Saturday, 9 May 2015


Mother Tongue
            This year [this essay was written in 2005] marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers, a novel that abounds in examples of significant coincidence, or what Carl Jung theoretically designated synchronicity. That it should fall on a year in which a pope on the fast-track to sainthood, John Paul II, and a world-famous novelist, Saul Bellow, die within days of each other and so have their earthly careers recapped everywhere in adjacent obituaries—newspapery versions of the novel’s twinned lives, as it were—is a coincidence which I trust the shade of the author is chortling over, between bouts of pointlessly pushing rocks up hills and whatnot, down—or is it up?—in Purgatory (Dante’s cosmography is as headachy as an M.C. Escher lithograph). The existence of Purgatory is of course still maintained by the Church that Burgess defected from, which is perhaps not the case with the Rome rendered in Earthly Powers, with its “now much impaired eschatology” (EP, 20), an allusion to post-Vatican II liberalizing tendencies that John Paul II, immovably conservative, famously arrested or reversed in most cases. Karol was no Carlo—sad, one ventures to say, to say. But then Bellow was no Toomey, whose novels, referred to in elderly retrospect, sound as embarrassingly medieval and outmoded as any Thomistic treatise; his memoirs, thankfully, are thoroughly modern.
            John Paul II was responsible for a less well-known difference between Burgess’s fictional Rome and our own real one: he abolished the office of advocatus diaboli, or devil’s advocate, which means now no novelist will ever be invited, as Toomey was, to offer alternate truths about, or variant readings of, the life-history of a candidate for sanctity. And thank God for that, one can almost hear the Vatican mandarins mumble. Because who ever expected a novelist to tell the truth about a person’s life? “We lie for a living,” Toomey himself points out to the archbishop who brings the invitation (12); stating the facts is the job of biographers (who, however, go by the name of hagiographers when they work for a Church and hacks when they work for a Party). Most civilized secularists surely believe, though, that novelists do tell the truth about human lives—just not the approved truth, presented in convenient simplifications serving partisan or dogmatic ends (as when, perhaps, a saintly Polish pope is sung to sleep by uncritical televeised encomia in another instance of what Bellow has called “event glamour”). Novelists like Bellow balk at indoctrinating generalizations, and prefer stories with nuance and complexity—with details, the bane of dogmatists and spin-doctors, because the devil is in them. Such writers make natural devil’s advocates, because they record the minutiae of individuality, ambiguity, and accident that muddy the purity of official accounts, and their tools, or their weapons, are words. Earthly Powers, which recounts two world wars, also dramatizes an eternal battle over language, pitting churchly custodians of sacred texts and symbols against writers who insit on unrestricted experiment in the artistic faith that language can reveal truths of its own, if it’s allowed to.
            “We are forced by the very nature of language to generalize” (121), Carlo argues once, and the platitudinous pontifications and glib aphorisms he offers in the role of Gregory XVII on television—his sound-bite theologizing—certainly seem to confirm his point. While he is able to generalize and simplify his message for the benefit of “huge congregations in football stadia and baseball parks” (599), it’s a different matter for literary practitioners of “the big subtle stuff crammed with ambiguities” (643), as exemplified by the subjects of the “Joyce Proust Mann course” (642) that an in-law of Toomey teaches, as well as by the works of Jakob Strehler, Burgess’s fictional equivalent of these authors (and presumably Robert Musil and Joseph Roth). Toomey’s own fiction is much like Carlo’s religion—a mass product packaged in “comfortingly flaccid language” (300), full of “melodrama, very simple and very crude” (643), the stuff most people need in order to “cope with life” (643), a literary corollary of popular faith. And yet Toomey’s volume of memoirs constitutes something more like the “great and difficult”(301) family saga of Strehler. It’s a self-confessed second-rater’s autobiography with regret at its core, but it has redemption as its aim—a novelized life written as compensation and amends for a career of lifeless novels, as well as a riposte to critics inner and outer delivered “posthumously, posthumously” (1). It supplies no pat answers to the questions it raises, and it is crammed with detail and, hence, devilry—some of it literal, but most of it just hermeneutical—and it seems to live up to what Toomey’s novels never could have, namely the proviso that if language is a writer’s sole earthly power, it had better be good.
            Turning to the devilish details of the narrative, with its uncanny concurrences and unsettling parallels, we can see a comparatively comic, unmomentous example of them early on, when the eighty-first birthday of Kenneth Toomey, world-renowned author, turns out to be also the birthday of an obscure poet named Scriberras, in the Malta where Toomey is then living. “We had to have him along,” Toomey’s embarrassed hostess explains, “and he took the wrong turning out of the loo and barged into the kitchen, and there he saw the damned cake. Then he said how thoughtful and kind and the rest of it. Apparently it’s his birthday as well as yours, and he doesn’t know it’s yours”(21). The guests, among them a British Council official and the Poet Laureate, conspire to spare the poet the disappointment of finding it’s not his anniversary that’s being honoured, but a drunk blurts the truth, and the poet, whose face was a “smiling moon of delight” (31) as Happy Birthday was sung, defends his right to be fêted: “You make a mistake. It is my birthday” (32). His childish reluctance to share the cake and candles is no less naïve and unsophisticated than his responses to the literary talk that previously passes between Toomey and his fellow author, Dawson Wignall, O.M. When Wignall cites the Cambridge School theory of ‘stock response’ to explain Toomey’s teary-eyed reactions to terms like faith and duty, and Toomey’s paid companion drunkenly guffaws, Scriberras cries, “It is not to be laughed at” (25); and, as the celebrants drink more and begin to argue over principles, he