays, worked as a literary critic, and wrote studies of classic writers, notably James Joyce. A versatile linguist, Burgess lectured in phonetics, and translated Cyrano de Bergerac, Oedipus the King, and the opera Carmen, among others.

Burgess also composed over 250 musical works; he sometimes claimed to consider himself as much a composer as an author, although he enjoyed considerably more success in writing.  The following are some of my thoughts about Earthly Powers.

Earthly Powers is the linchpin of Anthony Burgess' novel-writing career. It is a massive work that compares favorably with similar tomes of twentieth century literature. What sets Burgess apart from other authors is his linguistic playfulness combined with an exceptional narrative style. Although this style is here somewhat less obviously experimental than that of Burgess’s other novels of this period, his use of a professional story teller as a first-person narrator allows him to call into the question the nature of authority in fictional texts. The narrative becomes a retrospective account of a life spent as an outsider. Within that account, Burgess locates his protagonist,Toomey, at some key moments of twentieth century history in order, it seems, to comment on those issues which consistently surface in all of Burgess’s fiction, particularly the nature of evil and its presence in the physical world. 

The novel attempts to address issues of belief, and the role of religion in late twentieth century culture, using a broad cast of characters, fictional and real; it is not, however, a roman à clef. Though often mentioned in reviews of this novel, the identification of Toomey with Somerset Maugham fails to recognise that Toomey is a portmanteau of many characters. He contains hints of Maugham, certainly, but there are suggestions of, to name a few, Alec Waugh in the precocious young novelist; of P. G. Wodehouse in the broadcaster from Berlin; of W. H. Auden in the rescuer of a Nobel laureate’s offspring; and of Burgess himself, the author of a real Blooms of Dublin. Burgess ability to meld this amalgam of characters into his protagonist reminds me of another favorite novel, The New Confessions by William Boyd, in which the author uses a similar technique to create a tremendously exciting and interesting protagonist. Throughout the novel, the emphasis is on the debate about the nature of evil rather than on the accuracy or otherwise of the references to twentieth century figures. The novel examines at length the nature of belief, the way in which people cope with an imperfect world, and the operation of evil and suffering. In doing so it succeeds in presenting a distinctive and compelling view of the twentieth century through the life of Toomey. It is both a challenging and rewarding read that I would recommend to all.

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Brian Joseph said...

Great commentary James.

Like many others I have only read Burgess's A Clockwork Orange. As much as I liked it, I had heard that it is not his best work.

I will likely make this the next Burgess novel that I will read.

James said...


This is a very good novel and worth considering for your reading pleasure.