Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers was a great baggy monster of a novel which should perhaps have won the Booker Prize in 1980, but was beaten by a short head by William Golding’s less ambitious Rites of Passage.
Burgess was carelessly prolific, but Earthly Powers was his bid to write a masterpiece, and its failure even to win the Booker confirmed him in his somewhat resentful belief that the literary establishment regarded him as an interloper: a northerner, graduate of Manchester University rather than Oxford or Cambridge, and a writer who was both careless and over-productive – a bit of a hack, in fact.
He was also a Catholic, not an Oxbridge convert, but a lower-middle-class cradle Catholic. This allowed him to feel superior to converts like Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh. Nevertheless, there was still a social chip on the shoulder. He didn’t belong to the mainstream of English history. He was an outsider whose ancestors had, he wrote, been recusants in the time of Queen Elizabeth, Royalists in the Civil War, and Jacobites after the Revolution of 1688.
Burgess was also a show-off who fastened eagerly onto Gore Vidal’s advice that a writer should never miss the chance to appear on television. All the same, he was excellent company, in small doses anyway. (I didn’t see him often enough to be subjected to bigger ones.)
He spoke with a remarkable fluency. At a writers’ conference in Edinburgh he took to the floor announcing that he was going to tell us the story of Finnegans Wake, and proceeded to do so for a full hour. It was an extraordinary performance. I have no idea whether what he told us bore much relation to the book or indeed to Joyce’s intentions.
Earthly Powers opened with a striking first sentence: “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.” Surprisingly, given Burgess’s lexical interest, the eye-catching word “catamite” is misused, for the narrator’s lover is on the verge of middle age, while a catamite is a Ganymede, or, as Chambers Dictionary defines the word: “a boy kept for homosexual purposes”. Not so surprising, perhaps; there was always much that was slipshod about Burgess’s writing.
Still, Earthly Powers was undoubtedly his shot at writing a great novel, and it very nearly comes off. If I don’t think quite as well of it now as I did in 1980, this may say more about my diminished energy than it does about the novel. There’s an interesting note about it in Anthony Powell’s Journals, offering the sort of off-the-cuff judgments often more illuminating or to the point than any formal review. “Au fond,” Powell wrote, “Earthly Powers is a novel about religion, that is to say Roman Catholicism, opening with the narrator Toomey’s rejection of that creed, as it does not recognise homosexuality as a condition into which a human being may be born.”
Surely Toomey is wrong here, it being the practice rather than the condition which is condemned. Be that as it may, Toomey, a popular novelist, thought by some to be based on Somerset Maugham – if so, unsuccessfully, I would say – cannot escape the Church, partly because his sister’s Italian brother-in-law, Carlo, is a priest who becomes an archbishop, cardinal and eventually pope. Powell thought Carlo “not at all convincing … Like a character in a strip cartoon.” Without going that far, I would say he is the idea of a character, never quite realised. Still, he gives Burgess the opportunity for theological argument – “which (if infinitely boring for non-RCs, perhaps for some RCs too) is undeniably well done. It is distinctly better, for example, than, say, Graham Greene in similar vein.” This compliment would be more persuasive if one wasn’t aware of Powell’s dislike of Greene’s novels.
Some of Burgess’s less ambitious novels stand up to the passage of time better than Earthly Powers. The Malayan Trilogy, fruit of his direct experience as a teacher there, still reads well. Though its foreign setting makes it unlike the so-called Angry Young Man novels of the Fifties, almost all set at home in England, Burgess’s Trilogy has the same sort of energy, even exuberance, sharpened by class resentment which you find in the early novels of Kingsley Amis, and the two Johns, Wain and Braine. Burgess’s Enderby novels are still amusing – again very much of a time when an academic setting was fashionable: compare Burgess with Malcolm Bradbury and David Lodge; the latter, like Burgess, a Catholic novelist.
There’s an interesting novella published in a short story collection, The Devil’s Mode. This is the story of Attila, “the Scourge of God”, as told to a group of patrician boys in Roman Egypt by a former Patriarch of Constantinople, now anathematised for, he says, “speaking the truth”. He describes Attila as “a whip sent by God to show what happens to a people that rejects the true doctrine”. Perhaps, perhaps; but when Attila comes to the gates of Rome he is met by the pope, Leo I, who tells him he is only a little devil. “You can’t instil evil into Christian souls. You can’t even make those souls suffer. All you can do is take the work of their hands and the fruit of their fields and topple down what you are not clever enough to build.”
No doubt this is not how Leo spoke. But the message is valid. Despite its corruption and internecine strife, the Christian empire of Rome represents something greater than the man who has come to lay it to waste. It is creative, while Attila can only destroy. It brings hope, while he brings only despair. This surely is at the heart of the Christian message, better (because more simply) expressed by Burgess here than in the extravagant exuberance of Earthly Powers.
Allan Massie is the Catholic Herald’s chief book reviewer
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