unabashedly cuts in with his own folksy philosophy, adding, with the firmness of the true believer, “it is also that we do not sneer at duty and at the faith we are taught at home” (30). Certain words, this mediocre versifier evidently comprehends, can be potent and precious, or perhaps sacred would be the term he, as a good Catholic, would apply. His own words, however, he’s quite casual about, blurting out a sonetto off-handedly and expressing more wonder at the dream that inspired it than at the poem itself. By contrast, Wignall, a highly literate, nominal Anglican, invests all his emotion in his own work, and reacts with a pained howl when it’s flippantly recited over dessert. No mere stock response, this, any more than is his sputtering impatience with a remark that the novelist Herman Hesse is “above language” and hence undiminished by translation: “No writer is above language. Each is his own language… [I]deas? Damn it, Shakespeare had no ideas worth talking about”(29). He’s trembling as he says this, his eyes brimming with tears, as Toomey’s had been earlier—and all for words, those harmless everyday things that modern literary theory and modern litterateurs like Toomey have supposedly “empt[ied]…of meaning” (459). Toomey himself does not really believe this, of course, and at once point he even uneasily asks Carlo if “language is of diabolic provenance” (121); Carlo answers that it is “one of our trials and sorrows” (121), and the diplomat hosting the birthday party would certainly concur. In vain does he, a professional builder of bridges between cultures and dinner guests by means of blandly tactful talk, try to restore good feeling, and the evening ends on a sour note. Toomey’s placement of this episode at the start of his account of Carlo and his Gregorian reforms seems instructive; if a mere party can fall foul over linguistic and literary allegiances in this way, what will happen when the age-old, dug-in dogmas and dialects of the Catholic Church get doctored with? What powers has Carlo, with his gambler’s recklessness, unleashed?
            Scriberras, a minor character in a book that has many, nonetheless plays a major role as the embodiment of what’s later called “the unformed mentality of childhood” which, spiritually, everyone “want[s] to get back [to]. Faith and loyalty and duty. The church on the hill and the known names in the graveyard…. Faith cannot move forward to new loyalties and duties. We are loyal only to our mothers.” Such, at any rate, is the view of an Anglican archbishop, commenting on the cross-cultural, inter-religious dialogue Carlo was in the midst of fostering, but “dear Carlo is wrong” (552), he concludes, and Toomey comes to share the clergyman’s misgivings about changing the Church. To de-Latinize the liturgy and adapt the symbols of the Mass to suit local cultures is only to invite the kind of confusing language-lesson Toomey finds himself forced to give his Muslim servant Ali, who’s as jealously protective of his name for God as Scriberras is of his candles and concept of duty:
“Once, Ali, in Catholic churches all over the world, they used the Latin name Deus. But now they have what is called the vernacular, since very few ordinary people know Latin. In mosques all over the world they say Allah, but in Catholic churches all over the world they use the vernacular. In Serbo-Croat Bog, in Finnish Jumala, I think, and in Swahili, I know, Mungu. Now here in Malta their language is a kind of Arabic, though it uses the alphabet of the Romans. And in Arabic and Maltese the word for God is the same—Allah. Is that moderately clear?”
        It was clear, he said, but it seemed somehow bad. (19)
Not just badness but real evil—in one of the book’s many examples of unintended consequences—results from similarly ill-advised clerical fiddling with cultural intangibles, as Toomey’s linguist nephew becomes himself a trope in a gruesome misreading of the Mass. The Eucharist, thanks to the Vatican’s confusing new policies, gets interpreted with cannibalistic literalism by an African tribe (680 ff), and Carlo, Toomey feels, must ultimately answer for this death. In this and other instances the papal reforms disclose a dark side, which for Toomey is proof of the blindness of their author. To his mind, the moneymaking “shaman and showman” (501), whose thrusting ambition flies in the face of the adage from the Theologica Germanica that “nothing burns in hell but self will” (cf. Carlo’s dogged comment that “will prevails…there is never any failure of [my] will” (382)), derives his relentlessly progressive, almost Panglossian, Pelagianism from his own lights, his own willfulness, and not from the Spirit he is supposed to be serving. His doctrinaire positivism, with its insistence on the goodness of humanity and on the devil as the sole instigator of evil, repeatedly fails to do philosophical justice to the unsavoury realities the novel recounts, and for Toomey, Hortense and other chracters who don’t share his vision, this misreading of modern history seems inexcusable. Misprision on such a scale—by no less than the spiritual guide of a universal Church—must have grave repercussions in some form or other, it is implied, and an excerpt from Hobbes’s Leviathan (whose “Soveraign Powers” is the source of the novel’s title) darkly hints of punishable perverters of the truth. There are at work in the world, according to Hobbes, “a Confederacy of Deceivers, that to obtain dominion over men in this present world, endeavour by dark and erroneous Doctrines to extinguish in them the Light, both by Nature, and of the Gospell; and so to dis-prepare them for the Kingdome of God to come” (459). No final conclusion is drawn about who might fit Hobbes’s description of a “Deceiver”—whether irreligious writers and composers whose fripperies corrupt public taste, or renegade churchmen who mislead millions with unfounded spiritual optimism—but Michelangelo’s fresco of Christ the Judge dealing out doom appears and reappears throughout the narrative, and only the book’s Hollywood hedonists and Hitlerite fanatics are unafraid that their actions might have eternal consequences. Carlo is gambling with his own soul, it is implied, as well as with the soul of his church, and his cardplayer’s win-some-lose-some insouciance, given the drastic scale of the stakes, makes Toomey wonder in retrospect whose side his brother-in-law had really been on. In a telling episode, in which he attempts to de-condition a captured Nazi by means of torture (it is more a battle of wills than an exorcism of spirits, but Carlo is convinced of the rightness of his methods) he reaches a moment of breakthrough when the worn-out fascist finally sees through all his political indoctrination to a latent humanity and decency. At this point Carlo confidently dons the hat of a Freudian interpreter of dreams:
