- Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess
Hutchinson, 650 pp, £6.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 09 143910 8
By the time I had reached the end of this novel I had accumulated enough notes to make a modest book: a fact that bears witness to the sheer density of the writing, as well as the seriousness of its concern. It is unwise to skim. Only in retrospect can you identify what could safely have been skipped as supererogatory or duplicate. Since complaints will follow – grave matters incur grave complaint – let me say at the outset that Earthly Powers carries greater intellectual substance, more power and grim humour, more knowledge, than ten average novels put together.
Kenneth Marchal Toomey, the narrator, is a novelist, born in 1890 and in his mid-eighties when we last hear from him. His lifetime takes in a lot – World War One, the Easter Rising, the aviators Alcock and Brown. Prohibition, Fascism, Nazism, World War Two, the death camps, the history of modern literature, the history of cinema, a case of homosexual-style blasphemy (which precedes the Lady Chatterley case), homosexual marriage blessed by autocephalic archbishops, and much else, including in a limited sense the life of Toomey’s creator. Here is, if not exactly God’s plenty, plenty of the Devil.
At the age of 14 Toomey is seduced by George Russell (better known as AE) in a Dublin hotel, on the very day which is recorded in Ulysses. Meeting Joyce in Paris in 1924, he tells him: ‘Well, you gave George Russell an eternal and unbreakable alibi for that afternoon. But I know and he knows that he was not in the National Library.’ Other celebrities among the great unfictitious dead get similarly rough treatment, but let us leave that for the moment and ask – since Toomey is always with us through these many pages – why his creator has created him homosexual. It would be imprudent, perhaps even inaccurate, to suggest that this affects Toomey’s ‘representativeness’, that it knocks the novel off centre. Inaccurate, certainly, in that Toomey is chaste much of the time: for him, war drives out sex. Burgess is hardly an author whom one would suppose to be in search of new sensations. It could be (I came close to thinking at one stage) that, heterosex being so awful, homosex has to be a little better. But no, Toomey doesn’t ‘glory in it’, he dislikes his fellows in sex (‘hissing, camping, simpering’), and the one man he truly loved and lost, through death, not betrayal, he loved platonically. In fact, it would be no serious distortion to say that there is only one good gay here, and lots of bad gays. Possibly homosexuality is an extra twist of the thumbscrew Burgess customarily applies to his leading characters. Perhaps it is necessary that Toomey should be a Catholic, and a lapsed one, but lapsed for some reason other than mere intellectual doubt: God made him homosexual and thus forced him to reject God.
And the Word was God. Earthly Powers is theological and linguistic in equal proportions, quite properly. Less properly, it is too heavily both, in the sense that one can have too much of a good thing. Burgess is, of course, an eminent wordsmith. He knows that the plural of semen (which sometimes needs a plural) is semina. And: ‘“Ice in the icebox,” I said, pleonastically.’ (Though the working classes might keep their coal in it.) When he gives Toomey’s catamite-cum-secretary the name ‘Enright’ he spells it correctly, for he knows that in transliterating words from one language into another it is foolish to introduce silent letters, like a ‘w’. (Perhaps he even knows that the meaning of the name in Gaelic is ‘unlawful attack’.) When (twice) Toomey meets an amiable stranger, ‘a new planet swam into his, right, Ken it is, Ken.’ During the Malayan episode, a return to the rich terrain of Burgess’s early trilogy, now in a spirit of Maughamery, we are told – alas, jokes involving foreign tongues require explanation – that Mahalingam, the name of a Tamil character, means ‘great ah generative organ’. In close proximity (for which condition, among Malays, you could get into bad heterosexual trouble) is an account of that peculiar disorder, known as koro, in which the sufferer believes that his penis is withdrawing into his abdomen and seeks to secure it with a pin or tape or string. I lived through one such outbreak in Singapore – Western-style doctors ascribed it to an exceptionally cool spell of weather – during which the disorder spread to females, who complained of retracting nipples. Women won’t be left out these days.
