- Byrne by Anthony Burgess
Hutchinson, 150 pp, £14.99, October 1995, ISBN 0 09 179204 5
Many years ago, before soundbites and even before That Was the Week that Was, I found myself pushed by the late Brigid Brophy into taking part in an early TV quiz show. In those days such things were done in a touchingly amateurish way, with make-up persons fussing about and everyone, even the cameramen, looking highly nervous. It was a literary guessing-game, done almost like charades used to be at a country weekend. An actor read out a bit of poetry or prose, and sitting in a semicircle we attempted in turn to give it a date, a context, the name of an author. By today’s standards the whole thing was élitist to a suicidal degree. We were lemmings of literature, evidently bent on the destruction of all we stood for. The idea was to show off by not showing off, to be languidly erudite, wittily and unobtrusively learned. High culture, wide culture, men of letters, like Aldous Huxley, who indeed was then still alive ... It was the exact opposite of Brain of Britain.
And Anthony Burgess was brilliant at it. Easy, smiling, courteous, uncompetitive, he was absolutely deadly when it came to the details of name and place. Dryden? Yes, we all got that, more or less: a well-known piece, but where from exactly? Burgess had the answer, down to the act and scene, in the play Aurung-Zebe. It was the famous passage which begins ‘when I consider life, ’tis all a cheat,’ and ends with each of us hoping to receive from the last drops of life ‘what the first sprightly running could not give’. I barely knew then who Burgess was (this was well before A Clockwork Orange) and I was deeply impressed. So was everyone else. He had great charm and – more surprisingly in view of what was to come – a modest sobriety. The comprehensive expertise which was to intrude oppressively in his later work, and often weigh down the reader’s patience, was here as light as a feather. He belonged, in fact, to the old dispensation, in which he was not only at home but as happy as a sandboy. I could have imagined him swapping jests and odd bits of learning with Logan Pearsall Smith, the author of Trivia, and spellbinding the old dilettante with the tale, told tongue in cheek, of how a misdiagnosis giving him only a few more months to live had set him writing a few light novels to help support the missus after he’d gone ... Droll – what?
But culture today has lost amateur status and must be taken seriously, as Brain of Britain shows. No longer diffused lightly throughout the media, it has become, like sport, a specialised affair, and Burgess himself is taken seriously along with it. George Walden, chairman of this year’s Booker Prize, quoted Burgess as a contemporary sage, whose dictum on what a good novel should be like was given as a guideline to his judging panel. Such a novel should leave in the mind ‘a sort of philosophical residue, and a view of life, indirectly propounded, that should seem new, even surprising’.
As good a criterion as one could find no doubt, but its particular interest where Burgess is concerned is how little it has to do with his own work. He would have wished it had; and with all the insight and brilliance he possessed he tried very hard in his own way to be new, and surprising. Too hard perhaps. He must have known that true originality is a dispensation, and not something to be got by trying. You can only make it new if you’ve got it in you. Or if you can fake it. Burgess’s dislike (not envy) of Graham Greene, on these grounds, emerges in a couplet from Byrne:
And white men go to pieces, as we’ve seen,
In overlauded trash by Graham Greene.
Greene achieved a bogus newness, in Burgess’s view, by laboriously making grace and sin the novelties of a kind of fiction which was no more than the old sentimental sensationalism brought up to date. And he detected a similar kind of fakery in Lawrence Durrell.
There was nothing of the fake about Burgess, and no portentousness either. His best straight novels are his early ones, The Enemy in the Blanket and Beds in the East, which together with the earliest, Time for a Tiger, were published as The Malayan Trilogy in 1972. These reread very well, which Greene and Durrell on the whole do not, and are honest and solid achievements, even though they may lack the touch of real originality in, say, J.G. Farrell’s trilogy. Burgess’s later Enderby Trilogy, by contrast, already shows too much self-indulgence, and his fatal tendency to achieve an impression of newness by means of gimmickry. Enderby is a portrait of the artist, with his own brand of self-indulgence concealed as satire. Burgess’s admiration for Joyce was whole-hearted: Joyce was his lodestar; but Joyce is a writer whose inspiration can only lead to pastiche, and to an ultimately toppling tower of verbal invention. The depths of Leopold Bloom are not on display: Joyce knows him, and has no need to reveal his knowledge. Burgess’s hero can only exist through and by means of display, and there is no hidden well of simplicity at the back of his sophistications. Joyce understood that men are very naive inside the privacy of their own selves, and Burgess’s creations have no such privacy. However much verbal and mythological invention Joyce puts out, it never blurs that primal vision of ‘scrupulous meanness’ in which his true originality consists, or his need to evangelise ‘the beauty that has not yet come into the world’.
