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.

The final essay lulls us with scientists’ dulling explications of sleep and dream, the liquid L’s of impulses, stimuli, medulla, while Burgess croons that ‘the mere summarisation is enough to induce sleep’ – like a lullaby, a right Balulalow. Full circle, we come back to ‘Moses in his moise, the light filtered down through the gaps in the osier weave’, murmuring and lulling.

The pattern of the book is more ‘literary’, perhaps, since there are seven essays corresponding to the seven ages of man, as presented in As You Like It. After the rocking cradle, we find the whiner, creeping unwillingly to bed and nightmare. Burgess might here have quoted De la Mare’s verse:

‘Night-night, my Precious’; ‘Sweet dreams, Sweet’;
‘Heaven bless you, Love’; the sheeplike grownups said.
Two eyes gazed mutely back that none could meet,
Then turned to face Night’s terrors overhead.

The third essay is, of course, about the lover (not much on love-making – hard on readers who think that’s all a bed’s for) and the fourth is on soldiers’ beds and similar hardships. The fifth is full of wise saws and modern instances, about productive people creating and planning in bed. Sixthly, we have the pantaloon, choosing his death-bed; seventhly, the loss of all things, even a bed. Then, musically, comes the coda to this suite of dances: the lullaby of Miriam, Moses and the moise is murmured again, with a final statement: ‘The study of sleep is wonder: the study of beds is fear.’

We may congratulate Gabriele Pantucci, who is credited with the idea of this pretty book of hours. The most amusing picture is Toulouse-Lautrec’s study of a man and woman lazing in bed – since the man looks uncommonly like Anthony Burgess, according to his dust-jacket photographs. On Going to Bed is something of a ‘crossmess parzle’, if we accept Burgess’s explication of Joyce’s words, as a blend of Christmas parcel and crossword puzzle. Burgess seems to want his readers to decode his work, as he himself decodes Joyce, and we must try to oblige our tutor – testing though he is. Twenty years ago, he reviewed a novel of mine, and I was glad that he noticed the chapter headings were taken from Ravel’s suite, Tombeau de Couperin – but he concluded, tutorially: ‘What is a suite but a museum of dead dances? Next time, Mr Jones must try sonata form!’ Since I like museums and ancient dances, it pleases me to respond that On Going to Bed resembles a good, old-fashioned suite (with a pictorial musée) – and that it might be over-ambitious, hubristic, to attempt sonata-form with words.

But it is not easy to argue such matters in a purely ‘literary’ context. Some word-children can sing, play or, at least, listen to music: but many literary specialists make no claim to any musical skill, knowledge or, even, taste. In This Man and Music, Burgess offers many ‘musical examples’ for the reader to play on his piano (smudgily printed though they are): if he can’t manage this, they are like Greek quotations for one who knows no Greek. Musical notation is used to dedicate the book to G-A-B-*-*-E-*-E *-A-*-*-*-C-C-* – so we may congratulate Gabriele Pantucci again. On the dust-cover, the music-reader may recognise A and B flat – and wonder why it was A and B natural (with mezzo forte instruction) on the cover of A/B’s novel MF. Burgess’s tone is sometimes that of a schoolmaster, talking a touch over his pupils’ heads, hoping his allusions will be ‘looked up’ and encourage self-improvement. A teacher may use this technique: but a novelist, supposedly talking with equals, may offend his readers and spoil his plain story, as Aldous Huxley did, making us feel he is patronising us, showing off.

Burgess knows his pupils’ reluctance to follow his ‘musical’ programmes. Discussing his novel, Napoleon Symphony, he breaks off with ‘Too fanciful?’ and mocks our response: ‘Give us, for God’s sake, a plain read!’ He goes on to point out that in the ‘coda’ to this novel ‘a kind of bugle call is heard outside, along with a fart like the tearing of paper. That is Beethoven ripping the dedication of the Eroica to Napoleon.’ But the plain reader, the disobedient pupil, thinks that perhaps it is just old Enderby letting rip, not Beethoven at all. PFFFRRRRUMMMP!

