I don’t know if I’ve come across an author whose delight is language and in words is as obvious and tangible as Anthony Burgess’.
I bought A Clockwork Orange years ago, before I knew anything really about it. I tried to read it for a class I did at uni and didn’t get it at all; I tried again two years later and sped through it, devouring it hungrily like a madman. I loved the way he combined fragments of existing languages, made up his own words, played with the words themselves and their syllables, broke them down and rhapsodised upon a theme of language. There was also the allure of a good bit of Beethoven (or ‘Lovely Ludwig Van’ as Alex likes to call him) and the superawesome cover.
Late last year, I stumbled across his last book, A Dead Man in Deptford, about Christopher (Kit) Marlowe and the events that led to the dead-reckoning in that pub in 1592. Aside from the language, there was an undisguised fascination with the Elizabethan period, with the dirt and grime, the filth, the sex, intrigue, danger, politics and religious debates that fuelled and filled the age. Being a Shakespeare-nerd myself, this was like manna from heaven, and I lapped it up greedily, tripping over the words and savouring his delirious infectious rhythms. There’s a glorious line early on in the book which is quite delicious: “Cat or Kit I said, and indeed about Kit there was something of the cat.” In a way the whole book, as word-drunk as it is, only serves to confirm my opinion that Marlowe was the inspiration for Mercutio in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Mercutio comes close to stealing every scene he’s in with his bawdy and lewd speeches and movements, great swathes of text oozing trippingly off his tongue. He’s a bit of a dandy, a kind of peacock, strutting his stuff throughout the town. Every inch a cynic and a dreamer, his Queen Mab speech is entirely magical, and his death – coupled with a very poignant downplaying of his own mortality (in an almost Monty Python-esque fashion) – is always a shame as it deprives us of a true gutter-poet’s intoxicatingly vivid drug-trips. Verily, Marlowe and Mercutio are one and the same, and it’s not hard really to see it thus, especially when as in Burgess’ book, the language dances around the Elizabethan vocabulary with a distinctly modern bent so that you never really notice it, such is its hypnotic virtuosity.
I’m currently reading his biography of Shakespeare at the moment. Simply called Shakespeare, it is equal parts biography, historical fiction, and outright fictitious invention, but it never feels as though it is unfounded from the truth in any way. In many ways, its no surprise that Burgess is a Bardolater in his own right; anyone who has that much obvious and tangible delight in language can only be a fan of the Bard. It’s quite entertaining too, in parts, in its own way, and you can almost see the delight on his face as he’s writing it. Rather than a fusty and static biography that uses only the known facts and nothing but the known facts, what we get is a book which thribbles around and upon the Elizabethan era to try and explain, no matter how tangential or historically unsubstantiated it may be, how Shakespeare came to write what he did how he did when he did.
Still on my to-read list are his Nothing Like The Sun, a novel about Shakespeare’s love life – more explicitly, the period of the sonnets and the infamous Dark Lady – as well as his Napoleon Symphony, originally begun as a treatment for Stanley Kubrick’s still-unmade biopic about Napoleon, and modelled on Beethoven’s Third ‘Eroica’ Symphony. Where Beethoven’s symphony is dedicated to “the memory of a once great man,” Burgess’ novel is similarly dedicated to Kubrick; perhaps we can see the two as analogous?
One thing’s certain though: whilst reading a Burgess novel, you’re never short of words or stimulating ideas. To be drunk on words is as safe a drunk as you can be; the only problem is, the rest of the world can’t quite keep up with you.
I recently started Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. While I’ve been slowly plugging my way through it for several weeks now, I’m nowhere near finished. I don’t think it’s that I haven’t had ample reading time so much that it is an incredibly dense book. It’s size, too, doesn’t help any, but there is an entire chapter about a third of the way in that is pure backstory, an in-depth discussion of who various people are, how they got to be who they are and what they do, and it could almost be cut outright and you wouldn’t really lose a thing. To be fair, I have been interested in reading this book for a while, ever since it came out and won the Booker Prize in 2009; the clincher for me was when the Royal Shakespeare Company announced their two-part adaptation of Wolf Hall and its sequel, Bring Up The Bodies, as part of their Winter 2013/2014 Season. And as mad as it is, to stage two 500+ page novels back to back with the same cast, it also makes an incredible amount of sense. In many ways, the two books are parts of a Shakespearean cycle of history plays which were never written. Granted, Shakespeare did write Henry VIII (perhaps in collaboration with John Fletcher), but seeing as the monarch at the time – James I – was Elizabeth I’s successor, and Elizabeth was Henry VIII’s daughter, there wasn’t a lot of politicking and commentary they could do. Instead, the play is essentially a pageant, a procession of scenes of key figures and speeches, possibly performed at the wedding of James I’s daughter (herself an Elizabeth) to the Elector Palatine of the
Rhine in 1613.
Enter, then, Mantel and her two novels (to be concluded in a third in 2015, The Mirror
and The Light). They are, in many ways, the plays Shakespeare could never
write, a gargantuan series of scenes, some of them quite funny, with a cast of
characters that I don’t think even Shakespeare could quite wrangle effectively
enough. While I am still only halfway through Wolf Hall, and have the entirety of Bring Up The Bodies to go (not to mention the concluding volume
when it is released), I do think it is an incredibly bold thing to do, to write
a sprawling and intricately detailed tapestry of a novel (albeit in three
parts), and to win the Booker for consecutive novels, regardless of how you
look at it or whether you like her writing or not.