One morning Liebeneiner said that he had dreamed he was dead.
         “Ah. You are, of course, officially dead.”
         “I saw my dead body. It was on a great battlefield. I looked down on my own body and thousands of others. I wept.”
         “You wept for your own body or all the bodies?”
         “I don’t know. I wept. The bodies were of my comrades dead in battle.”
         “You couldn’t see that they were your comrades. They were just the bodies of dead men. And yet they were your comrades.”
         “There were women too. Naked. Everybody was naked. I could not stop weeping. When I woke up my eyes were wet.” (487)
At first glance the meaning of this epiphany appears to be as Carlo glosses it: a militant idealogue now sees, on a battlefield he once divided between friends and enemies, only the “comrades” of a common humanity, their lives needlessly wasted in divisiveness. But the dream has another interpreataion in the context of the book as a whole. Carlo, a loyal soldier in “the long war” (295) between good and evil, completely certain of how the troops are aligned on the spiritual battlefield of the modern world, nevertheless repeatedly appears to serve the interests of the enemy, most notably when he miraculously heals a child in a hospital who grows up to be a messianic cult leader and mass-murderer. (This figure, Godfrey Manning, later assumes the fugitive alias of Carlton Goodlett, a name that could be taken as an implicit designation of his status as a sort of evil Carlo or anti-Pope—or, perhaps, as a spiritual son of Carlo, who after all has given him new life. In this role, he’s as ironically, or diabolically, mismatched with his father as the petty criminal Heinz Strehler is with his father Jakob, the literary master and martyr and author of Vatertag.) Carlo himself, as well, admits that his pontificate seems to have been endorsed or even facilitated by a senior devil (588), who may have paved the way for his preferred candidate by killing a competing cardinal, which raises the possibility that Carlo’s pontificate is really a pawn of the wrong powers, and that his reforms are ruinous by infernal design. In the context of these cosmic-sized ironies, the dream of a battlefield strewn with combatants of unclear allegiance can stand as an emblem of Carlo himself, enigmatic footsoldier in God-knows-whose army.
            Poor troubled Toomey, whose apostacy is pained and problematic throughout the book, and whose mediocre art reflects a mediocre character ill-equipped to confront these outsized teleological imponderables, hopes or prays at the end of the book for a sleep which, alluding to Hamlet’s “sleep of death” and probably Egmont’s “Süßer Schlaf,” seems to be a metaphor for mercy—for compassionate deliverance from the anguish of not knowing the outcome of the clash of the powers that “fierce” Carlo cheerfully engages with, and what side, for good or ill, Toomey himself took in the fight. Did his instinctive shove of Heinrich Himmler out of the path of a bullet, for instance, constitute an unpardonable sin? Did a lifetime frittered away on travel and triviality merit damnation? “Will he let us sleep?” he asks Hortense at the end of the book, and she tries to reassure him by saying that the “one article of faith” (705) remaining to her is that “if we suffer enough [in this life], we’ll kindly be allowed to sleep. Christ wrung at least that much out of the father” (519). Toomey, despite his rationalist credentials, seems at the end almost a conventional believer, having been forced into his lifelong religious disenfranchisement by a biological mischance, not out of any Faustian bravado. Home and family are what he finally longs for; whatever eternal perdition might await him, there is hell enough in this life, and he tires of it at last: “it’s hell being lonely. I’ve been lonely all my life. When Carlo opted for loneliness I knew what I’d always suspected. That he wasn’t, isn’t human. It’s like opting for hell” (634). Leaving, in old age, “the real fight, the struggle with form and expression, unwon” (4), and leaving also the bigger battle that Carlo fought in to look after itself, he returns to the peace, so to speak, of Battle, his hometown in Sussex, and there he finds his family again, in a reunion of sorts with his sister, his brother (long dead, but whose voice on LP is repeatedly said to reproduce the “real presence” of Tom—a way of saying their brotherly bond is a sort of sacrament), and his mother, at least in spirit (it’s really Tom portraying her in a comic skit). “Leave well alone, do you hear, Hortense, Kenneth,” he mimics in a motherly voice (705), and the advice is not as generically parental as it might at first seem; it had been issued earlier by Wignall the poet, bland Anglican or agnostic (Toomey sees the two terms as virtual synonyms), and comes in the course of a conversation about Catholicism as a religion that unwisely invites confrontation with mysteries that are best left alone. Anglicanism, he says, is a strategic compromise with the supernatural or paranormal, an arms-length acknowledgement of the “damned hairraising” (682) stuff that Carlo embraces—that God (“or something”) that “rides upon the storm,” as Toomey worriedly quotes (705), and that appears at one point to comically topple a seagoing Anglican archbishop (238), as if to chide a heretic. Toomey does not seem unwilling to take the maternal advice and, as an answer to his loneliness if not to his intellectual misgivings, to take some comfort in a nostalgic return to the old, Pre-Carlo rites of Mother Church, as administered by “a young French priest”—a priest speaking, in other words, the language of his mother: “we can even confess in French, I suppose, in the foredawn candles” (703). His approving mention of these objects reminds one of Scriberras the poetaster, a simple soul nourished by simple symbols, and as such not so unlike Toomey in his needy old age.
