February 2011

Kevin Frazier

Star-Crossed

James Joyce & Anthony Burgess

Each issue the Star-Crossed column chooses one or two writers who were born during a particular month and talks about their work.

February Birthdays
James Joyce – born February 2, 1882, in Dublin, Ireland
Anthony Burgess – born February 25, 1917, in Manchester, England

“History,” Stephen Dedalus says near the start of Ulysses, “is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”

History’s nightmare -- the ongoing tale of human cruelty and oppression -- animates much of the work of both James Joyce and his most prolific disciple, Anthony Burgess. Joyce and Burgess had, of course, a great deal in common: their multilingualism, their musical talent, their ruptured Catholicism, their awesome stylistic brio. They also shared a determination to carry out intricate literary experiments that often estranged their early readers.

Yet their writing has lasted not just because of its artistic bravado but because of the passion behind that bravado. Burgess uses his virtuosity to capture violence and malevolence with special acuity. Joyce, in turn, devotes much of his verbal and aesthetic brilliance to standing up for those aspects of life that resist the traps and maneuvers of power and hate. For both writers the rebellion against conventional language is a rebellion against force in general. Rote writing and rote speech are, after all, part of the marching orders of tyrants everywhere, from the dictatorial Bonaparte of Napoleon Symphony to the petty mock-Cyclops of Ulysses.

1 – Joyce and the Refusal to Serve

The Cyclops chapter is where Bloom sets out the Joycean attitude towards “the best traditions of manly strength and power.” Told that we must stand up to injustice “with force like men,” Bloom disagrees.

  —But it’s no use, says he. Force, hatred, history, all that. That’s not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it’s the very opposite of that that is really life.

  —What? says Alf.

  —Love, says Bloom. I mean the opposite of hatred…

Joyce once wrote to his brother Stanislaus that “the whole structure of heroism is, and always was, a damned lie,” and he refused to find fighting and force either admirable or necessary. From his youth onward Joyce believed in nonviolent resistance, the duty of the individual to defy the powerful and to maintain that defiance without bloodshed and without retreat. In the final chapter of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen says: “I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church…”

Joyce’s rejection of authority and machismo were, of course, highly personal. He left Ireland, he left Catholicism, and most of all he left the tormented idolatry of physical and emotional cruelty that plagued Hemingway and continues to plague the world. Joyce’s biography is, like Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, a comic epic. It’s the story of a talented but foolish young man who matures from the belligerent narcissism of Stephen Dedalus to the humorous, self-mocking generosity of Joyce’s later and greater creations -- Bloom, Molly, Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker and Anna Livia Plurabelle.  

If Joyce had stayed in Dublin he might well have lost his way in all his old local battles and resentments. It was his good fortune that he started courting Nora Barnacle on the date that Ulysses celebrates, Bloomsday, June 16, 1904. In fleeing Dublin with Nora and spending nearly the rest of his life abroad with her, Joyce somehow liberated the great comic warmth of his major writings -- a warmth that his youthful arrogance had obscured or suppressed. The liberation was far from inevitable, however, and one of the mysteries of Joyce’s art is why he responded to his self-imposed exile with such a magnanimous and increasingly compassionate vision.

2 – Burgess and the Bitter Past

This brings us back to Burgess, whose own expatriation did little to contain the wild currents of anger and aggression that course through his work. He is a lesser author than Joyce in many ways, but in one major way he is clearly superior: he captures the ugly impact of horror and destruction with unsettling skill.
His two-volume autobiography portrays a much more embittering existence than Joyce’s. His mother died of influenza when he was a baby in Manchester, and his father was “a mostly absent drunk.” During World War II his pregnant wife was attacked by four deserters from the U.S. Army. The attack caused her to lose the baby, and contributed to the alcoholism that would eventually kill her. In 1960 Burgess was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. He responded to the news by shifting away from his lifelong ambition to be a composer and hurtling himself into his writing. The tumor turned out not to exist, and he went on to live in Malta, Rome, New York, Monaco and quite a few of other places. At his death in 1993, he had completed thirty-six novels and many nonfiction books, as well as massive amounts of journalism, reviews, screenplays, poetry and musical compositions.

