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Anthony Burgess: Earthly Powers

The trouble with Burgess is that if he has to decide between having fun and writing great literature, he goes for the fun option every time. The New York Times said the work is a brilliant pastiche of Somerset Maugham, Norman Douglas, Noel Coward and E. M. Forster, with a dash of P. G. Wodehouse and Graham Greene thrown in for political and religious seasoning. I would throw in Angus Wilson as well. The trouble is that none of these writers is great literature, with the possible exception of Forster, and even he is a model more as a homosexual than as a great writer.

What fun? Well, let’s start with language as Burgess always does. There are fewer word games than in some of his other books but perhaps that is only because they get buried in this large book. However, Burgess makes up this for by showing off his knowledge of world languages, from Latin to Tamil. Indeed, if you are not conversant with Latin and, probably, French, German, Italian and maybe one or two others, you are going to be a bit lost in this book. Not too much, but a bit.

Burgess loves to make fun of himself as we have seen with the Enderby novels, and Kenneth Toomey is clearly the apex of his pastiche but also homage to himself. Kenneth is a homosexual and Burgess throws political correctness to the winds, mocking homosexuals at the end of the pre-AIDS days. They are all, virtually without exception, camp, bitches, promiscuous, selfish, dishonest. Indeed, they all seem to conform to the standard heterosexual stereotypes of homosexuals. But then Burgess is not trying to win any friends. Not only is he not going to win any friends in the homosexual community, he is not going to win any in the religious community. He reserves the vitriol for the Catholics and the New Age religionists but most of the other major religions at least get a dig. However, it is his attacks on Catholicism and New Age religion that occupy much of this book. The New Age religion in the book is clearly modelled on the Jim Jones cult and comes quite late in the book but Catholicism features throughout the book.

Indeed, at the start, we learn that Toomey, now an elderly and (commercially but not critically) successful writer, living with his boyfriend-secretary, is being asked to testify to a miracle by the late Pope Gregory XII, whom Toomey apparently knew, despite the fact Toomey is, more or less, an unbeliever. The story then is more or less told in flashback and we learn how Toomey became a writer and how he came to know the future pope. As a writer Toomey is, by his own admission, not a great writer though a successful one (Burgess himself?). Indeed, Burgess seems to revel in his lack of greatness. However, he meets many of the 20th century greats. His introduction to homosexuality is at the hands of George Russell (AE), specifically on 16 June 1904, at a time when, according to Ulysses, Russell is studying in the National Library of Ireland. He goes on to meet and, in some cases, befriend people as diverse as Havelock Ellis, Heinrich Himmler (whose life he saves) and, of course, “Jim” Joyce. He mocks most of them, particularly their sexual foibles.

Toomey has a younger sister – Hortense – and it is through her that he comes to know the future pope. She meets and marries Domenico Campanati, with whom Toomey is writing an opera. Domenico’s brother is the priest, Carlo Campanati, the future pope and, as we later discover, not actually the brother of Domenico. Toomey and Carlo’s paths cross frequently, not least when Carlo performs the aforementioned miracle at the hospital where the third brother – Raffaele – has just died at the hands of the mob in Chicago. Carlo seems an essentially good man, though he can be tough and brutal, and he and Toomey have several intellectual tussles, as he moves forward with his view of modern, tough Catholicism.

Of course, with such a long novel, it is all more complex than that. Toomey’s affairs, Toomey’s career, Hortense’s life and career, the Campanatis’ lives and careers, the world at large – which seems to be mainly a homosexual and intellectual romp, at least from Toomey’s perspective, all loom large. World events do occur but even such a major event as World War II seems to be not much more than a minor inconvenience, whose main import is for Toomey to try (unsuccessfully) to get the reluctant (and fictitious) Jewish Nobel Prize winning Jakob Strehler out of Germany (Strehler won the Nobel Prize in 1935, a year when it was not awarded.) Great literature? I don’t know but it is fun.

Publishing history

First published 1980 by Hutchinson