Saturday, 22 May 2010

Anthony Burgess: Beyond Clockwork Orange

It's odd. I've been aware of the work of Anthony Burgess (the pseudonym for John Burgess Wilson) for decades, ever since I discovered him in connection with Clockwork Orange. Prompted by the Kubrick film I went down to the Fort Garry public library and borrowed a copy of Burgess's novel. After seeing the film I read it again, but I don't think I ever bothered with anything else by Burgess. Until now. I had a copy of Earthly Powers on my shelf for decades. Somebody gave me a copy of the first Penguin paperback edition shortly after it was shortlisted for the Booker prize. Now and then over the years I'd take the fat, heavy book down, admire it's cover illustration (by Bill Sanderson), read the first couple of sentences, then put it back of the shelf. But not long ago I was out of action for a while, at home in bed with a cold, and I was looking for a big fat book to read. Finally Burgess's time had come... Earthly Powers is an episodic epic spanning the better part of the 20th century. Its protagonist Kenneth Toomey is a hugely successful, though personally tormented, writer loosely modeled on Somerset Maugham. Full of historical detail, the book is well written and intermittently compelling, although for me far and away the most effective sequence is a brilliant little tale of the supernatural set in Malaysia which is vivid, horrifying and unforgettable (although, having said that, I was talking to Graeme Curry, who'd also read the book, and he couldn't remember the episode at all). Earthly Powers isn't a masterpiece. I found it exhausting and its charms rather variable. Above all, I have to admit, I found the protagonist, in whose company we spend 649 pages, singularly unsympathetic (although I'm an admirer of the real life Somerset Maugham). The ending of the book, however, is stunning and left me full of admiration for Burgess. It certainly prompted me to look for something else to read by him. What I found was Any Old Iron. Despite being lumbered with a contrived and unconvincing narrative thread (a search for an ancient sword which even Burgess doesn't seem particularly interested in) this is a much better book than Earthly Powers. Again it's a wide canvas depicting the 20th century, and again it's beautifully written, with great authority. In particular, the war sequences, seen from the point of view of the ordinary soldier, are superb. The book doesn't reach a satisfying or interesting conclusion, however. To sum up, Earthly Powers is a serviceable novel with a splendid ending and Any Old Iron is a splendid novel with a serviceable ending. Burgess is clearly a giant, though, and I'm looking forward to spending more time in his company. I notice he's written novels about both Shakespeare and Napoleon, so those are next on my list... Incidentally, writing this blog entry has brought forcefully home both the joys and frustrations of the internet. I wanted to include an image of the cover of Earthly Powers, in the edition which I read, with the aforementioned splendid cover illustration by Bill Sanderson (design by Butcher & Gomez). But I don't have a flat bed scanner and my search on the web for a jpeg of the cover (a perfectly reasonable request, I thought), only threw up a couple of pitiful little scans of battered paperbacks. On the other hand, though, I found Sanderson's website which provided the magnificent illustrations you see here. This piece was supposed to be about Anthony Burgess but one of the bonuses of writing it was discovering Sanderson. He's a phenomenal artist and if you have the funds, you should contact his agent and commission him immediately.