            When the Anglican archbishop had spoken previously of ultimate loyalty to one’s mother, and of how he believed faith could not move forward to loyalties and duties beyond that, he added that “if Carlo can do it, he is exceptional in his loneliness” (552). It seems, on the face of it, a fair judgment, because when motherless Carlo “elect[s] loneliness” (593) and dramatically disowns his friends and family (“I don’t want any of you”), he certainly seems to be leaving the world of normal emotional allegiances for some sort of sanctity, or else superhuman folly (he seems like one of Beckett’s steely loners here), but he is not alone in being so alone. Another figure in the book is a match for him in terms of isolation, as well as in the commanding strength of his personality and his militant devotion to principle. This is Jakob Strehler, the great Austrian author who refuses to leave Nazi-occupied Europe and works on in imperturbable solitude, shotgun at the ready (like the line from Eliot, “the trowel in hand, and the gun rather loose in the holster”). He, like Carlo, wars with devils—purely political ones in his case, although there are theological overtones to his battle too. He is translating, after all, a medieval prophecy of the Third Reich, a narrative poem in Latin about an army of rats with swastikas on their ensigns that overruns Austria, lead by a “king rat…called Adolphus” (448). Toomey replies with an appalled “good God” to this, an appropriately theistic exclamation, whether or not he is specifically recalling Carlo in a low moment “see[ing] the devil in the corner of the living room…assum[ing] the guise of a large rat, whose sleek fur and bright teeth [he] admired extravagantly in various languages” (382)—a vision, or visitation, this, which occurred on the night that Carlo learned of his own bastardy, in a foretaste of his final, total loneliness. Strehler, no less isolated a figure as he is lead off to certain death in a concentration camp, sings serenely, despite the SS men surrounding him, in Latin—the same language Carlo uses in the company of devils. “Strehler’s heart was light,” Toomey observes, because “he had produced great work which would outlast the Nazis” (453); he was “alive, like Heine and Mendelssohn, and the Nazis are merely the stuff of television movies” (454). He has won, in other words, his war. There is something celebratory, in a eucharistic sense, in the descriptions of his rural sequestration (“the water from my well is like wine”; “I have learned to make bread, more satisfying than the making of novels” (448-9)), and the way in which he and Toomey pass a week, “relaxed and stimulated,” in the quiet woods, while vast historical events circle around them, is reminiscent of another long intricate novel whose plot is shaped, like that of Earthly Powers, by metaphysical coincidences and ironies, namely Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. No less than Strehler, Pasternak was a master-novelist who worked on in defiance of totalitarian powers arrayed against him, and now “lives” on through Zhivago in the canon of world literature, while the Soviet Union fades into history. Impending canonization in Carlo’s case, on the other hand, is no conclusive proof that he has successfully defeated any evil empire, as he himself seemed to point out to Toomey on the night of the infamous confrontation with the Malayan warlock. “It’s a long war,” he says, and urges Toomey to content himself, despite the loss of his beloved companion Philip, with life’s “small victories.” Indeed, of the two great men in the book, Carlo comes away looking by far the the more problematical candidate for sainthood. Strehler, whose work celebrates “the greater glory of life” (301) and has proven salvific power (“the great life-enhancer reconciled me to the world again,” Toomey says after finishing Vatertag), looks like a hero or a martyr of art, and even though when Toomey finds him he is estranged from his wife and uninterested in seeing his son again, he could never be accused of inhumanity in the way that Toomey accuses Carlo after he rejects his family and friends. After all, Strehler’s freely elected loneliness has been in order to create “a great but difficult comic masterpiece as mad and as sane as Rabelais” (301) which, significantly, is about a family—flawed and fallible, but warmly rendered, “loud, quarrelsome, always sympatisch” (301). Strehler’s loneliness draws him closer to the meaning of family, the primal human bond, and his Bürgers, like Joyce’s Blooms of Dublin, are proof of it. His book “denies the possibility of progress”(301), depicting a world which is “undemocratic and infested with police spies but is also charming, comic and creative”(300); it magnanimously accepts and upholds, in other words, human nature as it is, on its own terms, rather than seeking to alter or “improve” it, to force it to conform to some imposed model—an impulse which, troublingly, puts well-intentioned Carlo in the same company as the Nazis and Godfrey Manning. There is something humourless and inhumanly earnest about passionate reformers, and a sense of humour may the chief indicator in the book of the only sort of sanctity that Toomey is prepared to endorse. His brother Tommy, who produces comedy that is of a lesser order than Strehler’s but no less worthy, is repeatedly presented as a possible saint, albeit in Toomey’s qualified, humanistic sense of the term (he’s a “decent man who countered the world’s horrors with an easy humour”(471), “a man who did no harm to anyone, who brought a good deal of harmless pleasure into people’s lives”(421)).
         But if by the end of the book Carlo looks considerably diminished after Toomey has stripped away the robes of holiness that the canonizers had been preparing to dress him in (as Hortense had stripped the clothes from St. Ambrose, in her basso-relievo) he is still a sympathetic figure, with his Falstaffian appetites and his very human compassion, on occasion, for his friends. When he rushes to help Toomey in Malaya he seems even noble, and after his failure to save Philip, he still tries to console his distraught brother-in-law, as mentioned, with talk of life’s “small victor[ies].” Toomey, who lacks both Carlo’s faith and Strehler’s imaginative genius, bristles at this appeal to a philosophical largeness of soul, as would most of us, one suspects, given our instinctive preference for certainties and symbols that simplify rather than intensify the mystery of existence: “I made noises of rage, hatred, frustration, loss. ‘Stop that,’ he cried. ‘Rejoice. For God’s sake try to rejoice’”(295). 
         If some poor, Toomey-like mortal were ever tempted to pick, after the seven hundred pages of Strehlerian complexity or Bellovian abundance that is Earthly Powers, a single phrase with which to simplify the meaning or message of its author, that last admonition of Carlo’s might well be it.

