Entitled to Extravagance: Some Historical Fictions of Anthony Burgess
When Gore Vidal published his historical novel Lincoln in 1984, Anthony Burgess reviewed it with that fruity mixture of faux bewilderment and gentle condescension only a professional British man of letters can manage (“I am not altogether sorry that he has written Lincoln …”), and since Burgess almost never criticized individuals without also criticizing their countries of origin (he had the exile’s way of falsely equating the two), expatriate Vidal’s native America comes in for a bit of sideways scorn. American readers, we’re told, are indifferent to craft but venerate book larnin’. “There is something in the puritanical American mind,” Burgess informs us, “which is scared of the imaginative writer but not of the pedantic one who seems to humanize the facts without committing himself to the inventions which are really lies.” In this context, James Michener is so useful for bludgeoning his countrymen that if he hadn’t had the bad taste to exist, Burgess would have had to invent him.
By the time he delivered that faintly polite attack on Vidal – and potboiler historical fiction in general – Burgess had plenty of first-hand knowledge of the subject. Although the general readers who hoard and sleep and feed and know not him will forever associate Burgess with his 1962 novella A Clockwork Orange (or, as the author himself dolorously maintained, with the 1971 film adaptation by Stanley Kubrick), at the time of that book’s publication, readers stayed away from it in droves. It was 1964’s Nothing Like the Sun, a historical novel about a libidinous William Shakespeare, that won Burgess his first real renown as a novelist, and that sort of thing can be habit forming: Burgess would return to historical fiction throughout his career.
He was relentlessly inventive, so he was always tempted by anti-puritanism, to be the anti-Michener “Critics are not always ready to see that a style is as much a character as any of the walking creations in a novel,” he once wrote, “especially when the author himself is withdrawn and leaves things to a narrator, it is entitled to extravagance and even eccentricity.” And like most authors who not-so-secretly crave the approbation of critics, Burgess often fought against what he wanted. Puritanical America dislikes “inventions which are really lies”? Critics dislike stylistic eccentricity? C’est moi, the willful author chortles in his glee, and sets to work.
The extravagance is controlled in Nothing Like the Sun, opening to the reader with zest but no threat:
It was all a matter of a goddess – dark, hidden, deadly, horribly desirable. When did her image first dawn?
A Good Friday, sure. ’77? ’78? ’79? WS, stripling, in worn tight doublet, patched cloak, but gloves very new. Beardless, the down on his cheek gold in the sun, the hair auburn, the eyes a spaniel’s eyes. He kicked in youth’s peevishness at the turves of the Avon’s left bank, marking with storing-up spaniel’s eyes the spurgeoning of the back-eddy under the Clopton Bridge (Clopton the New Place hero, who had run away to get rich. Would he, WS, die as great a Stratford’s son?)
A yearning youth on a river bank – nothing off-putting there. In Nothing Like the Sun we follow this youth to Bristol and to London, to his famous association with the Earl of Southhampton and with the “Dark Lady” of the Sonnets, and Burgess couches all of it in a mongrel Elizabethan-by-way-of-Joyce: “He was in a manner tricked, coney-caught, a court-dor to a cozening cotquean,” we’re told before we’ve reached page 50, “So are all men, first gulls, later horned gulls, and so will ever be all men, amen.” Among other things, it’s our author telling us, “Say what you may about this, but you’ll agree it is most certainly not a trot dressed up in plot.” Stylistic gambles abound, gaining strength and resonance as the novel progresses, sometimes companionable, more often challenging. The reader encounters a linguistic puzzle as much as a love-triangle plot, and the whole thing is so masterfully controlled that, much like with Peter Matthiessen’s Far Tortuga a decade later, the strange new narrative language has an immersive effect. Stanley Kauffmann wrote that it was “unsurpassed for idiosyncratic pith and flavor since the first part of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando,” and the heady experience of reading Nothing Like the Sun for the first time (or the tenth time) prompts assent: the thing is a triumph.
But the effect’s not without its costs. “We do not in Britain go in much for scholar-novelists,” Burgess once wrote, but his Shakespeare book is shot through with scholarly showing-off almost designed to alienate ten times more readers than it charms. Time and again it almost carries its author, normally so stage-oriented, entirely away from the dramatic beat of his scenes:
WS, books stringed together in his oxter beneath his cloak, wandered, still in wonder, among the back streets that were like serpents or twisted veins. And it was then a voice summoned him. From an open doorway it called:
‘What cheer, bully? Dost thou seek a bert?’