Hardly fair, though, to use comparisons which implicitly belittle Burgess’s real achievement. He was, it is clear, a wholly modest man, well aware of the limitations of his own extraordinary versatility, and deservedly eager to take them as far as they could go. His true affiliations are with those lively and versatile Elizabethan men of letters like Nashe and Gabriel Harvey, who could turn their hand to any form, and always combined learning with levity. Harvey’s own striking phrase about some of Spenser’s eccentric aspects as a poet – ‘Hobgoblin run away with the garland of Apollo’ – would give a good idea of the kinds of animation and variety that Burgess injected into everything he wrote. A Clockwork Orange, and its use of a Russian patois as a fashion among English rogues, remains unforgettable, even though the rogues themselves are stylised, even intellectualised, to an almost comic degree. That again would be in the tradition of the pícaro and the Elizabethan knockabout tale.
Nonetheless, what remains striking about A Clockwork Orange and several other of Burgess’s fictions is the genuine sense of horror which lurks somewhere inside them, and to which the brilliancy of idea and execution seems at moments to call attention by getting in its way. The brainwashing of Alex, like the droog language, is so obviously superficial in its inspiration that it throws into relief the central destructive event of the novel. In writing it Burgess might almost have been purging himself of the horror of that event in wartime London when his wife was robbed and beaten up by deserters from the American Army, a trauma from which she never fully recovered. In the same perverse and yet impressive way The Napoleon Symphony, with its remarkable bravura musical sequence on the retreat from Moscow, somehow manages to indicate the awfulness of the historic event all the more effectively for treating it in so farcically aesthetic a style. The French engineer sergeants who repair the Berezina bridge, belly deep in ice-filled water, talk like archetypal soldiers, but with a perfection of savage and comic authenticity which reminds us that Burgess spent a surprisingly long time, during the war and after it, in His Majesty’s Forces. The startling vitality of the novel depends on the way it is done, though not perhaps on Burgess’s ingenious attempt to counterpoint musical movements with verbal ones.
It would be praise rather than blame, therefore, to suggest that Burgess’s achievement lay in the area of intellectualising the light novel, without causing it to lose any of the immediacy and gaiety which makes it an ephemeral form. When Earthly Powers was passed over for the Booker Prize in favour of the first volume of William Golding’s seafaring trilogy, the choice was between a ‘serious’ work, which time may or may not agree to be a masterpiece, and a light novel on a heroic scale, which seems careless of posterity although not of its immediate deserts, as Burgess himself forcefully insisted at the time of the award. The pretension of Earthly Powers, a contemporary and international panorama in which historical and made-up characters mingle in a fine sweep of ebullient invention, seems not really to deceive its author or to take itself seriously, even though scope and ambitiousness may suggest that it does. But Burgess is having a game with the story, as the formalists say, in this case with the ‘story’ of a ‘great novel’. In contrast with most of the leaden productions of Anglo-American ‘great’ fiction, Earthly Powers was in its time a splendid tonic.
Byrne, his last and posthumous novel – and in verse – is another one. Michael Byrne, a Lancashire Irishman like Burgess, was ‘a minor artist with a two-stringed bow’, as a composer and a painter. He is also a cosmopolitan father, a Don Juan, but not, oddly enough, a poet. (Burgess’s technique is always to produce the obvious gimmick in full view of the audience.) The poem which constitutes the novel Byrne has therefore had to be composed by the eponymous hero’s obituarist, one Tomlinson. (Shades of Kipling, just as the hero’s name interests us by being so close to that of Byron.)
It must have been fun to do; it is also great fun to read. The writer on his last legs is the true hero, for manifesting such a soaring parting zest in his own skills. Its characterisation is often more subtle than that of Don Juan, just as its rhymes are even more ingenious. To outdo a model, it must be said, is to confirm the model’s originality, not your own; and yet there are moments in this ‘poem’, during Part Two in particular, which are full of a richness and insight beyond the model, but impossible without its verse pattern, which makes the whole structure so comically exigent, so precarious, and in its own way so rewarding. This is surely the highest accolade which can be bestowed on a verse novel. Pushkin himself seems vivid and fascinating as a social psychologist only because of the metre in which he writes.