Everything that Burgess wrote has a headlong urgency, never more effective than when he is describing violence and injustice. In Napoleon Symphony, one of his most ambitious works, he brings together his musical and literary obsessions by using the form and often the note by note substance of Beethoven’s Eroica to shape the story of Napoleon’s empire. Burgess worshipped Joyce, and Napoleon Symphony is one of his many attempts to build on Joyce’s example -- in this case the fugue structure of the Sirens chapter in Ulysses.

Like much of the fiction that Burgess published, the book is fascinating but not quite successful, and Napoleon seldom surfaces very memorably from the compelling rhythms on the page. Still, Napoleon Symphony features the finest sequence Burgess ever set down, the depiction of the French army disintegrating in its retreat from Moscow. The retreat is shown through a run of brief impressions from the dying soldiers. They’re all sacrificed to Napoleon’s ruthlessness, with each soldier’s personality evoked in the arresting Burgess prose style, sleek yet rich:

Lieutenant Ratiano saw his left leg, from the knee down, actually break off, no pain, like a rotten tree-limb, and then wept for it, seeing it in the snow: my baby, part of me, I have let you die… [He] prepared in ecstasy to break everything off, including his brain, and then what would be left was the essential Lieutenant Ratiano, counting his broken-off parts invisibly, seeing that everything was there…

By the time of Earthly Powers, published in 1980, Burgess was determined to create a major work, and his achievement here is well-earned and permanently absorbing. Horror and violence again govern the story, but Burgess now comes at them more obliquely, revealing how they often operate near the edge of our vision, where we don’t quite notice them until it’s too late.

Too late: Burgess calls these the saddest words in the English language, and Earthly Powers is all about being too late. The narrator, Kenneth Toomey, a world-wandering novelist patterned after Somerset Maugham, keeps making delayed discoveries of humanity’s gruesome malevolence. Gradually, though, we start to see that in each case the signs of the malevolence have surrounded him all along. At 650 pages, Earthly Powers covers much of the twentieth century, from the slaughter of World War I through the Holocaust to a Jonestown-like massacre in California. Toomey always stands slightly apart from these events, learning about them after they have passed him by. They leave him with an ever-thickening residue of bitter realizations, a sense of himself as a pawn captured by the epic stratagems of evil.  

3 – Lashings of the Ultra-Violent

A Clockwork Orange, the most famous Burgess novel, deserves its status as a short essential classic. Nadsat, the book’s imaginary teenage slang, is a sly gloss on the addiction of youth to those brands of cliché and conformity that sport just enough new ornamentation to mask their banality. Burgess offers us no list of Nadsat definitions: none is needed. Most of Alex’s narration advances in stock phrases, easily deciphered through their cod-Russian decor:

There were vecks and ptitsas, both young and starry, lying on the ground screaming for mercy, and I was smecking all over my rot and grinding my boot in their litsos. And there were devotchkas ripped and creeching against walls and I plunging like a shlaga into them…     

It’s no accident that Burgess makes Nadsat the language of “lashings of the ultra-violent.” The entire novel parodies Alex’s reliance on stale lines bearing stale thoughts and stale feelings -- most especially the hackneyed urge to violate and destroy. Yet Burgess lampoons the triteness of Nadsat while still energizing it with his exacting ear. He knows that even thugs want to feel fresh in their predictability: they love the fantasy that they’re speaking the code of their time and place. Alex works with makeshift tools -- Nadsat’s hurried repetitions and impatient dependent clauses -- but sentence by sentence he improvises an often mesmerizing music for us. The contrast between the savagery of Alex’s actions and the callous lyricism of his voice continues to make A Clockwork Orange a disturbing book, not least because it now reads less as science fiction than as a straightforward rendering of the world today.   

4 – What’s So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding?

While Joyce and Burgess are united in their opposition to all their least favorite strains of despotism, only Joyce has the ability to show us an alternative to despotism, and only Joyce can dramatize the grandeur of lives conducted with blemished decency and imperfect love.