 

 

Work cited.

Burgess, Anthony. Earthly Powers. New York: Avon Books, 1980. 

 


Post-Mortem

                             
                                   1
No matter the cause…whether the fishbone
That lanced his oesophagus, the whole bottle
Of gin that his wife Liz forced him to own,
Shrieking, “It’s water, fool—drink! Don’t throttle
Me!”—for he’d seized her by the neck, the crone—
Fake fright while she tried to drown him! Ha!—not till
Hell froze over would he let her kill him thus,
In front of their guests, with no blood or fuss!

                                    2
No, no matter…or if it was the fall,
Spluttering and flailing, headlong, down the stairs
To the basement, where guests and family, all,
Followed him, shouting, singly or in pairs,
“Water!” “Sit him up!” “Air!” “Lay him down!” “Call
911!” “Look! His head—blood!” “Oh, who cares
About the carpet, Liz? He’s turning blue!”
“He’s stone cold—he’s dead!” Which is nothing new.

                                  3
No matter if the bone, the gin, the fall, or—
The poisoned soup Liz had served him alone!
Oh, God! He should have guessed by the pallor
Of her face, or, when she said, “enjoy,” her tone:
Pure hate. No spice of old love or valour
Flavoured their late-middle-age. The kids had flown,
Sex grew dull, so what was a girl to do?
Murder for insurance cash! (Nothing new.)

                              4
No matter now: he, Ian Waunt, was dead.
He stood, a ghost unseen, over his body
And blinked like someone fallen out of bed—
Strangely awake and weirdly roused; odd the
New sensations filling his brand-new head.
So this was the afterlife. Well, by God, he
Kind of liked it. He’d expected torment
And fire, but this was more like retirement.

 
                             5
He watched the scene unfold. His corpse, cried on,
Stared at, kissed and hugged, slept its sleep. He got bored.
What was the fuss? He was fine—not fried on
Any stovetop in hell or else strumming chord
After dull harp-chord of God’s praise. Tried on,
His ghost-body fit well and functioned. No sword
Of fish-skeleton could bloody him now.
Farewell pain, kids, mortgage, work, marriage vow!

                           
                            6
A spirit at large in the world of men,
With a liberty never known while living,
He grasped, with a bang on the head of Zen
Satori, his new state—that of not giving
A fig about anyone, not even
God, and death as paltry as a bee sting:
He shot up the stairs with a yelp of glee
And ran onto the street in ecstasy!

 
                        7
Yet, there, rain dripped composure on his mood
And he felt the September afternoon,
Summery despite cloud, become imbued
With weird, sudden gravity…and heard a tune,
Or unholy humming, abruptly spew it-
Self, or spiral, like bees (nay, like a lun-
Atic’s hopeless moaning), from the mailbox—
Or like the sounds of hounds heard by a fox.
 

