Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Byrne: A Novel by Anthony Burgess

Here is my review of Byrne: A Novel by Anthony Burgess.  This appeared in World Literature Today, Autumn, 1996.

Anthony Burgess's posthumously published Byrne, though subtitled A Novel, is actually a poem in five parts. With the exception of the third part, which is measured in Spenserian stanzas, Byrne (written in 1993) is presented in Byron's adaptation of ottava rima, which has heroic lines of ten syllables. Burgess's mimicry artfully captures Don Juan's meandering whimsicality, earthy subject matter, and, of course, funny rhymes - Burgess describes a Germany "Of Schnapps, the joy of being drunk and Aryan / Though Hitler was a teetotalitarian."

Burgess's polyglot wordplay is masterful, his scholarship is excellent, and his sense of the interrelationship of history, art, and tragedy is crisp and revealing. He lacks, however, something of the deftness and lightness of touch that translates Byron's witty and adventurous yarns into expressions of a wonderfully gentle sensibility. Perhaps Burgess's shortcoming in this respect - if indeed it is a shortcoming - has much to do with the differences between the centuries in which the two poets lived and wrote. Where Byron is troubled or angry, Burgess is dazed and profoundly unsettled. Where Byron is sometimes dark, Burgess can be completely awful. The tenor of Burgess's poetics would have us believe these are bloodier times in which humor has moved still closer to the disposition of the graveyard.

Michael Byrne is a raging Anglo-Irish painter and composer who spends the 1930s living off of women, exhibiting his pornographic paintings, and writing music for the cinema. He eventually uses his talents to serve Nazi Germany. At war's end Byrne flees to Africa, and the story shifts forward to the 1990s, as Byrne's children, now in late middle age, are variously collapsing beneath the weight of life, profound doubt, and the wickedness of the times. Through Byrne, Burgess demonstrates the relationship of rampant modernism to fascism. By the end of the century even the grisly constant of this formulation is mere schoolman's nostalgia. Art has devolved into frequencies still lower than fascism. Chaos reigns supreme.

Meanwhile, Burgess presses on steadily in ottava rima as he describes Byrne's offspring making operas out of the life of Calvin and Wells's Time Machine. They sit as "Euro-delegates" on committees for the "House of Euroculture," an exposition of "great European contributors to European thought" sans W. S'peare. Elsewhere, Muslims riot in libraries and burn Dante for putting Mohammed in Hell.

Some readers may see in Byrne Neroesque fiddling or offbeat black comedy. The dizzying effect, however, is without sudden ironical upswings or jolly surprises. The poem culminates in a meeting between Byrne and his offspring. Through subjection to his art and music, his children are prepared - kneaded, softened, deadened - for his entry. The disembodied voice of John Gielgud rattles off a series of five sonnets of a dire and troubling aspect that impresses like falling lead. (One of these sonnets, in slightly different form, is presented in Burgess's autobiography as a work he composed while in the hospital in the late 1950s; it elicited a gloomy response from his physician.) Four Africans carry in Byrne on a sedan chair, as if Mr. Kurtz had been alive all these years. After two or three deathly quips from the old man, the children flee outside to an uncertain epiphany in an uncertain "filthy world" which is in the process of being blown to bits by terrorist bombs.

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