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Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess

Earthly Powers (1980)

by Anthony Burgess

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1,438267,901 (4.19)3 / 151
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    Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (ZenonRobledo)
    ZenonRobledo: I have the feeling Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess inspired David Mitchell when writing Cloud Atlas. Anyone else have thoughts on the matter?
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    Fifth Business by Robertson Davies (cf66)

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English (24)  Dutch (1)  German (1)  All languages (26)
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i have recommended this book several times since reading it. There's plenty of the world here and a lot of history too, but most of all there's a lot about human nature and the way time passes and the way we look at fate and morality. ( )
  nkmunn | Nov 17, 2018 |
Anthony Burgess

Earthly Powers

Penguin, Paperback, 1981.

12mo. 648 pp.

First published, 1980.


This book was unwittingly recommended to me by Christopher Hitchens in his vicious diatribe against Somerset Maugham.[1] There he quoted the famous opening sentence, the equally brilliant “I lay a little while, naked, mottled, sallow, emaciated, smoking a cigarette that should have been postcoital but was not”, and declared that “the parody is so much better than anything that W. Somerset Maugham ever wrote himself”. I have to disagree on at least two counts.

First of all, the similarities between Kenneth Toomey, the first-person narrator in Earthly Powers, and Maugham are entirely superficial. They are confined to the lavish lifestyle of an octogenarian writer (who just happens to be gay) in his villa in the Mediterranean. Toomey’s whole life and personality are nothing like Maugham’s. All right, this is not quite true. Both sold well enough, were considered cynical, published their collected stories in three volumes and were given the Order of Merit. Actually Maugham, like pretty much everyone else from Henry James and Henry Havelock Ellis to Rilke and Hemingway, is frequently mentioned as our narrator is an inveterate name-dropper. Once or twice, one must admit, in a rather amusing context:

Willie Maugham, poor old bastard, had always maintained that the Order of Merit was really the Order of Morals. Three years previously I had been made, like him, a Companion of Honour and then heard the door of official laureation bang shut on me.

Of course, if you are a Maugham hater, you will find plenty of parallels to satisfy your single literary passion. For instance, a short story of Maugham’s, like one of Toomey’s, is nothing but “a thousand-dollar effort done hastily for a long-dead illustrated monthly.” And Maugham one reads, of course, “with shame, sipping and chewing, trying to reach the tones of a reality under the shabby professionalism.” For me, as an admirer of Maugham, the book on the whole is neither funny enough as a parody nor accurate enough as a portrait.

Second and more important, if Mr Hitchens meant “better” as vastly more pretentious, he was right. Maugham never wrote anything that “good”. The pretentiousness per se is not necessarily a problem. No writer could be more pretentious than Nabokov, yet no book could be more engrossing than Lolita (1955). Now, Burgess is no Nabokov. He is fairly readable and mildly amusing, but the great imaginative flights and the sensuous prose of his Russian colleague are quite beyond him. He is not Maugham either, for that matter. His ponderous narrative is nothing like Maugham’s masterful story-telling in Cakes and Ale (1930) or The Razor’s Edge (1944).

Leaving aside comparisons with Nabokov and Maugham, in which Burgess can only come on the losing side, Earthly Powers, even though I cannot share the exaltation of some reviewers, is a good novel in its own right. The first 50 pages or so are tedious bickering between Kenneth and his “catamite”, but then, in Chapter 11, the novel proper starts, abruptly, and the pace picks up. It covers the trials and tribulations of our hero from 1916, when he was 26, to the vastly different world of 1971, when he had just turned 81. It’s an exuberant ride through literary struggles and success, homosexual affairs and scandals, Europe, America, Africa and the Far East, youth, maturity and old age, two world wars and the decadent decades between and after them. Absorbing enough on the whole, but rather uneven; some moments are hilariously farcical, unexpectedly poignant, or even genuinely tragic; others are melodramatic, absurd, lurid, or just plain boring.

I have a feeling that Mr Burgess resolved to put into this novel everything he experienced (or wanted to experience) and everything he felt (or thought he felt) in his life. If he ever knew the wisdom of the maxim “less is more”, he had forgotten it by the time he came to write Earthly Powers in his early sixties. Even if he could remember it, I doubt he had the self-discipline to make any use of it.