Part Two introduces us to Father Timothy Byrne, son of Michael, a Catholic priest with the usual contemporary problems but – thanks to the author’s powers of versification – something of a personality in his own right. His sister Dorothy is hopelessly sunk in TV (one of the many old-fashioned things about Burgess was an élitist contempt for the amusements of the masses) and the pair inhabit a squalor to which the author’s rhyming resources are more than equal.
His numb left foot disturbed a rat that nested
Inside a soup can. Someone’s pedal bike
Distorted to surrealism rested
On old wet Suns. With rictus of dislike,
Detaching shoe from shit, he danced it clean,
Then rang the bell of Number 17.
Those ‘old wet Suns’ reveal the master’s touch, as both poet and verbal painter. Limbo, bimbo, akimbo are the sort of rhymes that ram the message home. As in The Clockwork Testament (1974), last and most triumphantly flamboyant of the Enderby novels, what strikes one chiefly is the sheer geniality with which the author blocks in the todayness of today: crime, the byzantine posturings of the welfare machine, the dogged persistence of the Catholic Church at the level where it works hardest and humanises most. Burgess was right to despise Graham Greene’s Catholicism – all dramatic artifice and High Society agonising – for he seems to have remained on close terms with the real thing, good and bad, as it had once manifested itself in his Northern childhood. Touchingly, that childhood comes alive in this last piece of expertly offhand craftsmanship.
One point of the enterprise, diverting for both author and reader, is to multiply complications which are never going to be unravelled: if they were, the result would be a bathos which yawns at the end of every book, and the sign-off rhyme of every stanza, but by which the poetic flow is miraculously never quite engulfed. It must be said, though, that as with all such performance enterprises, the main pleasure of the spectator is not so much the work itself as watching the player doing it. Burgess had always flaunted his virtuosity before his reader; and here we are fondly clapping the last show, and the last encore.
Anyway, did I say that Father Tim has an identical brother called Tom? They can only be told apart because Tim has one finger missing (his bishop was once very doubtful about the legitimacy of nine instead of ten fingers when it comes to holding up the Host). The finger business hardly matters, but it helps to carry things along until we get the climactic set-piece of the verse novel, a conference of savants at the House of Culture in Strasbourg, attended by Tim pretending to be Tom, and escorting Tom’s lady friend, the highly unalluring and modishly counter-cultural Angela De’ath.
The exposition of great European
Contributors to European thought
Was ready, and tomorrow there would be an
Official opening. Tim as Tom now ought
To schlepp his ass (astonished, Tim could see an
American vulgarian had taught
Her showbizspeak) pronto to the Musée
In the Place Kléber, ‘See you there. Oque?’
The moderately scatological dénouement comes as no particular surprise, but is amusing enough to round things off. Suddenly dropping the macaronic knockabout Burgess then gives us a few sonnets, as accomplished as his ottava rima and something more. The morning melancholy when the comedian awakes? Are they the Burgess version of Byron’s outcry in Don Juan, as he throws the domino aside?
Oh would to God that I were so much clay,
As I am blood, bone, marrow, passion, feeling;
Having got drunk exceedingly today
So that I seem to stand upon the ceiling ...
Though more obviously poetical, Burgess’s dawn has its own kind of heartfeltness.
Wachet Auf! A fretful dunghill cock
Flinted the noisy beacons through the shires.
A martin’s nest clogged the cathedral clock,
But it was morning: birds could not be liars.
A key cleft rusty age in lock and lock.
Men shivered by a hundred kitchen fires.
We leave Tim and Tom ‘embarking for Heathrow/Blessing the filthy world. Somebody had to.’ And a date concludes the poem – Ash Wednesday. Burgess’s end is certainly in his beginning. Byrne is not so much a summation as yet another brilliant variation, played on an instrument of many talents. A complex instrument certainly, but not a chameleonic one: Burgess himself as maestro is always there, joking, laughing and enjoying. There were never any dregs in the bottom of his talent – the last running is as sprightly as the first.