                        8
Inside? A letter addressed to I. Whaunt.
His ghost-hands shook, his ghost-heart doubled its beat
As he read God’s rebuke of his heart’s vaunt:
SO YOU’VE JUMPED THE CRUISESHIP TO HELL, HEY, YOU CHEAT?
WELL, YOU WON’T LAST LONG IN LIMBO TO FLAUNT
THIS FLOUT. JUST SEVEN DAYS. ENJOY YOUR FEAT
OF CUNNING, OR BOTCH. THE STOPOVER’S SHORT.
NO ONE CHECKS OUT OF THE DEVIL’S RESORT.”
 
                        9
That, sadly, was more like it. He was doomed.
It was quite fair, given the scope of his sin,
To have to face whatever horrors loomed
At the end of this week. The wicked don’t win,
After all, although happily subsumed
In a sea of pleasure while they live, chin-
Deep in luscious delight, drunk on it, mad
With grand wicked rich fun, oh! how…er…sad.

 
                      10
So he’d suffer forever: that was that.
No sense, now, dreading the inevitable.
Keen for a lark, at the drop of a hat,
He set off now—a man, not a vegetable,
After all—to gorge on the grease and fat
Of sin, habitually incorrigible
And too late now to feel bad about it,
Thank God (who felt bad Himself, and pouted).

 
                       11
He climbed in his Toyota and revved well
The engine and fled, driven by and driving
On to the world, the flesh and the devil,
That unholy trinity, darkly thriving
In Victoria, BC—home of level-
Headed, agnostic, amoral, conniving,
Polite, decent-seeming, swinish, well-intent-
Ioned folk; also a tax-mad government.

 
                        12
He burned up the old streets he knew so well—
The highways, side-streets, back lanes, and scenic routes
That now served, all, as paths to lead him to hell—
And selected his first stop. A bullet shoots
Out of a gun slower than he, pell-mell,
Pushed his Corolla to the campus where sprouts
The tree of knowing good and ill—UVic,
Reason’s distillery, thought’s alembic!


                     13
In that grove of giant firs he had swung
From branch to branch of knowledge, as drunk on books
As his old high-school friends (who’d now begun
To work for a living) were drunk on quick fucks,
Smokes, drinks, parties, movies, money—the fun
The working man earns himself after he locks
Up shop and cashes his cheque. Only fools
(His friends said) load their lives with books like mules. 

 
                    14
He now believed they were right, his old friends,
Now, as he stood glumly on the campus grounds,
Rueing his youth, unable to make amends
For it, for he was dead. Oh, the past confounds
The grown man, who is the fruit of how he spends
His youth. The old fox, growing tired, feels the hounds
Of bitterness snap at him: oh, the hate
For the boy whose choices now rule his fate.

 
                  15
A shy, scared kid when he came here, he left
More scared and shy than when he started—also
Jobless, hopeless, friendless, confused, bereft.
(Thus self-pity sang its sickly falsetto
In his ear. He hated it. Cursing, he left.)
Driving, he thought the spike of a stiletto
Was piercing his heart. The image was apt.
For his next stop, he would need no map.

 
                  16
Lust is a drug that deepens the disease
Of unhappiness in the heart, as Shakespeare
Said in sonnet form. Mere I, if you please,
Will sermonize in ottava rima here
About the sins of the flesh, viz., striptease
Shows our own unhappy Mr Waunt, I fear,
Watched, hour after hour, the wicked sinner—
A sick man at an unwholesome dinner .

 
                  17
He takes a back table. He feels relieved.
Academic failure? Social unsuccess?
Relax. These girls are not to be believed!
Look at that one in the skin-tight satin dress!
Look what lots of surgery has achieved!
Off comes dress and all! Oh, what tits! What an ass!
What an ass…. He sighed. Conscience, unimpressed,
Mailed his lust-yelp to a cancelled address.

 

                 18
It was more unwelcome news—the brute truth.
This nude bar was a place not of fulfillment
But of frustration. No ticket booth
Sold trips to carnal Paradise. That figment
Of youth faded and he ached like a tooth.
The girl wagged her fabulous fundament
But he stood up and made straight for the door.
He felt he was back where he was before.

 
               19
Where to now? He was low and, yes, hungry.
(The illusion of life extended to that.)
Time was short, cash thin, so I think you’ll agree
That, though its fare tastes like what someone has shat,
McDonald’s is the only place poverty
Does not prevent you patronizing. He sat,
Ate, drank, sulked, sighed, felt utterly unfulfilled.
Appetites didn’t answer. Joy was distilled

 

               20
In deeper parts of the human soul, and words,
When they worked, and didn’t bore, could take you there.
He bought a book, found a park bench where birds
Pecked, heckled and hovered; one crapped in his hair.
But he ignored them, disregarded their turds—
He read a few lines and forgot his cares.
He was lost in literature, his old pastime,
It was Byrne by Burgess; he didn’t waste time.


