Musical Beds

D.A.N. Jones

  • On Going to Bed by Anthony Burgess
    Deutsch, 96 pp, £4.95, August 1982, ISBN 0 233 97470 9
  • The End of the World News by Anthony Burgess
    Hutchinson, 398 pp, £8.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 09 150540 2
  • This Man and Music by Anthony Burgess
    Hutchinson, 192 pp, £7.95, September 1982, ISBN 0 09 149610 1

Thrice has Anthony Burgess begun a novel in bed, with intimations of impropriety and guilt. Getting out of the dreadful thing was the problem posed for the bold bigamist of Beds in the East, the third volume in his Malayan trilogy: ‘Either side of the bed was the wrong side. True it was possible to get out of it by inching slowly forward, on one’s fat brown rump, to the foot; but that, for some reason, often woke both of them ... ’ Syed Omar, we find, is tight-wedged between his sleeping wives – ‘most irregular, uncleanly, contrary to the strict Islamic custom’.

Strict Christian custom, likewise, is defied by Kenneth Toomey in his ‘arresting opening’ to Earthly Powers: ‘It was the afternoon of my 81st birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me ... ’ And Toomey’s bedfellow maliciously warns his ancient lover that the churchman might have brought him a bull of excommunication as a birthday gift.

Even an improper noise may call forth uninvited guests, unfriendly critics: the explosive start of Inside Mr Enderby is a fart, succeeded by ghostly mutterings:

PFFFRRRRUMMMP.

  And a very happy New Year to you too, Mr Enderby! ...

  We, whispering, fingering, rustling, creaking about your bedroom, are that posterity to which you hopefully addressed yourself ...

Yes, here we come, Mr Enderby, the Lollocks on the locks of literature, ready to be ‘nasty together in the bed’s shadow’!

The first of Anthony Burgess’s new books, this year, is a set of essays (finely illustrated), On Going to Bed, wherein he lays stress on bedroom fears and fancies: ‘The habit of nightmares has persisted into adulthood, and the fear of a nightmare still makes me reluctant to go to bed. The nightmares often feature bones and the excrement of animals ... Freud no doubt would explain the persistent symbols, but I have sometimes dreamt of Freud performing such an explication, not very satisfactorily ... ’

Burgess’s second new book, The End of the World News, is a novel built of three stories, one of them a sceptical sort of dream about unsatisfactory Freud: it is written, deliberately, in the style of an enjoyably corny Hollywood biopic. The second story is about Trotsky’s stay in New York in 1912: this is presented as a scenario for a Broadway musical, with plenty of song lyrics (reminiscent of Springtime for Hitler, in a way). The third story is Science Fiction, about fictitious scientists escaping from Planet Earth at the End of the World.

These three tales are cut into one another, in long or short chunks, so that we might see them as variations on a single theme – the End of the World: but the musical pattern is more complicated than that. Each story may be seen or heard as a theme, to be developed, recapitulated, set in counterpoint, reconciled, resolved, harmonised ... We begin in the grim Vienna of Freud and Nazis: in the last movement we ‘come full circle’ with joyous Viennese music ringing out for space-conquering heroes. Then there is a coda, with SF children of the future fantasising about ‘the bad man called Fred Fraud who kept people strapped to a couch and the good one called Trot Sky who wanted people to do what he did and run through space’. The three tales clash together – in a dissonance, perhaps?

To help us guess about the structure of The End of the World News we need the third of Burgess’s new books, This Man and Music, another set of essays, more demanding than On Going to Bed. Then we may decide whether they are a major triad, a trio or merely triplets. What This Man and Music is concerned with is the relation between music and literature, with particular reference to the musical pattern of the author’s writing and the verbal pattern of his compositions.

But first, as the BBC has it, let us go back to bed. On Going to Bed seems to be a helpfully simple example of Burgess using words in a musical pattern. We begin with the baby Moses, ‘in a basket or moise, moving towards royal adoption down the river Nile’. His rocking cradle was woven by his sister, Miriam, ‘the first of the great mothers’, and we are assured that her song was liquid, with lulla or lolla or lalla in it. This first page is faced by a reproduction of Raphael’s Moses Rescued from the Waters: big girls, or great mothers, are hauling the infant prophet from his safe cot, his secure hour.

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