If there’s irony in the fact that Burgess’ great novel about the great dramatist was never dramatized, there’s a greater irony still in that Burgess the vigorously lapsed Catholic should write his best historical fiction about the founding of the Church he abjured. And yet this is what happened in the decade after Nothing Like the Sun, when God and mammon came calling together in their preferred vehicle, that Florentine force of nature, director Franco Zeffirelli. The director hired Burgess to research and write the screenplay for his epic 1977 mini-series Jesus of Nazareth, stressing that he wanted to accentuate the “humanity” of Jesus (and not needing to add that he’d like to catch something of the popularity of “Godspell” and “Jesus Christ Superstar,” which had done likewise a few years before). Burgess once had the effrontery to tell a Paris Review interviewer that he always wrote slowly and with great care, but he got Zeffirelli’s work done with dispatch – and the end result was brilliant. The mini-series screenplay (written with Suso Cecchi D’amico, but her voice is only audible in the female characters, especially Mary Magdalene) delivers intelligence without preening, complexity without convolution, and most of all, drama without mugging.
It left Burgess with an enormous amount of material and no novel to show for it, so in 1979 he produced Man of Nazareth, a book born of his mini-series researches but in no way officially connected with Zeffirelli’s production (in an odd twist, the mini-series did have a novelization – by a well-known religious writer of the day named William Barclay, whose slim book consisted mainly – and bizarrely – of threadbare narration stitching together Burgess’ dialogue). The previous year, best-selling author Talyor Caldwell had released her excellent novel I, Judas (brought out by Signet, the arch-rival of Bantam, Burgess’ American publisher but whereas her book is narrated by the traitor of the Gospels, Burgess’ is narrated by a well-placed but anonymous scribe named Azor, son of Sadoc (as always with Burgess, playing around with etymologies will yield momentarily entertaining results), but the story told is the same: the life of Christ, the Gospels amalgamated.
As with the screenplay, so too with the novel: a complete success. This is Burgess writing in the register of Robert Graves’ 1934 I, Claudius (although unlike Graves, Burgess was lucky enough to collect the mini-series money long before he wrote the book – the fact that Graves never made a scent from the runaway success of the BBC adaptation of his novel was always a cautionary tale) – and also, oddly enough, exactly in the register of Gore Vidal’s 1964 best-seller Julian: relatively straightforward puritanical historical fiction, with scarcely an invention in sight beyond some very tame word-coinings here and there.
It’s heresy in our post-everything age to say it, but even so: restraint brings out the best in Burgess (as it would for his good friend Joseph Heller a few years later, in 1984’s God Knows). Man of Nazareth cuts just the right corners in just the right way – a supernatural Christ is never explicitly avowed (as most certainly happened in the screenplay, of course), but neither is he rejected (or savagely lampooned, as was the case in Michael Moorcock’s 1969 Behold the Man, a book Burgess loved) … the firebrand author of A Clockwork Orange is either making a play for the bestseller list or dealing with subject matter he’s disinclined to mock.
His Jesus isn’t a willowy philosopher but a bullish man, a flesh-and-blood man who takes a wife – the wedding at Cana, location of the Gospel’s famous changing of the water into wine, turns out to be his own wedding, and the call for the miracle itself is less annoying than its foremost encourager:
Still, in their drunkenness, in the envy of the strong, handsome and clever that drunkenness will often bring to the surface (like a dead fish or a bad egg to the surface of water) in the usually timid or those who generally do not care one way or the other, some of the more faceless and anonymous of the guests began to cry out: “Eh, Jesus, eh happy bridgegroom, turn water into wine for us and be smart about it.”
“What are they shouting?” Jesus said to his mother.
His mother, who had no great head for wine, smiled rather sillily and said, her lips moist from the up she had been tasting: “They’re asking you to work a miracle. To turn water into wine.”
Jesus frowned very terribly at that. “Who has been talking to them? Who has been putting mad stories about?”
“Ah, come,” said his mother, “you can do it. Come, do it for me.”
Jesus stared at her in disbelief. “Are you serious? Are you, God forbid, drunk? You, of all people?”
Burgess styles his miracles as crowd perception, and he invariably sets his supernatural confrontations squarely in the realm of the psychological – as in the desert debate between Jesus and Satan, in many ways the wistfully philosophical high point of the novel, opening with an image far more sacrilegious than anything found in Salman Rushdie’s 1988 novel The Satanic Verses:
“There are bigger things in the world than words [Satan maintains]. Peace is wordless. Love is wordless.”
