"Anthony Burgess: Last Will and Testament"
Dana Gioia

Anthony Burgess was a novelist of indisputable genius who never published an indisputably great novel. Some writers–like Ralph Ellison or Giuseppe di Lampedusa–labor endlessly to focus their full imagination into a single masterpiece. Burgess lavishly spread his gifts across thirty-three novels of startling diversity. He left no magnum opus but scored nearly a dozen brilliant near-misses. His best novels show such scope, intelligence, and extravagant originality that many readers share Gore Vidal’s assessment that Burgess was “easily the most interesting English writer in the last half century.”

Burgess’s last novel, Byrne, is not, alas, the masterpiece that long eluded him. This new volume, however, is so fresh, funny, and inventive that it ranks among his finest creations. Completed shortly before his death in 1993, Byrne demonstrates that not only was Burgess’s artistry undiminished at the end but it was still growing. Many of his books have an experimental shape, but none is more boldly designed than Byrne, which unfolds in an entirely new form for Burgess–the verse novel.

Most novelists have a youthful fling with poetry before settling down sensibly with prose, but Burgess never lost his early passion. He published an epic poem and undertook half a dozen major verse translations ranging from Oedipus the King to Cyrano de Bergerac. He also repeatedly placed poets–Shakespeare, Marlowe, Keats–as the central figures in his novels. Even his most popular comic character, the constipated F. X. Enderby, was a poet. (Burgess filled his four Enderby novels with copious verses purportedly written by his maladroit protagonist.)

In principle, one had to admire Burgess’s ambitious rejection of literary specialization. Why shouldn’t a novelist also work in poetry or verse drama? In practice, however, the reader faced a serious problem. Burgess’s poetry was vastly inferior to his prose. Ostentatiously inventive and original, his prose in novels like A Clockwork Orange or Nothing Like the Sun was not only delightful but dazzlingly effective. In contrast, his verse seemed, like poor Mr. Enderby, cramped and costive.

Mindful of these failings, I picked up Byrne with trepidation. What I found was genuinely astonishing–a complex dark comedy in fluently rhymed verse. Frequently hilarious and always engaging, this final book simultaneously satisfies the differing demands of prose fiction and narrative verse. Composed mostly in the same ottava rima stanza that Lord Byron used for Don Juan, Byrne shows Burgess for once fully in command of his poetic medium. One might expect an author to experience new spiritual insight on his deathbed, but surely such a technical breakthrough is highly unusual.

Despite its singular form, Byrne is an entirely characteristic Burgess novel. It examines his central themes–sex, religion, art, and mortality–though with an urgency seldom found in earlier books. The protagonist is once again an imaginary artist, in this case Michael Byrne, a minor modern composer with greater talent in bed than in the concert hall. The novel’s opening section recounts Byrne’s public and private careers. “Failed artist but successful bigamist,” he moves opportunistically from country to country and from bed to bed, leaving a small tribe of children across the globe. Eventually Byrne vanishes, presumably dying of old age in Africa.

The second section shifts abruptly to the present and focuses on several of Byrne’s children now in late middle age. To their astonishment, they discover that their notorious father is still alive. He has publicly invited “the fruits of his insemination / legitimate or not” to a Christmas Eve gathering at Claridges where he will read his final will and testament. The rest of Byrne tells of the complicated and violent paths his children take to this nightmarish reunion.

Perhaps the novel’s most striking episode is Byrne’s sojourn in Nazi Germany. Leaving London with an aging Teutonic diva, Byrne enters the upper echelons of Berlin Kultur. He recognizes Nazi racial theories as rubbish, but the amoral adventurer also notes the professional opportunities afforded an Aryan composer in Germany’s newly Judenfrei musical world. Soon Byrne writes an operatic showpiece for his soprano lover set to a libretto by Joseph Goebbels. Burgess brilliantly counterpoints the composer’s personal indifference to the nightmarish milieu of the age. As Byrne labors on his ambitious opera, he even finds distractions in the increasingly brutal society around him.

Alternately hilarious and bitter, the opening section stands as one of the finest things Burgess ever wrote. A self-consciously literary artist, Burgess customarily built his novels in layers. A comic plot might be set upon a theological allegory and then refracted again through an unreliable narrator. Byrne proceeds in a similar manner. The first section is simultaneously a mock biography of a failed Modernist and a scathing critique of art’s relations and responsibilities to society–all told, we eventually discover, by a journalist who may himself be one of Byrne’s deserted illegitimate children.

If the later sections do not sustain the comic brilliance of the opening, they still read very well. Only the ending disappoints. Patterning his climax after the harrowing conclusion of Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness, Burgess miscalculates. Significantly, the problem is prosodic as well as narrative. The author allows the superannuated and demented Byrne to read his last will in five gnomic sonnets. The poem’s narrative momentum founders at just the moment it needed to hold swift and steady.

The poetic style of Byrne might reasonably be termed Byronic if it didn’t also sound exactly like Burgess. Not the least of the book’s accomplishments is a richly textured verse style that fully accommodates the quirky particulars of the novelist’s voice. Shedding the lofty models who had so often inhibited his early poetry–especially Gerard Manley Hopkins and T. S. Eliot–Burgess finally permitted himself to write verse that didn’t strive to be poetic. Instead, Byrne marries the novelistic virtues of energetic narrative and social observation with “old-fashioned rhyme.” The result is a tangy style that combines the author’s earthy sensibility with the compression and evocative musicality of formal verse. When Byrne, currently a film composer, weds a fellow employee at the Korda brothers’ London studios, Burgess sums up the marriage in a single well-turned stanza:

If Byrne is a novel built in layers, no one familiar with Burgess’s life and career can fail to recognize that one layer is autobiographical. The two main characters–Byrne and his son Tim–are both unflattering versions of the author. Tim, a faithless priest, hopes to make a secular living by writing religious documentaries for American Protestants. (In his final years Burgess wrote Biblical mini-series for American networks.) Midway through the novel Tim provides a more disturbing parallel. He begins coughing blood, only to discover–as Burgess did–that he is dying of lung cancer. As a medieval monk might place a skull on his writing desk as a memento mori, Burgess put his own dying body into his final book.

Equally chilling are the parallels with Byrne himself. This Anglo-Irish, lapsed Catholic artist bears many obvious resemblances to his Anglo-Irish, lapsed, Catholic creator. In interviews, Burgess, an internationally successful novelist, critic, screenwriter, and translator, habitually described himself as “a failed composer.” (Until writing his first novel at thirty-eight, he had concentrated on music and continued to compose throughout his life.) Byrne is an extended meditation on an artist whose work has come to nothing. Byrne’s music will make no claim on posterity. Even his profligate sexuality proved futile. All of his scattered sons and daughters are childless. As the narrator admits, the future will bring only oblivion to his depraved protagonist:

Paronomasia–a typical Burgessian touch. (The word is the rhetorical term for a pun.) Even contemplating the possibility of his own physical and artistic extinction, the author revels in the power of language. Perhaps it will be just that deep impulse of delight in the face of human finitude that will keep posterity reading Burgess.

Byrne, by Anthony Burgess. 150 pp. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers.

First published in The New York Times Book Review, November 30, 1997.