Ironies and Inversions: The Art of Anthony Burgess

By Keen, Suzanne | Commonweal, February 11, 1994 | Go to article overview
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Ironies and Inversions: The Art of Anthony Burgess


Keen, Suzanne, Commonweal


In one of Anthony Burgess's (1917-1993) many comic novels, One Hand Clapping (1972), a woman observes her husband answering quiz questions about books on a television knowledge bowl. For a prize of a thousand pounds, he identifies a group of Renaissance playwrights. While the audience applauds his unlikely success, his wife is startled to see ghostly Dekker, Jonson, and Massinger, silent and dignified, wearing little gold earrings and ruffs. No one in the studio, not even the winning contestant, knows the plays or the men, who have been reduced to revenants conjured up by trivia.

Burgess's last novel, A Dead Man in Deptford (1993) puts the flesh back on Christopher Marlowe, author of Doctor Faustus, The Jew of Malta, and Tamburlaine. Like his "WS," (William Shakespeare) in Nothing Like the Sun, Burgess's Marlowe eats, drinks, vomits, has sex, witnesses a public execution, betrays and is betrayed, composes blank verse, and participates in the making of Renaissance drama. Like many of Burgess's novels, A Dead Man in Deptford investigates ambition and disappointment, and the inextricable realms of playfulness and guiltiness. No dreary hero, Kit Marlowe, or Morley, or Merlin ("the name is unsure") blasphemes, spies, and speculates with Raleigh and his cohorts in a vividly realized "School of Night." The novel succeeds as an historical fiction by evoking a world and a time; it provides the necessary thrill of brushes with the even-more-famous, as when Kit and Will Shogspere collaborate on a play; and it moves quickly despite the necessary exposition.

In Dead Man, Burgess imagines answers to literary historians' questions about Marlowe: was he really an atheist, and a homosexual; did he spy on the continent for the Crown or was he a double-agent, conspiring with Catholic intriguers; did he really die in a brawl over a tavern bill, or was he assassinated for political reasons? In taking up Christopher Marlowe, in the fourth centenary of his murder, Burgess returns to the subject of his undergraduate thesis to recreate not only an argument, however, but an imagined world. Burgess's Elizabethan playhouses, taverns, jails, roads, country houses, and colleges make effective backdrops for his zingy dialogues and conversations. Although he builds his fiction with eye-catching words, celebrates and concocts etymologies, coincidences, and language games, Burgess excels here as elsewhere in describing the corporeal. The menus are authentically Elizabethan in their combinations of sweet and pungent; the disembowelments are unforgettable, if not the sex; the smell of Virginian tobacco makes some characters crave and others complain. Readers who can locate a library copy of this book, which has not yet appeared in the United States, will not find it abstruse.

In an interview over a decade ago, Burgess explained to the critic Samuel Coale his longstanding interest in Marlowe as deriving from "a kind of Catholic quality." Part fascination with a mysterious career (was he an undercover priest?) and part recognition of the guilt so copiously represented in the plays, Burgess's instinct led him to speculate that Marlowe had betrayed someone and had suffered an irreconcilable desire for both damnation and salvation. As an undergraduate, Burgess had only recently lapsed from the Catholic faith of his upbringing and pan of Marlowe's appeal may have lain in the poet's reputation as a notorious atheist and blasphemer. Yet the immediate surroundings of a world at war made Marlowe's visions of hell seem relevant; Burgess recalls in more than one place the experience of taking examinations in a glass-roofed gymnasium, during an air raid, with the bombs going overhead.

The image of a young man packed with knowledge, spilling it out on paper, while the bombers unload their death-dealing cargo can stand usefully as an emblem for and explanation of Anthony Burgess's career. To be prolific, as the word suggests, is to be the opposite of dead.

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