             21
He read it through thrice, and felt slightly better.
He learned, in a way, sort of, to almost spurn
His fate, the pinch of the devil’s fetter
On his ankle, the fact it was almost his turn
To don infernal garb, a flaming sweater,
Molten shoes, so forth, and forever to burn
Because he’d been bad and had naughty urges—
But at least he’d read lots of Anthony Burgess.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015


Biblical Burgess

       One of the more famous anecdotes of recent literary history concerns a 42-year-old education officer in the British Colonial Service named John Anthony Burgess Wilson, who collapsed in a classroom in Malaya one day in 1959, and was subsequently diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour. Mr. Wilson was relieved of his teaching post, shipped home, and told he had less than a year to live. He had little money and, given his health, no job prospects. His wife, soon to be a widow, was an alcoholic in no shape to face a stark financial future alone. Wilson, up till now, had been a composer in his spare time: there was a symphony and a number of smaller orchestral works under his belt. Plus he’d written three novels and a history of English literature. He was a talented man. Now, also a desperate one. There seemed only one solution:
 
I would have to turn myself into a professional writer. Work for the night is coming, the night in which God and little Wilson, now Burgess, would confront each other, if either existed. I sighed and put paper in the typewriter. ‘I’d better start,’ I said. And I did. (Little Wilson and Big God: the First Part of the Confessions, 1986)
  
What followed was Burgess’s annus mirabilis, forever noted in about-the-author blurbs in back pages of his novels and in book reviews like this one. Burgess, probably the most prolific of serious British novelists in the second half of the twentieth century, wrote five and a half novels in 1960 and felt obliged, in retrospect, to make excuses for his lack of industry:
 
The practice of a profession entails discipline, which for me meant the production of two thousand words of fair copy every day, weekends included. I discovered that, if I started early enough, I could complete the day’s stint before the pubs opened. Or, if I could not, there was an elated period of the night after closing time, with neighbours banging on the walls to protest at the industrious clacking. Two thousand words a day means a yearly total of 730,000. Step up the rate and, without undue effort, you can reach a million. This ought to mean ten novels of 100,000 words each. The quantitative approach to writing is not, naturally, to be approved. And because of hangovers, marital quarrels, creative deadness induced by the weather, shopping trips, summonses to meet state officials, and sheer torpid gloom, I was not able to achieve more than five and a half novels of very moderate size in that pseudo-terminal year. Still, it was very nearly E.M. Forster’s whole long life’s output.  (You’ve Had Your Time: the Second Part of the Confessions, 1990)
 
      The defensive tone taken at the end was characteristic of Burgess, who was always countering claims that he wrote too much with defiant self-defences that invoked Grub Street and Samuel Johnson, who quipped that “no man but a blockhead” ever wrote except to make money. This view of literature as livelihood, as a honorable but demanding profession—as maybe too demanding, ultimately, for anything but pecuniary motives to justify—finds an echo in Burgess’s groans to a Paris Review interviewer:


[T]he process as I practice it is prone to irritability and despair…. The anxiety involved is intolerable…. [T]he financial rewards just don’t make up for the expenditure of energy, the damage to health caused by stimulants and narcotics, the fear that one’s work isn’t good enough. I think, if I had enough money, I’d give up writing tomorrow.
 
    This was in 1971, when he was 54 and wearing himself out crisscrossing Europe and the US teaching, lecturing, writing screenplays and musicals and journalism—whatever he could do to turn a buck—and, in his spare time, writing novels that never sold well, despite high praise from critics, and music that was seldom performed.
     Ten years later, though, all the labour was beginning to pay off, and he was dividing his time between homes in Monaco and Switzerland. If there was ever a time to give up the writing trade, it was now, in relative comfort as he neared retirement age. Instead, Burgess launched himself into ten years of sustained literary effort that made 1960 look like laziness. The novels of the “pseudo-terminal” year were fairly short, but the dozen-odd books produced in the decas mirabilis of the 80s ranged from the mid-length to the massive; and in the midst of it he still wrote music and journalism. A 600-page anthology of the latter was published in 1986 with the proviso that it was “one third of my total journalistic output” over the last seven years. He turned seventy in 1987, with his greying head still bent over the typewriter. Why?
      “Wedged as we are between two eternities of idleness, there is no excuse for being idle now.” Indeed. “I don’t think there’s a heaven, but there’s certainly a hell.” Oh, really. “Having passed the prescribed biblical age limit, I have to think of death, and I do not like the thought. There is a vestigial fear of hell, and even of purgatory, and no amount of re-reading rationalist authors can expunge it.” You don’t say. Well in that case, Mr Burgess, as your psychiatrist, I have to inform you that this fanatical energy of yours that piles book on top of book year after year is a symptom of your terror, lapsed Catholic that you are, of the wrath of God.
     Yes, of course, it’s easy to be simplistic and reductive in judging an author’s motives in this way, but the basic premise rings true that for Burgess after 1960 every year was a terminal year, and the closer he got to his natural end, the fiercer became his creative drive. The man who dictated his last novel from his death-bed was trying either to block out the thought of oblivion, or to ensure that he had something to show the God who would demand a reckoning of his days on earth. The latter hypothesis seems likelier to the reader of what might be called Burgess’s Christian books, Man of Nazareth (1979) and The Kingdom of the Wicked (1985), which together constitute a novelized New Testament. These both feel like efforts to popularize the Christian message and hence make Burgess, lifelong maverick and apostate, look like a good son of the Church.
     The Kingdom of the Wicked takes up more or less where Man of Nazareth left off, soon after the Crucifixion, and traces the development of the Christian movement to the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D., relying mainly on the Acts of the Apostles and the Acts of the Christian Martyrs and, for the Roman scenes, Tacitus and Seutonius. It covers a lot of narrative ground: the sordid doings of a dozen-odd emperors and the eventful lives of the major apostles, plus the religious upheavals of Israel and the politics of Rome fill its pages. Much of it is rendered with great colour, and the pace seldom lags—even the theological squabbles of Sanhedrin rabbis are compelling—although in places the need to treat of so much material makes the rendering seem perfunctory and sketchy. It couldn’t have been otherwise, probably, unless the novel were much longer, and it’s already long. Still, one is impressed by how clearly Burgess saw what the Acts of the Apostles really is—a great adventure story and—considering, in Christian terms, the ultimate meaning of the adventure—maybe the greatest ever written.
      The narrator is a retired shipping clerk living in the Roman province of Helvetia and completing, at his dead father’s behest, a history of the Nazarene sect, which began with “the career of Yehoshua Naggar or Iesous Marengos, [b]oth of these names mean[ing] the carpenter Jesus.” The narrator, ailing and cantankerous, has doubts about the worth of the project, and writes at a time—the reign of Domitian—when the Christian movement seemed to be falling to pieces.  Nevertheless, he presses on:
 