A candidate who lacks basic qualifications (and hence could not present himself in a white toga) is a ‘nigrate’. The Maltese censors who finally allow Toomey his copy of Thomas Campion’s poems confuse the poet with the English martyr Edmund Campion. (Some autobiography there, I believe.) ‘Richardtionary’ is the polite homosexual term for a useful book of reference: what, indeed, you might call an ‘aide de camp’. (Less politely, ‘shonnary’: ‘I always leave the dick out.’) The Rilke joke – ‘“The last time I saw him was in a café in Trieste. He cried.” “He often cried. But nobody heard him among the angelic orders”’ – palls on the reprise. Far worse, much as one welcomes relief in that area, is the comical-Teutonic: ‘Unfortunately have I in the Hindenburg not yet flown’ et, at great length, cetera. The somewhat pop Pope, Gregory XVII, brother-in-law to Toomey, has pop songs sung about him – ‘the new Gregorian chants’. Burgess never misses a trick: would he had missed a thousand. God may or may not be mocked, but words certainly aren’t. Play with them overmuch, and they turn sour and take their revenge.
So Burgess is too clever for his own good? That is the sort of accusation made by people who really aren’t all that bright themselves. And we should remember Johnson (though he was bright) opining that to Shakespeare a quibble was the fatal Cleopatra, followed at all adventures, sure to engulf him in the mire, for which he lost the world – Shakespeare didn’t lose the world. One is near to objecting to what is most Burgessian in Burgess, what one reads him for. There is a sickening, suffocating weight to this book. So, one is meant to be sickened and suffocated. At all events, it is egregiously difficult to say where the author has stepped over the line, because it is hard to know where to draw the line. It has to be one’s sense of artistic rightness that draws it, not nervousness, gentility, frivolity or a semi-literate dislike for quibbles and puns. I believe that the author’s obsessiveness (yes, writers should be obsessed) falls foul of the awful law of diminishing returns – in terms of quibbles as well as squalor and horrors – and incurs a penalty, though I am not sure how grave the penalty is. Irritation on the reader’s part, at the least, followed by lapses of attention; at the most, a loss of credence. Oh for an occasional draught of Thomas Mann’s coolness!
Toomey’s real-life colleagues in the arts get a bad press. H.G. Wells is ‘a satyromaniac’, Ford Madox Ford has bad breath and a dirty mind, Norman Douglas is ‘filthy’ and ‘boy shagging’, T.S. Eliot is wrong about the Tarot pack and also (in which case, among many others) about Seneca’s act-division (‘there was a lot of the dilettante about Eliot’), Bernard van Dieren is a ‘dim thing with the grey face in napless velvet’, Peter Warlock roars obscenities, Maynard Keynes (‘trying to turn himself into a heterosexual with a ballet dancer’) leers at Toomey, James Agate (‘a well-known sodomite’) makes a pass at the dreadful Heinz ... One is reminded, in a coarser way, of the closing stages of Proust’s novel, where one by one wellnigh the whole cast show themselves inverts.[*] After watching a porn movie in which ‘everybody was buggered by or buggered Socrates,’ Toomey whimpers: ‘Sex, sex, sex, Christ, is there to be nothing in this world but bloody sex?’ The disgust with sex is general and pervasive. True, as someone else remarked, it was the very first way of transmitting original sin. It was also the way in which the novel’s few unambiguously admirable characters came into the world – notably Toomey’s saintly (and virtually sexless) brother Tom, a professional comedian given to comedy without cruelty, a ‘lost empire’, as Toomey calls it, which we all long for, and long for all the more keenly in the present context.
It is sad to see Burgess joining in the reduction of old heroes to the ranks, or rank. After this, what sort of treatment can his fictitious persons expect? He has always been hard on them, the harder the more he sympathises with them, from the time of poor Malayan Victor Crabbe onwards, not excluding Shakespeare, and recently including a whole country. His heroes are Christlike, but like Christs to whom something lowering is bound to happen, such as falling off the Cross. When one of Toomey’s boyfriends, a black, asks him if he knows ‘that big word’ humiliation, he replies: ‘I practically invented it.’ He could also have invented the sayings ‘the good die young,’ ‘whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth’ and (oh yes!) ‘out of good still to find means of evil’.
