Swansongs: Nicholas Wroe on the last work of Burgess: Byrne by Anthony Burgess Hutchinson, pounds 14.99
Saturday 21 October 1995
We are first in Earthly Powers territory, with Byrne witnessing most of the discordant episodes of 20th-century European art and history. From the riot at the premiere of Le Sacre de Printemps to the creation of the Nazi film industry, he progresses through a series of exploitative affairs, fathering children along the way before, as a "failed artist but successful bigamist", escaping Germany for Switzerland and then on to Marrakesh, South America and Malaya, from where he continues to produce his mad, maybe evil, music and painting.
Byrne's offspring include Tom and his twin brother Tim, a priest. These contemporary figures become caught up in an Islamic terrorist attack on a Euro-conference honouring the "anti-Muslim" Dante in Strasbourg. The links to their father are slowly revealed while they continue to do the usual twin things (prefigured in his 1971 novel, MF) like swapping identities and confusing women. The novel is finally resolved when Byrne, his children and his art are brought together in an astonishing conflagration at Claridges on Christmas Eve.
That Burgess has chosen to use rhyme is not so much of a departure for a writer who has produced fictionalised versions of Shakespeare, Keats and Marlowe, as well as creating Enderby, who provides the opening poem for Byrne. But, this being Burgess, there's more to it that a few couplets worthy of Cole Porter ("Saul Bellow/ Jell-O", "fumble in a hallway/ His Grace of Galway"). Byrne uses the same rhyme scheme as Byron's Don Juan and Childe Harold and, like Byron, takes the opportunity to attack some fellow writers with haymaker swipes ("And white men go to pieces, as we've seen/ In overlauded trash by Graham Greene"). Other targets include the Booker Prize, Calvinism, Euro-culture and Switzerland.
Burgess's probing of the theme that underpinned much of his fiction, the free will to choose evil, is presented with a bracing freshness and bite. If you want to know what Burgess was all about, but can't find the time to read the shelf of 30-odd novels, the multi-volumed memoirs, the literary studies or the translations, then read the 150 pages of Byrne. It's a fine book and a perfect primer.
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