From the Ridiculous to the Ridiculous

Napoleon Symphony

by Anthony Burgess
Knopf, 366 pp., $7.95

Anthony Burgess
Anthony Burgess; drawing by David Levine

In the fertility of his enterprise, his louche congenial knockabout confidence, Mr. Burgess may remind us of one of those Elizabethan professionals, like Nashe or Deloney, who tried their hands at practically every species of literary composition, always coming up with something readable and rewarding, but curiously unsettling too, as if their freewheeling methods cast a kind of doubt on the more accepted kinds of literary achievement. There is a sense in which The Unfortunate Traveller, for instance, deflates the artificial pretension of The Shepheardes Calender or Venus and Adonis so that we feel—not so much “Ah, here is life at last,” as “Why do Spenser and Shakespeare have to go to those lengths to get it into literature?” The effect is deceptive. Burgess, no less than Nashe, is an artificer in his own line, but he does not seem to take us so far from presentness and actuality as do in their various ways James Joyce or Scott Fitzgerald or Saul Bellow or Anthony Powell.

This is only partly a compliment. Such “real authors” (if one may rather uncivilly beg the question) as those I mention work the magic in two ways: by making contingency itself into form—thus removing us from its actual daily pressures—and by removing all traces of the workshop from our immediate gaze. Mr. Burgess, whenever we remeet him in a literary setting, seems to be standing knee-deep in the shavings of new methods, grimed with the metallic filings of bright ideas. A Clockwork Orange, for example, was a book which no one could take seriously for what was supposed to happen in it—its plot and “meaning” were the merest pretenses—but which contained a number of lively notions, as when his delinquents use Russian slang and become murderous on Mozart and Beethoven. In a work by Burgess nothing is connected necessarily or organically with anything else but is strung together with wires and pulleys as we go.

Thus we can discount at once the claim, hopefully supplied by the blurb, that what we have here is “a grand and loving tragicomic symphony to Napoleon Bonaparte.” The symphonic stuff—a novel in four movements and so on—is no more than bits of string, and it is one of the many endearing things about this author that he does not really bother us (and possibly irritate us) by pretending it is anything else. He is as enterprising as Nabokov, but his flair does not need pretension to keep it going: he is not an aesthete but a man of letters. Why should he have wanted to write about Napoleon? Probably because of the interesting technical challenge involved—an almost impossible challenge, but writers like Burgess and his predecessors are not worried about finicky matters of possibility provided they can keep a work-shop going and amuse themselves and their public.

Burgess is immensely well informed; he has read everything on the period,…

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