I propose, on this grey and unseasonable day of a month that has so far done homage to its presiding goddess Maia with soaked greenery and shrewd winds, the Alps shrouded and the thrushes silent, five dripping ewes and a heavily ballocked ram nibbling forlornly in the scant shelter of my poplar and my arbutus, to begin to set down what I can of the story of the spreading of the ground rules of the love game in the kingdom of the wicked.
 
     The “love game” is the Christian ethos as the narrator understands it (“the game of trying to love one’s enemies is the only practical response to injustice and cruelty”), and the kingdom of the wicked is the name the ancient Jews gave to the Roman empire. The game costs its key players their lives. Starting with Stephen, stoned to death by the Sanhedrin, the martyrdoms are recorded in livid detail, and the culminate with the horrors of the bloodsports in the amphitheatres. 
     One character stands out from the rest in the book: the Apostle Paul. Burgess’s Paul is less of a towering hero of faith than his Biblical namesake: he is, as any plausible novelistic character must be, a mixed bag of the grand and the ordinary, and often seems closer to a wily Odysseus than a saint as he dodges mobs, breaks out of jails, and braves storms on the open seas. He’s also a sort of Burgess—peripatetic, headstrong, and full of words. Indeed, it is in his great speeches (which Burgess cribs from Acts and then embroiders) where he and his story rise out of the merely human:
He said: ‘Citizens of Athens, in my brief stay in your city I have observed your concern with matters of religion, even though it may be termed a negative concern, for I have seen many altars inscribed to an unknown god. This implies a willingness to worship a negativity, which neither grammar nor theology will properly permit. Now I would ask you to consider a singular and unique God, not one of many but the only one, who created the world and all things in it, who, having made man as well as the earth and the heavens, is much concerned with the ways of man. He is especially concerned that men seek him. He is not remote from us, he is easily found. Why, even one of your own poets, Epimenides the Cretan, says that in him we live and move and have our being. We are the offsprings of God, creatures made of his substance, and it is absurd to think of him as a mere thing, an object of silver or gold or stone, which occurs when his unity is split into mere personifications of human needs and motives. For a personified quality is no more than a lump of metal. Now, God has been tolerant towards human ignorance of him, but now he commands that men repent of this ignorance. That this ignorance be no longer excused by the sense of his remoteness, which encouraged his conversion on the part of men either to a thought or to a thing, he came to earth himself, and that recently, to a particular place, Palestine, and in a particular time, that of my own generation, in the form of a human being. We may use the metaphor of the father sending down to the son, so long as we regard this as a mere similitude. So the Son of God taught the way of righteousness, or, to change the metaphor, that human water should at last be shown to be part of the divine ocean. I teach anastasis, which signifies not the survival of the soul, which any of your Platonists could demonstrate at least as a logical possibility, but as the survival of the sensorium also, though in a transfigured form. For God the Son himself rose from the dead and, in that filial or human aspect, returned to the eternal home of the Father. This, learned men of Athens, is the gist of my message.’
    Nobody but a backwater Bible-belter would begrudge the liberties taken with the biblical text, or fail to find the last sentence, a joking anticlimax and an anachronistic colloquialism, quietly funny.
        In a book whose American paperback edition carries an eager endorsement from Playboy magazine on the front cover, and which promises its readers, on page one, “all manner of wickedness in what follows—pork-eating, lechery, adultery, bigamy, sodomy, bestiality, the most ingenious varieties of cruelty, assassination, [and] the worship of false gods,” there is much that is not all this. For buried under all the dead bodies and debauchery lies nothing less than Holy Writ—and this is the gist of Burgess’s message.