As a satirist Burgess is vicious and dark. He exposes people as grotesque but seldom as admirable. Joyce’s satire, while even more relentless, is humane and embracing. In Ulysses he doesn’t soften or sentimentalize Molly and Bloom. He accepts them in every detail, drolly inspecting the nooks and crannies of human nature that most novelists avoid in their desire to keep their characters sympathetic. Bloom shits and farts and masturbates. He prompts the Nighttown fantasy of himself as “the new womanly man” giving birth, and he endures or perhaps welcomes his surreal visions of public humiliation. Molly pursues thoughts of infidelity and selfishness that no other literary heroine of her time was allowed to entertain, and she is thrillingly reckless in her many levels of observation, on matters both large and small:  

…and Im to be slooching around down in the kitchen to get his lordship his breakfast while hes rolled up like a mummy will I indeed did you ever see me running Id just like to see myself at it show them attention and they treat you like dirt I don’t care what anybody says itd be much better for the world to be governed by the women in it you wouldn’t see women going and killing one another and slaughtering…then Ill throw him up his eggs and tea…Ill let him know if thats what he wanted that his wife is fucked yes and damn well fucked too up to my neck nearly not by him…  

Joyce’s stylistic fireworks are sometimes mere self-indulgence. More often, though, he uses his abundance of comic techniques to dig up the neglected treasures of everyday existence. At his best he discloses what we would detect if we would only look more carefully at the people and things all around us. Think of the beauty of the interlocking voices and motions that he reveals for us in the intricacies of the Sirens chapter. Or the parody of romance writing he adopts to enter Gerty MacDowell’s imagination, not to trash her for her inexperience but to unlock how heartbreakingly lovely her mind is. Or Bloom’s hallucination of a flood of beer spilling from a train, “a lazy pooling swirl of liquor bearing along wideleaved flowers of its froth.”

Ulysses is steadfast in demonstrating that the experiences of Molly and Bloom and everyone else on Bloomsday are far more entrancing and important than, say, the attention-grabbing atrocities that Burgess scorns in Earthly Powers and A Clockwork Orange. With cheerful defiance towards the world’s dictators and exploiters, Joyce ignores their demands for our terrified respect. Instead he gives his full amused notice to Bloom washing his hands “in fresh cold neverchanging everchanging water,” or to the moment when Bloom and Stephen look at the sky and see the “heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.”  

In Finnegans Wake Joyce goes still further, with still more trenchant results -- which is perhaps a semi-adequate excuse for the book’s maddening brew of insight and incomprehensibility. The Wake sees Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker and Anna Livia Plurabelle in some of the ways we might see ourselves if we could perceive the individuals and events from history that we carry along with us wherever we go. Like the portmanteau language they inhabit, Anna and Humphrey exist in merger and combination: they are partly composed of, and partly compose, a series of lives from different eras of the past. The Wake proposes that for each of us our fusion with our particular heritage is intimate and indispensable. Humphrey, for instance, embodies not a generic mass awareness of all humanity but his own private line of specific people and places and encounters across the ages. Certainly his line is distinct from Anna’s and everyone else’s, even though it does tend to mingle with other strands at times, particularly at the Viconian recycling point -- “Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay.”

At any rate the Wake, even more than Ulysses, chases its odd vision with laughter and high spirits, and honors our personal victories and defeats in the face of the forces that try to restrain us. It also celebrates the depth of our comic predicament. Each of us, the Wake suggests, is a sort of vast millipede unaware of the many legs from the past trying to move in slapstick unison with our present steps.          

Joyce knows what’s so funny about peace, love and understanding, because his humor is protective rather than destructive. He laughs in admiration, helping us see that the very qualities which make his characters ludicrous are also the qualities that make them more enduring than the boorish grim voices of intolerance and control. He recognizes the strength of our absurd vulnerability, the vitality that resides in the flaws of our full humanity. Molly and Bloom and Humphrey and Anna have outlasted the arrant butchery of the twentieth century, and they will outlast the inevitable nightmares of our own time if we simply value the illumination they offer. The choice is ours.