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Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess
Anthony Burgess' place in pop cultural history has already been established due to the infamous and brilliant film adaptation of A Clockwork Orange. One might argue however, that Earthly Powers is his masterpiece and the work that will ensure his place in literary history.
Earthly Powers follows the adult life of Kenneth Toomey (allegedly based on W. Somerset Maugham), a writer, lapsed catholic and a homosexual. Like Maugham, who considered himself 'among the first row of second raters', Toomey's work is populist and is frowned upon in some of the highbrow literary circles he moves in. He also finds himself alienated from his family and certain aspects of society due to his renounced faith and sexual orientation.
The purpose of the narrative, which spans more than half a century, is primarily Toomey's recollection of his unlikely friendship with an Italian priest named Carlo Campanati. Carlo, who in the course of the novel becomes pope, performs a miracle that Toomey himself witnesses. Although this is the purpose of the narrative, the novel explores Toomey 's highly eventful adult life, which sees him travel from continent to continent; co-write a musical version of Ulysses and having an eerie encounter with a Tamil witch doctor and rescue his great niece from a Baltimore suicide cult amongst other things. Carlo Campanati's role is central and the enduring friendship the two charcters share despite their polarised differences is both at turns comical and heartwarming.
What makes the novel so readable is the charming first person narrative.I was worried at first that I would never get through the whole book despite the gripping opening sentence: "It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me." The events and plot unfold at fast pace. Despite being 1200 pages plus, it is actually a remarkably concise novel.
What is so great about this book is that it deals with massive themes such as religion, sexuality, anthropology and two World Wars with prose that is full of intelligence and flair without being esoteric or pretentious. There is the odd omnilingual pun however, but if you have a basic knowledge of Italian and French you should be able to understand them.
Literary buffs will find much amusement in the integration of real writers as charcters in the novel. Toomey goes out drinking with James Joyce (only to hear his wife beating him after he drops him home) finds out Ford Madox Ford has really bad breath; Rudyard Kipling is something of a cockney wideboy and that T.S Eliot is a strange individual who hides cheese in his desk drawers.
Although the novel does have a specific plot, it almost reads like an autobiography, or even a short history of the modern age. Reading Earthly Powers was an uplifting and rewarding experience. Although I finished it about six months ago, I still have vivid memories the characters, scenes and imagery. A book that reminds you of the pleasure and power of the written word. I cannot recommend Earthly Powers highly enough.
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