Closest to Perfection
The reprinting by Europa Editions of Anthony Burgess’ epic novel Earthly Powers forms the springboard of our celebratory Burgess issue. Open Letters‘ Executive Editor John Cotter and Managing Editor Steve Donoghue talk a little about the book that kicked off the issue.
Steve Donoghue: First off, tell us about this novel. It’s the longest thing Anthony Burgess ever wrote, right? It’s frequently called his ‘masterpiece’—and yet, hasn’t it had something of a spotty print history? You yourself have written about it, so presumably you’re going to tell us that this new paperback from Europa Editions is something to be welcomed? Care to give readers a little background on the book in the landscape of Burgess’ career?
John Cotter: Can we think of another writer of Burgess’ stature who produced so much hackwork? I don’t just mean reviews—he was a natural at reviewing—but scripts, movie tie-ins, a TimeLife guide to New York, private panegyrics for private corporations… By the early 1970s he no longer needed the money, but he was in the habit of saying yes. He hadn’t produced a talked-about bestseller since Clockwork Orange and he hadn’t poured his whole soul into a book for perhaps as long, no matter what he said to the contrary. He knew he could write a big book, one with no exigency but its own existence, and he was not getting any younger. With a mixture of anxiety and relief he spent the second half of the 1970s composing the book we now know as Earthly Powers. He wanted to “show what I could do.” He wanted to use all his gifts at once. And yes, this new paperback is to be hugely welcomed, and I hope it will be read.
SD: The press material from Europa describes the book’s plot this way: “At its center are two twentieth-century men who represent different kinds of power—Kenneth Toomey, eminent novelist, a man who has outlived his contemporaries to survive into honored, bitter, luxurious old age as a celebrity of dubious notoriety; and Don Carlo Campanati, a man of God, eventually beloved Pope, who rises through the Vatican as a shrewd manipulator to become the architect of church revolution and a candidate for sainthood.” You know the book passing well—any nuances you’d add to that if, say, you encountered somebody at a party who’d never read the book?
JC: There are things you can’t say on a book jacket, or at least you couldn’t in the 1980s, when this one was written (Europa has only altered a couple of lines — the bit you quoted is not original). You can’t say that a book “knowingly toys with the form of an airport bestseller” because you want to appeal to the airport bestseller market. You can’t say that the book is a mesh of hundreds of different stories because the browser wants one story, and you can’t say that all the sex in the book is a big tragic joke because people want their booksex to be steamy and meaningful. But you could say that Ken Toomey, the hero, was one of the first literary characters to seriously endorse the idea of extending marriage rights to gay couples (and this in the late 1970s), or that the book presents a picture of the back-to-Africa movement and of mid-century black intellectuals that manages to be both politically incorrect and hugely sympathetic, or that it’s full of really good jokes, or that of all of Anthony Burgess’ two thousand novels, so many of them only intermittently brilliant or dead-ended, this one comes closest to perfection.
SD: First things first, then: what the hell is up with this new cover? As they say in Brooklyn, my kid could do that.
JC: It doesn’t bother me as much as it does you, but you have to admit that sprawling, capacious novels are hard to sum-up in a single image. The British hardcover with its distant orange sunrise or explosion was an obvious allusion to Gravity’s Rainbow. The American hardcover avoided the problem by representing nothing but the large text of the title, and the British paperbacks have all looked like weirdly thick Graham Greene novels: skewed crosses, scared priests. I thought the Caroll & Graf cover was good—stately green frame with a small picture of St. Peter’s square—but it was unsexy. This one is par.
SD: A bit discouraging, that Europa’s press material included an apology for the small type face of the novel, noting that it had to be that small because the book is SO LONG. It’s almost as though Europa’s marketing people are worried that reviewers—and by extension the reading public, can’t really handle books this long that aren’t written for small children. This is a panoramic novel encompassing almost the entire 20th century and delving into politics, religion, literature. It features copious allusions and plenty of dead-on homages/parodies of famous historical figures. There’s French in it. Is there even an audience for something like this, in the age of Fifty Shades of Grey?