In Napoleon Symphony, Burgess tells us, ‘INRI’ means not only that Latin acronym tattooed on British soldiers’ arms – Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews – but something lower-grade: Imperatorem Napoleonem Regem Interficiamus – ‘Kill Napoleon, the King Emperor.’ In This Man and Music, Burgess prints a passage from Beethoven’s Eroica above his bit of anti-Napoleon fake-Latin, cut to ‘fit’. Thus, schoolboys have sung, to Gounod’s march, ‘Hambones and jolly great lumps of fat’; and that famous clown, Lucky Jim, howled to Mozart: ‘You ignorant clod, you stupid old sod, you havering, slavering get!’ But Anthony Burgess is not a clown or a schoolboy: when he fits improper words to a Beethoven melody he believes that he is offering ‘appropriate but ridiculous dream choruses’, in the manner of Eliot and Joyce.

The puns, echoes and ambiguities of these writers are used, Burgess suggests, as an emulation of a words-and-music partnership: he might have added that both Bernstein and Sondheim are devoted to cryptic crosswords. Musical ideas carry less definite meaning than verbal ideas, despite our immediate recognition of their mood, their passion. Bernstein’s song about New York (Burgess observes) wakens a sleeping city with the same notes as Vaughan Williams’s symphony about London – the same as the ‘Marseillaise’. He adds that Britten sent Sinfonia da Requiem to Japan, thinking he had been commissioned to write a funeral piece: but the Japanese had wanted it for a jubilee and, however fast they played it, could not make it sound jubilant.

Let me quote from a Victorian book on the theory of music:

The power of music is limited to the expression of general emotions, such as those of gaiety, elevation, solemnity, melancholy or sadness. Unaided by verbal languages, it is incapable of expressing the more particular passions of ambition, fortitude, pity, love, gratitude, &c. Hence, one reason of the superior importance and greater popularity of vocal over instrumental music. In the former, music and poetry appear in combination; consequently, its expressions are more definite than those of the latter.

This judgment offers, to the plain reader, some answer to the problems Burgess raises – about, for instance, the common belief that cruel Nazis were moved by exalted music. People who think it their duty to execute enemies of the state might well be encouraged, ‘elevated’, by Bach – almost as a British soldier, prosecuting an unjust war, might be ‘elevated’ by ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers’, if he does not hear the words. But music in such a mood could not, I think, encourage mugging or bar-room, dance-hall brawls, as rock music can – not unless the rhythm, the beat, is changed, to parody the original. Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange pretended that a lively-eared punk could be turned on to street violence by Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’: but plain readers did not take this paradoxical fantasy seriously.

Burgess is still musing on A Clockwork Orange, his most famous novel. As usual, he was attempting three things at once. He was setting a ‘crossmess parzle’, with Russian words turned into punk slang (‘Yarbles! Bolshy great yarblockos to thee and thine!’); he was fantasising about the effects of music on the soul and body; and he was also writing a gripping yarn about rough boys, suitable for filming. This worries him. He now writes: ‘To encourage a reader to enjoy the representation of violence is probably immoral and certainly has nothing to do with art.’ Against his conscious will, it seems, he had created a ‘strong character’, suitable to be turned into a Toby jug – like Bill Sikes, Widmerpool or Captain Grimes – with the attraction-repulsion of a film star, the man you love to hate.

Plain readers would like him to write more plain tales like that – gripping yarns with strong characters. But Burgess wants to write word-game novels, more like music than cinema, in the manner of Joyce and Nabokov. He wonders why these two, like himself, have been filmed and ‘temporarily adjudged pornographic’, when they are primarily concerned with word-games.

The plain answer is that the deliberate ambiguities of crosswords (and advertisements) encourage cryptic ‘rudeness’. Let me admit that during a recent crossword-setters’ dinner I caught myself satirising ‘Old Mother Fuggeridge and his daughter, Kitty’. Oh! I could have bitten my dirty tongue out. So I can hardly turn prudish against Anthony Burgess when he admits that he got the idea for MF from an actor who wanted to make an all-black film about Oedipus, called Mother Fucker. Like Finnegans Wake (as explicated by Burgess), MF is about incest, forbidden love, ‘rudeness’, all wrapped up in word-games. When the cross-mess parzle is unwrapped, the rudeness within is revealed – and is suitable for screening, being exciting, attractive-repulsive, not for the squeamish, plain rude.