Ken Toomey is a whiny and weepy windbag, if you excuse the alliteration, but he is rather engagingly flawed and entertaining enough on the whole. When he is not hindered by trifles like narrative and other characters, he can string words together as well as anybody. For example: “I did not object to the opening up of the junkshop of my brain when that brain had ceased to be mine and had become merely part of the economy of the soil; for the present, considerations of reserve and privacy prevailed.”

But even in these reflections, and all the more so in narrative and dialogue, the style is often bogged down in slipshod verbosity. It is laboured and graceless. Sometimes it is simply atrocious. Sentences like “Sardinia could, so I had heard, be, though blue, bleak from December to March.” are offensive to the ear as well as to the eye. The amount of irrelevantly detailed descriptions, bursting with topical references, is much too great. That’s the essential difference between the great writer and the mediocre one. The latter overwhelms you with details. He thinks this is the best way to make the illusion more realistic. Not so. This is merely the hard way. The great writer is less industrious but more perceptive. He selects the few important details and describes them with vividness and brevity.

Of course, the style is also prodigiously literary in its allusions, occasionally gratuitously so.[2] Some references are rather subtle and suggestive. When the narrator says that his sister “probably read Mrs Warren’s Profession without understanding it”, that says a great deal more than the context – if you know Bernard Shaw’s early “problem play”. The name-dropping is most charming when Ken Toomey is in the mocking vein, for instance “Jim Joyce” and “his demented experiments with language”, “a much overrated German novelist of my acquaintance” (Hermann Hesse) or “Joe Conrad’s sea smells of Roget’s Thesaurus” (Ford Madox Ford speaking). This is much better than superficially connecting “betrayal of a mother” with “James Joyce territory”, constantly referring to Norman Douglas (who reads this guy today?), or promiscuously quoting stray phrases in French, Italian, Spanish and German (can you get any more highbrow than that?) every second sentence.

Burgess being Burgess, and one of his characters being a composer, the style is bursting with musical references as well. They are the same mixed bag. Some are quite charming, for instance “I am no Da Ponte” and “late Puccini with acerbities stolen from Stravinsky”. Others are so convoluted as to make no sense at all: “You played Mozart very nicely until you decided he was a white reactionary slave-owning fag.”

Mixed with all this is an interesting, if not terribly stimulating, collection of musings on various matters of some importance. Love, lust and marriage; religion, morality and censorship; life, death, war and even euthanasia; one must admit Mr Burgess is not afraid to tackle some rather big questions.

Homosexuality is a central issue and much used, sometimes to a great effect, to expose religious or social bigotry. Today it feels rather dated, though. Granted that there are still ignorant people who consider homosexuality a dreadful aberration, this attitude is decidedly less popular than it was a century ago. Mr Burgess’ novel, however, may have been one of the pioneers of the homosexual counter-revolution. Today the fashion is to overestimate the role of homosexuality in both directions, especially in regard to all sorts of artists from Michelangelo and Shakespeare to Tchaikovsky and Maugham. Some “scholars” imply that, had these people been straight, we would not have had Shakespeare’s sonnets, the Sistine Chapel Ceiling, the Pathétique Symphony and Of Human Bondage. Other group claims, especially in relation to Tchaikovsky and Maugham, that their homosexuality was the single factor that prevented them from achieving true greatness. All this is, of course, the same rubbish as calling homosexuality a “disease” and trying to “cure” it.

On God, Catholicism, Free Will and all that jazz, Ken Toomey, or rather Mr Burgess, is pedestrian to the point of being a powerful sedative for the reader. We are what we are because we cannot help it. Everything from weak hearts to homosexuality is thrust upon us. Free will is an illusion. And that’s that. (Certainly, our narrator’s loss of faith is perfunctory and hardly credible; yes, of course, Maugham did the same thing much better in Of Human Bondage.) Just about the most perceptive and the most amusing thing we are told is this:

And then, prodding my ribs very familiarly: “No hurry, I say. But still please regard the matter as urgent.” One of those contradictions that come easily to the religious mind, God being quite as large as Walt Whitman.