“Love is the word I used. Love.”
“I used it first, little one. And Adam knew his wife. Knowledge, knowledge. The fruit of the tree, and what juicier? See.” Jesus saw. He saw himself with his dead wife Sara, live again and lively in bed. Pumping away, his face mindless, lips parted, then parted further as the cry came and the seed flooded.
And yet into the mouth of this very fleshy Jesus (who in Burgess’ telling may have been strong enough to simply survive his crucifixion) our recusant author puts a moving elaboration of Christian first principles:
“I do not expect love to gush unbidden from your heart to enfold them that are, in truth, most unloveable. I call love rather a craft a man or woman must learn as I, in my youth, learned the craft of carpentry. Love is the tool, we may say, that shapes the hard rough dull knotty splintery wood of the hearts of our enemies into the smoothness of friendship. Anger feeds anger always. If a man is angry and he strikes you in his anger, do not strike him in return. Turn the other cheek, baffle him. He will learn from you what to do when he himself is assailed and struck. So we spread love and extend the kingdom.”
It’s another kind of kingdom that concerns Burgess in his next venture into historical fiction, 1985’s The Kingdom of the Wicked, although the book shares almost to the last detail the same origin story as Man of Nazareth. This, too, was undertaken for cash as the underpinning of an elaborate TV mini-series, in this case Stuart Cooper’s inert 1985 production A. D. (and, also bizarrely, this, too, was subsequently novelized by another hand – in this case the talented and prolific American hack Kirk Mitchell). And here, too, some alchemy of deadline and money and adult supervision – and again, perhaps the stature of the source material? — sharpened Burgess’ powers and produced a first-rate book, certainly the best of all his historical fiction.
The story takes up where Man of Nazareth ends and is told to us not by Azor son of Sadoc but by Sadoc his son, whose narration winds its way through the early years of Christianity, shifting from dusty streets in Judea to marble halls in Rome. The novel’s cast broadens to hundreds of speaking roles, but the focus, perhaps tellingly, is the man known as Paul, who was once Saul of Tarsus, ruthless Roman butcher of Christians before his dramatic conversion to the cause. Throughout the early part of the book, Paul is the thwarted Burgess stand-in, forever wrestling with his uneasily adopted faith:
“Do you preach the resurrection?”[he asks the disciple Barnabas, soon to be his ministry partner]
“The resurrection of Christos? Well, that’s the cornerstone, isn’t it?”
“I mean our resurrection. If he rose again we rise again. If he took his flesh to heaven we take ours. And I don’t mean cart our bones and guts up to the sky. I’ve been thinking a lot about this, Barnabas. It’s a subtle business. The flesh is transfigured. We don’t join the angels, who’ve never known the flesh. We’re a new order – those of us who are saved, of course.”
Barnabas sighed. “They’re simple people. They understood about sin and love and redemption. I don’t think they’re ready for anything deeper. Not yet.”
A physically living Jesus appears initially in the book, but thereafter he confines himself to internal monologues (just as in Giovannino Guareschi’s “Don Camillo” stories, which Burgess loved), [
‘What will happen to me in Rome?’ [Paul asks]
‘Unseemly to ask. Time is a road that is all high gates. Even I had to engage them.’
‘Are you satisfied with what I’ve done so far?’
‘You chose the easier way. You have not sufficiently hammered at the Jews. Seeing me turned into a Lord of the Gentiles, they will the more readily reject my messianic function. It is all a great pity.’
‘Do you still consider me to be a murderer?’
‘Of course. That will not be forgotten. But your murderous energy was needed.’
‘I think I am going to be sick.’
‘You will find a canvas bucket hanging on a peg at the foot of the companionway.’
In The Kingdom of the Wicked, Burgess gets to play directly with some of the characters who populate Graves’ two Claudius books, including Nero, who’s here portrayed as clever and intelligent – a far cry from the insipid fop so perfectly rendered by Peter Ustinov in Mervyn LeRoy’s 1951 movie Quo Vadis (or the equally insipid fop played by Christopher Biggins in I, Claudius). When questioned by his henchman Tigellinus about this new cult of Christians, he proves an eager study (and a patient one, considering the cut of Tigellinus’ reply):
‘You don’t understand, do you, Tigellinus? They don’t mind dying. To them death is the gate to eternal life, if they’ve done right. If they’ve done wrong they go to a place where the fire burns without consuming. And that goes on for ever. But if they’re executed because of their faith, then that turns them into witnesses for the faith, and all the wrong things they’ve done are cancelled out.’