Visiting Berlin for a film festival in the mid-1930s, sickened by Goebbels and an excess of Sekt, Toomey contrives to vomit on a swastika flag. At the premiere of a film about Horst Wessel, he pushes a genial short shy man out of the way of Concetta Campanati’s pistol (Toomey’s sister’s mother-in-law, dying of cancer, is anxious to do a last good deed), then finds the man he has saved is Heinrich Himmler. Just before the outbreak of war he attempts to smuggle the (invented) Jewish novelist, Jakob Strehler, out of Austria. He fails in this, is caught, and buys his freedom by agreeing to broadcast to Britain. (The young official who interviews him apologises for not liking his work: ‘he had had Dr L.C. Knights as a tutor for a year at Cambridge and had been taught a rather rigorous approach to literature.’) Back in London, Toomey points out to the court of inquiry that in his remarks he had inserted two acrostics highly offensive to the Nazi leadership – ‘cunningly prepared’, and all too well concealed.
But now we must face the horrors, the other horrors. Early in the 1960s Toomey gives his nephew John Campanati, a young anthropologist interested in language structure, money to go, with his wife, to research in a new African state – money earned from writing ‘sedative fiction’ and film scripts. By now the reader is likely to guess what will happen. John and his wife (yes, two of the most likeable characters in the book) are killed by terrorists. If that isn’t enough, it turns out later that actually they were murdered to provide the flesh and blood of the Eucharist in an ‘African Mass’ (hoc est corpus meum reconciled with hocus-pocus), a development for which the ecumenical Pope Gregory, uncle of the young anthropologist, brother-in-law of Toomey, has to be held responsible.
‘Too much glamour altogether,’ Toomey reflects at one point, of the Campanati family. Possibly a sign of nervousness on the author’s part, yet it must be allowed that one enjoys this blown-up Italo-American version of the Forsyte Saga. Carlo Campanati, burly, gluttonous, forceful, heroic, extremely secular, extremely holy, dominates much of Earthly Powers. When the novel begins – which is chronologically near its end – he has recently died, as Pope Gregory XVII, and is a candidate (certainly no nigrate) for canonisation. Toomey is to testify to Carlo’s performance of a miracle, the cure of a child in the last stages of meningitis. When towards the close we hear of a sinister evangelist called God (for Godfrey) Manning (God in Man), my prophetic soul began to get the shakes again. The police close in on the Children of God, Manning’s community in California, and the faith-healer conducts 1700 of his flock into eternity: in Jonestown fashion, except that by an extra turn of the screw the cyanide is administered in the Eucharist. Yes, God Manning was the child saved from meningitis. What is the theology, or theodicy, of this? Man is given free will by a loving God, and hence man can will evil. But a miracle has nothing to do with man, it is the intervention of God – and here an all-knowing God has intervened to procure future evil.
Concetta, Carlo’s mother or adoptive mother, once remarked that according to Carlo good always won, in the long run: ‘Well, that long run’s just a little bit too long.’ Where this novel is concerned, I think we have to agree. ‘What is the point of the dialectic of fiction or drama,’ Toomey muses, ‘unless the evil is as cogent as the good?’ But we may also ask, do Good and Evil work in as schematic a fashion as a novelist? And are bad angels such sure shots at firing good ones out? At the very end, by a final tact, one small mercy is shown, shown the reader as well as Toomey and his much-loved sister Hortense. These two battered survivors will pass their last days together, waiting for death. ‘I have always, all through my literary career, found endings excruciatingly hard. Thank God, or something, the last words were not for my pen ... ’
[*] Something similar, though milder, is to be found in Private Pictures (Cape, 84 pp., £.8.50 and £4.95, 2 October, 0 224 01846 9), a collection of photographs by Daniel Angeli and Jean-Paul Dousset of ‘the stars off their guard: the stars naked – sometimes literally so’. Milder in that Sinatra’s yawn is totally frank, Farrah Fawcett jogs unexceptionably, Dirk Bogarde searches the newspaper racks like a serious-minded reader, Prince Philip enjoys his pint, the Queen Mother in the wind is a pleasing figure, Marlene Dietrich has aged pretty well, Romy Schneider’s buttocks are acceptable enough – if that’s what you want – and while Bardot’s bosom droops a little, it droops under its own weight. It is reassuring to note that famous ladies often wear a cross dangling between their breasts, and that male celebrities – but enough. Yet in his introduction Anthony Burgess contends that one of the punishments of fame is ‘a book like this, with its brilliant craft of exposure. It lays on the whips ... The extraordinary are revealed as terribly ordinary, and there is no diviner punishment than that.’ Surely God can do better?