anthony burgess, “earthly powers”

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Anthony Burgess
Earthly Powers
(Vintage; originally 1980)

I don’t know that this is a particularly good book – the 650 pages of tiny type in the recent Vintage edition seem like far, far more than that – though it is compellingly strange, in part because it’s very hard to imagine who the imagined readership for this book might be. It’s a thoroughly Catholic book, with a great deal of attention to dogma; but the main character is gay. Certainly there’s a gay British Catholic novel tradition – hello Fr. Rolfe, mentioned dismissively here – though this does not fall into that at all, feeling confident in its ability to make up a tradition of its own from scratch. I don’t remember who first pointed out that Michelangelo’s sibyls in the Sistine Chapel look a great deal like male nudes with breasts added on, but that could possibly be said about the imagined homosexuality of this book. It’s not at all far from taking Marcel and Albertine’s relationship in the second half of Proust as a realistic portrayal of fin-de-siècle heterosexual behavior.

That said, there are attractions of this book, part of them based on the premise. Kenneth Toomey, the narrator and main presence of the book, is fairly transparently modeled on Somerset Maugham, a writer of popular fiction who’s now mostly forgotten. Maugham wrote a lot of short stories, not a few set in colonial southeast Asia. The Razor’s Edge, turned into a film in 1946 and 1984 (with Bill Murray), spawned a thousand Westerner goes to India for sacred knowledge plots. His travel writing is interesting for what it leaves out – in The Gentleman in the Parlour, for example, he presents himself as wandering alone through the wilds of southeast Asia, when in fact he was traveling with his boyfriend. Native people are almost entirely absent, or wildly imagined; Maugham’s world is populated by Europeans. Burgess arrived in Malaya at the point where it was clear the British empire was not long for the world; his trilogy of books on Malaya (and one following based on his time in Brunei, which is moved, for legal reasons, to Africa) are consciously a rewriting of Maugham’s colonial narratives. Burgess bothered to learn Malay; while the books are very much of their time, they can be profitably read. The idea of fictionalizing Maugham’s life is not a bad one (and nicely mirrors Maugham’s own fictionalization of the life of Aleister Crowley in The Magician) – although maybe 1980 was too soon to do it, as Maugham wasn’t as eclipsed as he would yet be, and Burgess’s attitudes were more colonialist than he probably realized.

That’s part of this book. Another tension between Maugham and Burgess was Maugham’s status as a middle-brow writer and Burgess’s high-brow taste. Burgess’s Toomey is set out as being a high-minded writer of trash that he knows is trash, though it pays the bills. This is slightly confusing in today’s world: the one thing we have over the rich is our taste, but the rich steadfastly fail to recognize that, being of the not unreasonable opinion that their tastes are correlated with their wealth. Despite his unending success, Toomey keeps putting out competent material that he thinks is beneath him; this continues until his end. Toomey’s tastes seem to mirror those of Burgess; he is born at the right time so that he can be in Paris in the right time, and while he is friendly enough with Joyce to refer to him as Jim, Toomey’s taste for Joyce doesn’t translate to artistic production influenced by Joyce. He refuses to defend Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness on aesthetic grounds. As the book progresses – Toomey’s life seems to span from around 1890 to the 1970s – his taste leans to misoneism: he hates the youth, but has nothing to show but a series of productions that made the middle class of previous generations entertained.

It’s smashed, however, into another novel – almost in the way Herschel Parker argues that Melville self-sabotaged Pierre. – by the decision to make Toomey (and most of the other characters) Catholic. The young Toomey can’t reconcile his homosexuality with his family’s Catholicism; he declares himself to be not of the church, but remains a fellow traveler, declaiming on the Church’s definitions of marriage and divorce, as well as periodically declaring things to be (with apparent seriousness) blasphemy. His sister, whose most serious relationship is a lesbian one, likewise remains in the Church. Toomey’s sister marries into a Milanese family; her husband, a musician, is written off early because his music is like George Antheil’s and because he has affairs, which violate the sanctity of marriage. Her husband’s brother is the other main character of the novel; he is a priest who eventually becomes Pope in the late 1950s, a strange combination of John XXIII and a character from The Exorcist. Toomey manages to be everywhere in the twentieth century, ending up at a version of Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple which comes to a bad end in the Mojave Desert rather than in Guyana; this unlikely occurrence is the culmination of a strand of the novel concerned with morality and the way in which Satan acts in the world, ending up being a bizarre argument for turning back to the Latin rite.

It’s very hard to know what to make of this. Maybe this is a great conservative novel, though almost everyone in this comes off as a buffoon. It is narrated in the first person by Toomey; we are always in his perspective, and although it is clear that he is not the most reliable narrator, it seems like we are meant to respect his aesthetic judgments (which take up a good portion of the novel). Toomey’s judgment and tiresome fondness for word play seem extremely similar to Burgess’s. There are a few nice things in there, but there’s a lot not to like: non-white characters is uniformly cringe-inducing, women come off very poorly, other gay people come off poorly.

The book is reminiscent, in its focus on the intersections of creation and belief, of Gaddis’s The Recognitions, though that book, flawed, it has to be said, by the homophobia of its times, is explicitly secular and a great deal more guarded. There’s also a certain similarity to Gore Vidal’s memoirs, written years after this; those books are also narratives of a peripatetic life spent wandering through the highlights of the twentieth century with some amount of fabulation – I believe Burgess turns up in there. James McCourt’s Mawrdew Czgowchwz cycle is more authentically musical and Joycean than Earthly Powers wants to be, though more geographically circumscribed. Earthly Powers loses something from being read after those books, and after Burgess’s own autobiographies, from which the reader realizes that much of what transpires in the novel has some correspondence to Burgess’s own history or enthusiasms – it is hard to imagine Toomey’s adventures in rural Malaya or his run-in with Maltese tax authorities playing a part in the novel if they hadn’t in Burgess’s own, and they feel tacked on.

Maybe I’ll change my mind with this given time. Burgess is an interesting writer, though he always feels like a smart person who has never met any other smart people and doesn’t know how to behave because he assumes everyone is stupider than he is; this ends up feeling like a text for a church of one. He’s gifted with language in a way that few are, though the puns never reach Joycean levels; of his books, I would only really say that I like the autobiographies and ABBA ABBA, though I do keep coming back.

2 thoughts on “anthony burgess, “earthly powers”

  1. Pingback: july 16–31, 2021 | with hidden noise

  2. (The other book this might be profitably read against is Jerzy Kosiński’s The Hermit of 69th Street, published in 1988 – it feels like it might be an America version of this? Both are narrated by older, somewhat disgraced writers with clear linguistic ability whose reliability and grasp on history is clearly in question; both traffic in autofiction. I’m not sure I’d wish either book on anyone; but an informed critical reading of the two books together would be useful.)

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