‘You speak, Caesar, with a certain wistfulness. Not a pleasant thought, is it – eternal fire for having murdered and raped and tried to castrate a boy to turn him into a woman and turned yourself into a bride losing her maidenhood and thrust at the Vestal Virgins? Not a pleasant religion to have about the place. We’re better off without them.’
And as in Man of Nazareth, the role of the storyteller – Burgess’ own role – is never far from the course of events. He very consciously has each book told to us by a scribe, a pen-for-hire, and in the confrontation between the turncoat historian Josephus and the would-be conqueror of Jerusalem, Titus, it’s hinted that storytellers shape far more than bestsellers:
‘We Jews are a stubborn people. When I come to the writing of the history of this war I shall not deny either the stubbornness or the courage or the faith. The way things are going, all that will be left of the Jewish people is what will be in my book. But that must be so with all peoples, even the ones who establish their empires for eternity.’
‘I’m a patient man,’ Titus said. ‘I’ve listened. But I’m not greatly interested. Why do you tell me all this?’
‘I tell it you because, without realizing it yet, you are desperately interested. Every victorious general needs the palms of the poet or the historian. Otherwise he becomes only a garbled tale for children.’
The palm of the poet had previously failed Burgess himself – his 1976 novel-in-verse Moses is unreadable (as is his final work, 1995’s Byrne, published posthumously) – but it’s precisely the role of historian that’s most loudly corollary to these novels. Burgess wrote nonfiction studies on countless subjects in his very busy career as a professional freelancer; a big study on the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles could easily have been marketed and might have sold well (his literary studies of Joyce sometimes did, and his study of 1970 study of Shakespeare – in which, among many other priceless lines, he refers to Hamlet as “a tragedy without a catharsis” – always has). The allure of historical fiction – of parading extravagance as a separate character in the drama – was great enough to commandeer him even with only the slimmest hope of profits.
But extravagance in authors can be a weakness, and eccentricity can be a drug, and the end of Burgess’ career as a historical novelist featured both in almost as great a riot as they’d been at the beginning. The last novel Burgess wrote his Christopher Marlowe novel, 1993’s A Dead Man in Deptford, takes us back to Elizabethan times – and back to that murky-clever forced argot that very nearly scuppers Nothing Like the Sun. Only an over-venerated novelist of unseemly swollen self-regard could think to open a novel as Burgess opens this one:
You must and will suppose (fair or foul reader, but where’s the difference?) that I suppose a heap of happenings that I had no eye to eye knowledge of or concerning. What though a man supposes is oft (often if you will) of the right and very substance of his new seeing. There was a philosopher who spoke of the cat that mews to be let out and then mews to be let in again. In the interim, does it exist? There is in us all the solipsist tendency which is a simulacrum of the sustentive power of the Almighty, namely what we hold in the eye exists, remove the eye or let it be remove therefrom and there is disintegration total if temporary. But of the time of the cat’s absence a man may also rightly suppose that it is fully and corporeally in the world down to its last whisker. And so let it be with my cat or Kit.
The only thing that’s missing is a “Keep Out” sign. Every sin of pedantry – the smirking in-jokes, the paraded research, the mandarin word-games, the condescending anachronism, the bloated self-indulgence – is here on full display. The book’s narrator worries about “being betrayed into the most reprehensible inkhornisms,” but they’re all here just the same (“I see, reading the above above the rim of my raised alemug” … and hundreds more lines just like it, until you want all of the author’s Schroedinger’s cats to turn up stone dead). Dead Man in Deptford not only liberally swipes its plot from Peter Ackroyd’s novel Chatterton of the previous year, it sputters and ultimately drowns in those “inventions which are really lies.”
According to Burgess, the book’s original inspiration was the senior thesis he was busy writing during World War II; perhaps in time a nonfiction study of Marlowe would have emerged – or somebody would have proffered a “pot of money” for the script of a TV mini-series, with a strict deadline and maybe a co-writer lurking at the margins of self-restraint. Pace Philip Roth, few novelists get to decide which book will be their last. “To be instructed is holier than to be entertained,” Burgess quipped, and there is plenty of entertainment in his forays into historical fiction – and if there’s instruction too, and perhaps some of it not to the author’s liking, well, that’s the cornerstone, isn’t it?
Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Washington Post, The National, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Quarterly Conversation. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly, and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.