Devil’s Advocate: Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers

Anthony Burgess was a prolific mainstream writer who just happened to write a number of genre books as part of his career. Best known is probably A Clockwork Orange, but The Wanting Seed and Nineteen-Eighty-Five are also unquestionably SF. I think I’ve read everything he’s written, though I’d be glad to be proved wrong, and of everything I have read, one of my favourites is Earthly Powers, a book I have re-read every couple of years since the early eighties. Almost all of Burgess is thought-provoking and wrestles with large questions, and this is the one where he did that best.

Earthly Powers is fantasy, though you’d never guess to look at it. It’s the story of an aging British homosexual Catholic writer whose life, pretty much contemporaneous with the twentieth century, is bound up with the family of a man who eventually becomes Pope. It’s told in the form of a self-conscious first person memoir, and the ostensible reason for Toomey to be writing a memoir is to re-examine an act of that Pope, now dead, which may have been a miracle. If it was a miracle, the Pope will be canonized. The much more interesting question the book examines is whether miracles are a good thing. (I already said it was fantasy. The miracle isn’t the only magical thing that happens.) This is a book about history, about the struggle for gay rights, about the Catholic church, about miracles and curses and how it is possible to live and love and create.

It begins:

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.

From that you can tell that it’s funny, and it really can be funny. But whether you’ll enjoy the book is much more dependent on how you take the next bit:

I retired twelve years ago from the profession of novelist. Nevertheless, you will be constrained to consider, if you know my work at all and take the trouble now to re-read that first sentence, that I have lost none of my old cunning in the contrivance of what is known as an arresting opening.

Toomey is a consciously unreliable narrator, at times drawing your attention to the fact that his memory is unreliable and that he is using tricks of fiction to tell a supposedly true story. At times, this reinforces the sincerity as well as the artificiality. We are shown a life, a long life, lots of evocative details, and two families, one English, one Italian, and what might as well be a roll call of famous people of the Twentieth Century. Toomey namedrops shamelessly and deliberately. The effect is to build up a picture of the world—and it is the world, not just Europe, there’s some of the US and a lot of Malaya (as it then was) and the Far East in this novel. To enjoy it you have to enjoy Toomey’s voice and follow it through the different eras he has lived through, and enjoy unwinding the convolutions of family and history and literature.

This is a long book and there’s a lot crammed into it—there’s voodoo, there’s true love, there’s a religious cult and a massacre, there’s the difficulties of living in Malta, there’s Singapore, there’s an opera about St Nicholas and a statue of him, there’s the struggle for freedom of literature and gay rights, there’s the changing position of women over the century, there’s the awesome bit where Toomey is caught in Austria trying to extricate a Jewish Austrian writer friend when war breaks out, and is released after broadcasting on the Nazi radio a message where the first letter of every word spells “Fuck Hitler” but is nevertheless branded a collaborator ever after, and at the heart of the book, circling round and round, is the miracle and the greater question what it led to.

Earthly Powers has all the pleasures of a long, well-written complex novel of character, and it also has the added depth and interest only the presence of the fantastic can give it—what if there were a real miracle and the world is appreciably worse for it?

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