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Anthony Burgess: Abba Abba

This is a short novel about the last days of the poet John Keats in Rome. Keats is in poverty, living with the painter, Joseph Severn, in a house in the Piazza di Spagna (Spanish Steps). During these last days – where we watch him suffering and dying – Keats meets and talks to various people including, in particular, Giuseppe Gioachino Belli, a poet known for writing satirical and earthy poetry in Roman dialect, Pauline Bonaparte, Napoleon’s sister, Giovanni Gulielmi, a scholar, and Lieutenant Elton, a fellow a TB sufferer. Elton and Keats are attended by Dr. Clark, later Sir James Clark, Queen Victoria’s doctor.

The book has two purposes. Firstly, by means of conversations among the protagonists (involving either Keats and one or more others and/or Belli and others), Burgess expounds on a variety of subjects, including dying and death, religion, literature, politics and love. These conversations – all, of course, imagined – are fascinating as Burgess has clearly done his homework on Keats, Severn, Belli and Co. The second theme is Burgess’ favorite and perennial theme – language. Both Keats and Belli play around with language – word games, puns, slang, vulgarities (in particular – the amount of synonyms they find for penis is amazing), dialects, neologisms, strange words and so on and not only in English but also in Italian, French and Latin. Some of it is frankly infantine and not just the penis words but, like many of Burgess’ works, it is all immense fun if not great literature.

Publishing history

First published 1977 by Faber & Faber