Anthony Burgess was the other writer nominated for the Booker Prize in 1981, the year it was won by Willian Golding for Rites of Passage. The quality of both that and Burgess’s Earthly Powers may be deduced from the fact that that is the only year in which just two novels were nominated. Burgess then was phenomenally unlucky, for many worse novels than his have won the prize, both before and after.
Earthly Powers was a tour de force, which brought together much contemporary history in dazzling combination. The narrator was an aging homosexual writer, who began his story with ‘It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.’ The catamite was also his secretary, which contributed to the belief that the narrator, Kenneth Toomey, was based on Somerset Maugham. The archbishop has come to ask Toomey to help with the canonization of Pope Gregory XVII who seems to be based on several Popes, beginning with Pope John the XXIII (in whose times this Papacy is set) and including the 1981 incumbent, John Paul II, in terms of Gregory’s charisma and presence on the world stage.
The mainspring of the story is a miracle the future Pope had performed in curing a little boy who was on the verge of certain death. The child grows up however into an evangelist who exercises control over those he converts, to the extent of persuading them to join him in a mass suicide. This is based on the Jim Jones incident in Guyana, where an American charismatic preacher persuaded his flock to imbibe FlavorAid laced I think with cyanide. The question then is whether the miracle wrought by the future Pope was aided by God or by the devil.
The book is a swift moving romp through the modern world, so such questions are merely indicated, without much analysis. It also deals with the Nazi regime in Germany, and what could be seen as collaboration with it, by the narrator as well as the Catholic Church. Again, judgments are not made, understandably so given the unreliability of the narrator, but the issues that are raised are important and interesting ones, as is the historical context. The ability to raise such questions, in the midst of a compelling story, is typical of Burgess’s work, work that raised him from being merely a popular novelist, even though his work is unlikely to last as would that of Golding.
The other book for which he was famous was A Clockwork Orange, published in 1962 and made into a memorable film a decade or so later. That was in the days when gratuitous violence was not thought essential for any film claiming modern status, but The Clockwork Orange made such violence its subject, exploring the bubbling resentment of an underclass that had no way of expressing itself except through violence. Rather as Graham Greene had done some decades earlier, in Brighton Rock, our negative feelings about the violent young man are changed to sympathy because of the vindictiveness with which he is pursued.
Greene had portrayed the vindictiveness of an individual, but Burgess shows society at its worst, dealing in punishments that in effect destroy the personality of the criminal turned victim. The book had come out when such techniques were not well known, though it has since transpired that much experimentation on these lines was going on in the Western system of justice, on lines that had been alleged earlier, with some scorn, about Communist methods of dealing with criminals.
It should be noted though that Burgess himself felt the film had done the book an injustice, in seeming to glorify sex and violence. This would not have been his intention, since evidently the book was based on something that happened to his wife when they were recently married. She had been attacked by some American army deserters, and had lost the child she was carrying, which suggests Burgess would hardly have had excessive sympathy for his young hooligan, who was portrayed by Malcolm McDowall as an attractive and mistreated anti-hero.
These two works I have described were undoubtedly the most memorable in the output of a prolific writer. The contrast between them, one a short novel concentrating on a particular theme, the other almost a parody of the baggy monsters that Victorian novels were characterized as, shows the literary skill of a writer who continued to experiment with new forms and subjects throughout his career. He was also a distinguished critic of music, and wrote fiction in forms that were based on musical structure, as in for instance The Napoleon Symphony, which was divided into four movements like Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony and provided a fresh perspective on an often portrayed life.
My own favourite though amongst his work was the Malay Trilogy which he had written early in his career, after working in that last outpost of the British colonial empire in Asia. As with so much British fiction about the colonies, Burgess was more concerned with the emotions and relationships of the British masters, administrators and commercial actors, than with the natives they ruled. But, unlike in Orwell, he tries to understand and present the subjects of colonialism with sympathy, aware of the repercussions amongst helpless millions of the often unthinking actions and reactions of those in authority. And the history of his stay in Malaya suggests a man at odds with the British empire – he moved from a showpiece school in Kuala Lumpur to Kelantan, and finally to Brunei, where he supported a revolutionary opposition party.
He also wrote a novel about Brunei, which his publishers thought might be libelous, so the action had to be transposed to a fictional African country. Given such attitudes, it is not surprising that he was repatriated, though the reason given was an inoperable brain tumour. Back in London however, he was given a clean bill of health, and then settled down to full time writing.
Like many other distinguished British writers, Burgess spent most of the latter part of his life abroad, having married as his second wife an Italian who had previously borne him a child. He wrote several screenplays, and died a multi-millionaire, with houses all over Europe, a far cry from his rather deprived childhood in Manchester. Interestingly enough, I believe that hardly any of the other writers discussed in this series, who had their childhood in England, were not based in London in their formative years. And it is also interesting that Burgess, who came from a more deprived background than many of these writers, many of whom had previous family involvement in the Empire, found his creativity developing only during his stint in Malaya. Given however his enormous erudition, and the energy of his writing, it is salutary that he was thus inspired, and able to find an audience.