The alternative point of view is actually more interesting. This is best expressed in the great speech of Don Carlo, “a good but greedy man” with an inescapably operatic name, later Pope and a candidate for sainthood, in Chapter 27. “God made man without flaw, but also free to become flawed. Yet the flaws are reversible, the return to perfection is possible”, he raves magnificently from the pulpit. So much does God love Man, the pinnacle of His creation, that He gives him “the awful and mysterious benison of choice” and allows evil, which “has been chosen and cannot be unchosen”, to flourish on Earth, so that Man can have the opportunity to choose “the eternal and luminous [kingdom] of the Divine Lord’s own making” and reject “the noisome stinking pit of pain and horror that is the abode of God’s enemy.” Splendidly rhetorical language! The Great Tautologian could not have put it better Himself. He is “defined as the Creator, not as the Annihilator”, but nevertheless responsible for the Flood, the Plague and the Flu. Talk about contradictions!

Ken Toomey is at his best, not surprisingly, about the writer’s craft. The whole novel is shot through with revelations about the process of dramatising the mundane factual life into the higher truth of fiction (e.g. “The danger of memory is that it can turn anyone into a prophet.”), but some of his best shots come from the first ten chapters. For example:

And I don't know whether you, Your Grace, would understand this, but writers of fiction often have difficulty in deciding between what really happened and what they imagine as having happened. That is why, in my sad trade, we can never be really devout or pious. We lie for a living.

But I was less concerned now with that deeper truth, the traditional attribute of God, which literature can best serve by telling lies, than with the shallower truth we call factuality.

But the real question for me was: how far could I claim a true knowledge of the factuality of my own past, as opposed to pointing to an artistic enhancing of it, meaning a crafty falsification? In two ways my memory was not to be trusted: I was an old man, I was a writer. Writers in time transfer the mendacity of their craft to the other areas of their lives. In that trivial area of barroom biographical anecdotage, it is so much easier and so much more gratifying to shape, reorder, impose climax and dénouement, augment here, diminish there, play for applause and laughter than to recount the bald treadmill facts as they happened.

These are profound and thought-provoking observations. But they are not original. You can find all of them, ironically enough, in Maugham’s fiction and non-fiction, in both cases more profound and less pretentious.

Earthly Powers is a cornucopia of invention, dazzling word-play and themes of universal significance”, raves the back cover in its typically brilliant language. As this kind of writing goes, this is pretty accurate. But it needs some qualification. The invention is decent but hardly exceptional, the word-play is sporadic and often trite (“Nice could be nice”), and the themes of universal significance, there though they are, must be sifted through a good deal of verbiage. I suppose this book is highly regarded by a minuscule minority because phrases like “waster of seed in sterile embraces” and “public school pubescence”, not to mention the Gay version of Genesis in Chapter 29, give them the secret opportunity to enjoy something salacious that’s also literary and sophisticated. Or they are simple-minded enough to think that an elaborate style must be hiding some great wisdom. It seldom does. Wisdom is a matter of substance, not of style.

Personally, I did enjoy Ken Toomey’s life journey and musings on sundry subjects. But it was hardly worth enduring more than 600 closely printed pages for a dozen moving episodes and a dozen paragraphs of articulate insight. I am glad I read this book, but it’s not a book I will ever re-read. And for me that means it’s not a great book, either.

[1] “Poor Old Willie”, The Atlantic, May 2004.
[2] One of these is the story of Maugham’s four plays running simultaneously in London in 1908 and Bernard Partridge’s famous cartoon with a Shakespeare rather put out by this fact. Historically quite accurate (see Theatrical Companion to Maugham, Rockliff, 1955, pp. 56-9), but hardly relevant in the context of Ken Toomey’s modest career as a playwright. But one must admit it’s a neat joke to have some of his stories filmed as Duet and Terzetto, obviously an allusion to Quartet (1948) and Trio (1950). ( )
1 vote Waldstein | Apr 23, 2017 |
My favorite Burgess book, this one is a faux mega-blockbuster. It allows Burgess to tell the story of the 20th Century from the point of view of a very naughty man who is caught in most of the major crosshairs of our time. Supposedly (and very loosely) based on the life of W. Somerset Maugham, this book deals with the relationship between love and lust, homosexuality/gay rights, censorship, and euthanasia [among other themes]. ( )
  dbsovereign | Jan 26, 2016 |
I would have to read this again to review it properly but I do remember being very impressed with this complex and wide-ranging book. ( )
  bodachliath | Nov 4, 2014 |
bookshelves: booker-longlist, gr-library, vatican-city, italy, winter-20132014, published-1980, lit-richer, those-autumn-years, books-about-books-and-book-shops, glbt, religion, christian, catholic, malta, art-forms, dodgy-narrator, historical-masturbation, historical-fiction
Recommended to ☯Bettie☯ by: Laura
Read from February 02 to 10, 2014

Dedication: To Liana

Opening: 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.

William Foster Harpsichord

Chapter Four: 'On the walls of my study I had a Willelm de Kooning female in mostly red crayon and one of the first sketches Picass had done for Les Demoseilles d'Avignon...'

Flaunt out O sea your separate flags of nations!
Flaunt out visible as ever the various ship-signals!
But do you reserve especially for yourself and for the soul of man one flag above all the rest,
A spiritual woven signal for all nations, emblem of man elate above death,
Token of all brave captains and all intrepid sailors and mates,
And all that went down doing their duty,
Reminiscent of them, twined from all intrepid captains young or old,
A pennant universal, subtly waving all time, o'er all brave sailors,
All seas, all ships.

Walt Whitman: I. A Song for all Seas, all Ships. Book XIII: Song of the Exposition

The fictional Pope Gregory XVII bears a certain resemblance to Pope Paul VI, what with the dates and the inclusion of Mussolini, that said however, all dates, and the characters peopling events, must be taken with a pinch of salt. One could go nuts trying to pin down a definitive, trust me. All further investigations either to blind alleys or to loose fits that are so baggy that one could be accused of making the scant facts fit the way this reader wants it to evolve.

Excellent language, as one would expect; this is one hell of a class act, however if you simply must have someone in a story to like, there will be disappointment. For all his arrogance, name-dropping and snobbery I came to have a soft spot for Mr Toomey in the same way the selfish, arrogant Charles Arrowby of Iris Murdoch's 'The Sea, The Sea' got under my skin by the end.

✮✮✮✮½ ( )
  mimal | Feb 10, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 24 (next | show all)
Burgess sees artistic creation as man’s only god-like act, which is appropriate in a book whose twin themes are art and evil. Toomey, of course, is the most sterile kind of artist – pretentious and pitifully transparent – and Burgess has great parodic fun with his efforts: lush period epics, doomed libretti, catchy doggerel for stage musicals, a sentimental homosexual rewrite of the creation myth, even a theological work on the nature of evil (written in collusion with his relative Carlo Campanati, a Vatican high-up who later ‘makes Pope’). As Toomey begins the act of creation, he experiences a divine confidence; as the work takes shape, he feels himself already falling short, as earthly compromise and contingency closes in on the pristine dream. What is intended as radical and pure becomes tainted and familiar.

In a sense, though, Earthly Powers belongs to Toomey as well as to Burgess, It is a considerable achievement, spacious and intricate in design, wonderfully sustained in its execution, and full of a weary generosity for the errant world it recreates. As a form, the long novel is inevitably flawed and approximate; and this book contains plenty of hollow places beneath its busy verbal surface. But whatever its human limits it shows an author who has reached the height of his earthly powers.
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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.
"These young people," said His Grace. And then, prodding my ribs very familiarly: "No hurry, I say. But still please regard the matter as urgent." One of those contradictions that come easily to the religious mind, God being quite as large as Walt Whitman.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0099468646, Paperback)

'Crowded, crammed, bursting with manic erudition, garlicky puns, omnilingual jokes...which meshes the real and personalised history of the twentieth century' - Martin Amis. Kenneth Toomey is an eminent novelist of dubious talent; Don Carlo Campanati is a man of God, a shrewd manipulator who rises through the Vatican to become the architect of church revolution and a candidate for sainthood. These two men are linked not only by family ties but by a common understanding of mankind's frailties. In this epic masterpiece, Anthony Burgess plumbs the depths of the essence of power and the lengths men will go for it.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:16:04 -0400)

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Anthony Burgess's epic masterpiece follows the lives of two men who each represent different kinds of earthly power. Related to each other not only by family ties but also by sympathy, genius and a deep common understanding of mankind's frailties, Burgess explores the very essence of power.… (more)

» see all 2 descriptions

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