Now, at last, we are equipped, or earmuffed, to listen to The End of the World News – though the plain reader need not struggle to analyse it too closely, since Mr Burgess will surely do that himself in a later book of self-reviews (This Man and Eschatology?). The threefold novel has three prefaces. On the dust-jacket is an account of the author’s literary and musical versatility (straight from his Earthly Powers blurb) and a more word-playful essay, signed by the author, comparing his tales with tasty oysters (for the Napoleonic walrus or the Christian carpenter?), while asserting that they concern ‘the three greatest events of the century – Freud’s discovery of the unconscious, Trotsky’s vision of the universal socialist state, and man’s proven ability to build new homes in outer space’. Thirdly, we have a cod foreword by ‘John B. Wilson BA’ (Burgess’s true name, plus AB spelt backwards?), pretending that the novel consists of papers left by a dead author who derived his title from ‘That is the end of the World News’ (a BBC sonority as awful as the Director of the Spoken Word, or the Editor of the Night). A walrus may think, as well, of The Well at the World’s End, while a carpenter will obviously brood upon Judgment Day.

Having studied the title and forewords, we turn to the story. We are in Vienna and good Doctor Jones has come to rescue a virtuous Jew from vicious Nazis – just like Leslie Howard in Pimpernel Smith. Dr Jones is good at German: when a Nazi tells him the Welsh are Aryan (Arisch), Jones explains that ‘Aryan’ is merely a linguistic term and he is not sure what a Jew is. (Compare Burgess, passim, on what music is and what literature is. This Man and Ontology?) Dr Jones nicely puns on Arisch and that favourite German expletive, Arsch.

By page two we have worked out that this good Jones is Ernest Jones (his son, Mervyn, must review this novel) come to rescue his guru, Freud. A most enjoyable read, so far, and all true Joneses will approve as our multilingual hero uses the high language of ‘His Britannic Majesty’ and ‘I am a subject of the British Crown’ to frighten the Nazis – and then, smiling ‘with great sweetness’, he has soon cryptically ‘told the SA swine what he was in tuneful Welsh and what his Führer was too, and how both had been born out of a dog’s arse’. PFFFRRRRUMMMP! We remember Robert Graves’s poem, ‘Welsh incident’:

‘A musical noise? A noise of scuffling?’
‘No, but a very loud, respectable noise –
Like groaning to oneself on Sunday morning ...’

But then, suddenly, ‘no more Vienna’. The Freuds are escaping from that corrupted city and Anna is reading ‘a cheap sentimental novel in English’. And so are we, perhaps, for the Science Fiction yarn has begun. Children of the future, preparing a nativity play, see in the sky, not the star of wonder, but an Earth-menacing planet known to astronomers as ‘Lynx’ – this being a combination of ‘Lynch’ and ‘Marx’, a compromise between American and Soviet ideologies. (Compare Trollope on the Czar and the mob.)

Your reviewer, as plain reader, is easily bored by SF dreams and was kept awake only by Burgess’s word-play, about Blepophones – and the mysterious scientist whose Ology was obscure to the other scientists. I blew his cover all right, with my bit of Greek: he was obviously the copper, the security man. Burgess gleefully tells us what the word means, later in the book, but some of us had goddit already ... It’s the same old conspiracy between setters and solvers of cryptic crosswords – leaving others out in the cold, grumbling about élitism.

Turn briefly to the remaining leg, the Trotsky story. Smartly-rhyming lyrics drip down the page (and we know how Burgess enjoys the Byronic smartness of Coward-and-Porter verses), but we don’t feel that we’re at a Broadway show: it’s more like a knowing undergraduates’ ‘intimate revue’ – and your reviewer, as plain music-reader, would like Burgess’s tunes to be attached. (Words and music are best married, in song – not separated, like men or women imitating the opposite sex in one-sex clubs.) Burgess’s knowingness is possessive. Large difficult people – Shakespeare, Beethoven, Napoleon, Trotsky – are roughly fitted to the Procrustean bed of Burgess, and are all reduced to PFFFRRRRUMMMP! Like a reviewer or an essay-writing student, he uses masterly work to give him a structure (as, he notes, Joyce used Vico and Homer) – but tends to stretch or reduce. As one of his SF characters says: ‘You love him as a chunk of raw material you think you can mould.’

It is in exactly that way, of course, that some of us like Burgess’s work: as he determinedly instructs us (about Freud and incest, for instance), we interpret him in our own image – ‘Pygmalion and Galatea in reverse’, as he puts it himself. He will also remember the story of Proteus who kept changing shape, and Aristaeus had to hold him down to halt the transformations: were I Aristaeus, I would compel Burgess to become a plain teller of tales – just for one book – and save his musicianship for his music. But, no doubt, he will find a third way out of bed, wedged though he is between his two muses, and write a new novel in the form of a Parody Mass! Our advice will be greeted with a blast from his famous composition, Homage to Hans Keller for Four Tubas: PFFFRRRRUMMMP!