Stochastic Bookmark

abstruse unfinished commentary

about correspondence


The quality of mercy is not quite strained

Pity the critic who must review literary biography; what results is nasty, brutish and short. Colin Burrow takes the usual path in considering Biswell's biography of Anthony Burgess, a corrective to Lewis' (but both superfluous in view of Burgess' autobiography, however embellished), as the pretext for observations on reputational economy and a recapitulation of and subsequent judgment upon the subject. Not without pyritic glints of insight, but the full package carries a taint of received ideas à la Bouvard and Pécuchet, or of a Flann O'Brien catechism; he's appreciative of the wordplay, but not of how the fixation with language affects the hermeneutics, missing the catholicity beneath the surface. This is most egregious where it's the most relevant:

The look-at-me cleverness is certainly there throughout his fiction. His novel about Shakespeare, Nothing like the Sun (1964), is particularly full of misfiring bits of attention-seeking. When Will laments his sickness, while the ‘mobbled queen’ Elizabeth I is on progress, there is a classic piece of Burgessian talent abuse: ‘I can hardly move, sick not in my body but only in my soul, centre of my sinful earth. I lie on my unmade bed listening to time’s ruin, threats of Antichrist, new galleons on the sea, the queen’s grand climacteric, portents in the heavens, a horse eating its foal, ghosts gliding as on a buttered pavement.’ This is a terrible piece of writing, but not unrepresentative. The little glances at obvious bits of Shakespeare, from Hamlet, through The Rape of Lucrece and the Sonnets, make it seem as though Will thought only in Famous Quotations, and those Famous Quotations are syntactically redundant in a way that makes them audibly no more than add-ons. By the time the sentence arrives at the hideously un-Shakespearean ‘buttered pavement’ it is all too ready to slip over. The overlay of learning – misguided showing-off rather than postmodern self-consciousness – blows away any intimacy with Shakespeare. You wind up watching Burgess mechanically anatomising Shakespeare’s words.

This is exactly wrong. Words were integral to Burgess, moreso than to most, but no less so than to his heroes, Shakespeare and Joyce. The latter gets his knuckles rapped regularly for the excesses of Finnegans Wake and for the dependence of interpretation upon private information; the former, as much an innovator in language, leaves nothing but words behind (upon which manifold identities have since been misconstructed). The genius of Nothing Like the Sun is the imaginative task of building the Bard from the ground up (another "grammar-school boy made good" prone to look-at-me cleverness), and embellishing; Burrow's complaint is that Burgess is no Shakespeare. So who is? (And just who is Shakespeare? No construct can stack up for [or to] Burrow.) Burgess gets at something essential in Shakespeare, then and now, and Burrow doesn't dig deep enough to uncover it. Pity.


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