JC: Was there an audience for it in the age of Princess Daisy? Who reads big smart novels? There are people who do, thousands of them I suspect, and once we’ve reassured ourselves of that reality, the question becomes which big smart books do they read? Which 2 or 3 of them will they read, alongside other shorter books this year? Will it be Joshua Cohen’s Witz? Or William Gass’ The Tunnel, or will they dust off Tristam Shandy? Once a big book is known in the world, we can pick it up any time. My worry about Earthly Powers is that it was never loved enough by the right people—it’s too tricky for the bestseller crowd and too much of a crowd-pleaser for the Pynchon crowd—and so most of these potential readers wouldn’t even know the weight of it. Christopher Hitchens loved it but never wrote that Atlantic Monthly piece that would have guaranteed it new readers (heartbreaking to think, the book back in print, that perhaps he would have done so now). We all know it should have won the Booker that year (a ceremony Burgess refused to attend because he “didn’t have anything to wear”). I’m only hoping that this special issue of Open Letters, and this republication, can help get the rescue operation underway.
SD: There’s certainly unabashed magnificence here, but also many, many rough passages, right? Neither of our two main characters is particularly likeable, which can be a burden when we’re spending so much time with them. Kenneth Toomey is almost unrelentingly venal (and is there sometimes a one-damn-thing-after-another tedium to some of his plot-lines?), and Carlo Campanati is often something of a Monster of God (the scene where he lets a little girl be brutally tortured rather than reveal information to her torturers, for instance), the avatar of a kind of Catholicism that doesn’t exist anymore in the English-speaking world at which this new edition is likely aimed. It’s a strange land of Burgessian obsessions the new reader enters!
JC: Amazing that it’s gone. Those infallible Jesuits, those unsmiling Sundays, and the good women like moral police …. My ancestors all lived in that world, I caught a glimpse of its survivors, and now it’s washed away. Was it prosperity or Vatican II that did away with strong Catholic Churches in America, or was it something darker? Toomey in Earthly Powers does look nostalgically on that passing, but this is largely because he is such a lost soul; the world keeps changing, his friends suffer accidents and die, and war ruins everything, so he clings to what he knows, even if it’s his own rebellion from that church he’s clinging to. It’s a rebellion which defines his position in time and space. His priggishness is that too, of course, an attempt to ground himself. What else in his life stands still?
SD: True enough, we aren’t looking for a hymnal and would be disappointed if Burgess gave us one. This is an amazingly complex and varied author, never more complex or more varied than in this big book—that’s surely reason enough to celebrate its reappearance, right? And the likely-trivial fact that Europa Editions is distributed in the U.S. by Penguin leads the imagination to some very pleasing fantasies, doesn’t it? Imagine a uniform shelf—Penguin Classics of all the Burgess works we’re celebrating this month and more besides! A long line of great 20th Century authors await such treatment, but there wouldn’t be many more satisfying than Burgess, would there?
JC: I don’t dare to dream about a Penguin Classic, and at the moment at least, it’s not a generous thought. Europa deserves our praise and thanks; let’s hold off on another reprint long enough to let Earthly Powers earn them back the cost of printing. But of course it galls to see Faulkner and Nabakov’s beautiful uniform Vintage paperbacks, Graham Greene and Iris Murdoch’s Penguins. In every case like that, there’s one or two exceptional books pulling all the merely good books behind them (Would Ada be in print without Lolita? Would Travels with my Aunt be in print without Brighton Rock?). There isn’t anyone who knows Earthly Powers who wouldn’t be thrilled to see a row of black or turquoise spines from The Kingdom of the Wicked, through The Long Day Wanes, Nothing Like the Sun, Napoleon Symphony, Clockwork Orange if we must, and Earthly Powers of course, leading the other books behind it, anchoring the reputation of its maker.
John Cotter is Executive Editor and Steve Donoghue is Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly.