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Earthly Powers (1980)

by Anthony Burgess

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
1,691338,838 (4.2)3 / 172
Earthly Powers traces eighty- one years in the life of a Somerset Maugham- type writer and lapsed Catholic called Kenneth Toomey. A popular, second- rate novelist/playwright, he spends a lifetime unsuccessfully trying to reconcile his homosexuality with his faith. This is also the story of Carlo Campanati, an earthy Italian priest linked with Toomey through family ties. With dazzlingly inventive narrative spanning six decades, Burgess draws in major events and characters of the century while exploring themes of universal significance.… (more)
  1. 10
    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?
  2. 00
    Fifth Business by Robertson Davies (cf66)
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» See also 172 mentions

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Showing 1-5 of 29 (next | show all)
I'm unsure if I'll remember this as fondly in a few years as I do now. The second quarter of the book was extremely dull, and the narrative 'technique' is silly (bad novelist travels to a dozen or so countries in order to pick up royalties cheques through the twentieth century--necessary because there were such restrictions on currency movement). These two problems almost, almost destroy the book's excellent qualities. But then it more or less comes together.

The narrator's friend, Carlo Campanati, is the intellectual center of the novel. He will be elected after Pius XII, as Pope Gregory, in place of the real world's John XXIII and Paul VI. He is, more or less, semi-Pelagian, obsessed with ecumenism, and insists on dragging the church into modernity; he's also charmingly human, stands against fascism and is an orphan. In the middle of the book, he asks the narrator to publish a book of ecumenism and semi-Pelagian theology under the narrator's name, and 'Earthly Powers' then becomes an extended meditation on freedom, predestination, grace and how much or how little human beings can contribute to their own salvation.

All of which is enough for me, but those of you who don't revel in obscure theological controversies (or even fairly well known ones) might prefer to think about this through the narrator, Kenneth Toomey, and his sexuality: he insists that he didn't 'choose' to be gay. If he didn't choose his sexuality, however, that's ipso facto evidence against the freedom that his friend the Pope insists (against the traditional doctrines of the church) we possess. Toomey wanders through the twentieth century, generally doing things despite himself. So whereas Carlo/Gregory shows what's possible for a human being who (acts as if he) was entirely free, Toomey shows how life can equally well be understood as nothing more than one contingent event after another (e.g., he 'accidentally' saves Goebbels' life). At the center of all this is a miracle performed by Carlo/Gregory, and the question arises there, too: how much credit does he deserve?

In addition to all this kind of thing Burgess piles on the laughs with groan-worthy puns, literary in-jokes (Toomey meets many of modernism's most important figures, despite being decidedly unmodernist), and occasional thoughts on the unreliability of memory and therefore of first person narrations... like that of Earthly Powers, which of course twists history in important ways to show something like the truth of the twentieth century.

Burgess's prose is clever, sometimes excessively so, and sometimes pointlessly. But I'd far rather read that than yet more sub-Hemingwayan blandishments for the undemanding reader.

For some reason, this stays with me: "He had a compassionate face: he would be compassionate while supervising human liquidation: this liquidates me more than it does you." ( )
  stillatim | Oct 23, 2020 |
I think it's a book out of time. It had it's time, and now it seems a bit outdated. Attitudes towards religion and sexuality change, so it could be seen as a time capsule. I think the themes and ideas of 'A Clockwork Orange' are a bit more universal. ( )
  billycongo | Jul 22, 2020 |
Perhaps one of the greatest works of fiction of the 20th century. ( )
  seshenibi | May 3, 2020 |
One of my nearest and dearest sent me her old mass-market copy years ago in one of her purging moods. And, in a deeply unusual act, I've read it twice!

I see lots of breakdowns of this story's alleged core, the Problem of Evil that besets monotheistic religions. In my own opinion, Burgess's point was less simple, as the Problem of Evil is easily resolved (you're wrong, there is no gawd so there is no problem): How, when a man is inextricably linked to another, "superior" or "better" man in the public's awareness, does one contextualize the richness of either's soul in simple material terms?

...you know, come to think of it, I can't figure out a non-spoilery way to review the book...one can't explain the power dynamic that undergirds every single decision and shapes every attitude in the men's long, untangential involvement without being either coy or obscurantist. So what can one do to discuss it? I believe my enduring puzzlement at the impossibility of writing a satisfying review has been puzzled out. ( )
1 vote richardderus | Apr 25, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 29 (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.
added by SnootyBaronet | editNew York Times, Martin Amis
 
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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.
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"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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Earthly Powers traces eighty- one years in the life of a Somerset Maugham- type writer and lapsed Catholic called Kenneth Toomey. A popular, second- rate novelist/playwright, he spends a lifetime unsuccessfully trying to reconcile his homosexuality with his faith. This is also the story of Carlo Campanati, an earthy Italian priest linked with Toomey through family ties. With dazzlingly inventive narrative spanning six decades, Burgess draws in major events and characters of the century while exploring themes of universal significance.

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