BOOK REVIEW / Big Kit and the case of the Elizabethan collops: 'A Dead Man in Deptford' - Anthony Burgess: Hutchinson, 14.99 pounds

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The Independent Online
THIS meeting has been long delayed. Anthony Burgess first planned a novel about Christopher Marlowe in 1964, he tells us in an afterword, but, noting that this year was also the natal quatercentenary of Shakespeare, bowed to the inevitable and gave us Nothing Like the Sun instead. Burgess's fascination with Marlowe began well before the mid- Sixties, however. In the students' guide to English literature which he wrote in 1957 under the name J Burgess Wilson, he speculated that, had Marlowe survived, he might have eclipsed even the Swan of Avon; and in 1940, as plain John Wilson, a student at Manchester University, he had sat up at nights typing a thesis on the playwright which the Luftwaffe's bombs would eventually burn to ashes.

In one obvious sense, then, A Dead Man in Deptford is the work of a lifetime - no opportunistic jumping on an anniversary bandwagon that is already filled to overbalancing, but the fruit of an imaginative involvement with another writer's work which has spanned more than half a century. Moreover, the facts and apocrypha of the Marlowe case echo Burgess's fictional pre-occupations so clearly that the novel, which feigns to be an account of Marlowe's career by a minor Elizabethan actor, amounts to a thickly textured reprise of Burgess's own favoured themes.

Most obviously, A Dead Man in Deptford succeeds his other novels about real and imaginary poets, from Shakespeare and Keats to Belli and F X Enderby. But other precedents come to mind: its espionage scenes, with Kit recruited by Sir Francis Walsingham to sniff around the Catholic enemy abroad, recall Tremor of Intent; its accounts of homosexual love with Thomas Walsingham (usually in discreet Latin: 'amplexus, complexus, and also surgere of this and that, and then injectus . . .') recall Earthly Powers; its horrific street violence even recalls the novel of which Burgess is most heartily sick, A Clockwork Orange.

Treason, sodomy, murder: all as useful for the novelist as for the playwright, both as crowd-catchers and as the occasion for grand rhetoric and poetry, or, at any rate, heightened prose. True, there are times when Burgess risks losing sympathy, with his passages of abstruse theology and the density of his style, which is not so much straight Elizabethan pastiche as a fresh linguistic stew with strong period seasoning, in which words such as 'irrumate' (from Catullus) and 'carets' (from The Jew of Malta) swirl around with Call My Bluff out-takes such as 'titubate', 'famble' and 'collops'.

Yet the tale is strong and Burgess's authorial relish renders even his recondite moments splendidly readable. Burgess has not always put such palpable flesh on the skeleton of his conceits, but A Dead Man in Deptford, like MF and Nothing Like the Sun, is proof that his most 'difficult' novels can be his most entertaining. As with those books, part of the entertainment comes from the novelist laying bare the devices of his fiction. Just as WS in Nothing Like the Sun watched the Avon's back-eddy 'spurgeoning' (a little joke about the Shakespearian critic Caroline Spurgeon), so A Dead Man in Deptford makes anachronistic allusions to Gerard Manley Hopkins, and its characters refer to Giordano Bruno as 'the Nolan', as the young James Joyce did.

Such knowing winks to the reader might be described as 'post-modernist', were it not that the dismal term implies something at once more trifling and less entertaining than Burgess offers here. A clue to his deeper intent comes on the last page: 'My own name you will find, if you care to look', the narrator says, 'in the folio of Black Will's plays, put out by his friends Heming and Condell in 1623. In the comedy of Much Ado About Nothing, by some inadvertancy, I enter with Leonato and others under my own identity and not, as it should be, the guise of Balthasar to sing to ladies that they sigh no more.' The name in question is Jacke (which is to say, John) Wilson, and this new book, one suspects, might well have been subtitled Little Wilson and Big Kit. At the very least, it is the best kind of literary compliment and casts as much glory on its author as on its dead recipient.