Book of a lifetime: Earthly Powers, By Anthony Burgess

 

Has there ever been a more grandiose title for a novel? In calling this book Earthly Powers, Anthony Burgess seems to be suggesting that he has written a novel about everything. The extraordinary thing is that in these dense 648 pages, he has.

Taking on a sprawling mass of characters, threading them through an epic narrative that spans six decades, Earthly Powers genuinely does set out to explore why the world is as it is, and why people behave as they do.

These questions are possibly at the heart of all serious writing, but no contemporary writer comes closer to an answer than Burgess, in this masterpiece of 20th-century fiction. I first read it in my twenties, dreaming of world travel. More than anything else I read, Earthly Powers sharpened my appetite to see the world.

It struck me almost as a guide book to human endeavour, revealing a scope of ambition beyond the boundaries of anything I had conceived. I had never before read anything that so convincingly unwrapped whole human lives – a fascinating knot of them – showing how the choices made at each stage resonate through the decades.

The greatest, richest novels reveal themselves to us in different ways as we reread them. As a younger man, I seem to remember this is what I took most from the book – a story of how we seemingly pilot ourselves through life while historical forces and dumb luck shape our fate in ways we can't predict. Rereading it at an older, more settled stage, something warmer, richer and harder to define comes through.

This novel, which shines with bravura erudition and wit, has a kernel of warmth to it. An undertone glows quietly throughout, hard to perceive beyond the crash and sparkle of the literary fireworks, but it is what makes Earthly Powers a truly extraordinary book. On my last reading, I felt it told me something about love, loyalty and friendship that I have never seen so poignantly expressed.

Speaking of which, about 15 years ago I gave a copy of this novel to a friend who was setting off on holiday, with an inscription saying that it was my favourite novel. A few days later, the phone rang. It was her, breathless with excitement. She'd just finished the book. We gabbled away her five Euros-worth of phone-box time, agreeing about all the ways in which we loved the book. This brief but intense conversation has always stuck in my mind. A decade and a half later, both of us remember this call with strange clarity. She's now my wife.

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