Man of Nazareth
Anthony Burgess has many of the traditional skills of the novelist and some others besides, one of them being a pleasant habit of introducing into his books puzzles that don’t strictly belong to the form itself but, once in, present difficult formal problems. The best example is the Lévi-Straussian armature of MF; it worked better than the Beethovenesque structure of Napoleon Symphony. His new novel is based on the scripts he wrote for the television production “Jesus of Nazareth,” which I haven’t seen. Perhaps one might have expected him to take a break from puzzle setting and solving in this book; it would be enough to flesh out the familiar narrative with characters, extra dialogue, local color, as many have done before him. And to be sure he does that; but much of the interest of this work lies nevertheless in the deft solving of problems most writers would not have allowed in.
Fictional lives of Christ and early Christians constitute a well-populated genre, have made a lot of money and even won the veneration of believers; but they have not much pleased professional critics. Lloyd C. Douglas’s The Robe came out in 1942 and sold a million and a half copies in two years, a performance so striking that Edmund Wilson thought he should take a look at it; he reported his opinion in a famous review called ” ‘You Can’t Do This to Me!’ Shrilled Celia.” After quoting the first page, Wilson wondered how anybody could get through 556 more in the same style, but, hunting about for reasons why seven million Americans appeared to have done so, he decided that they showed a certain moral sense in going for a nonsectarian book about a healer, at a time when healing was not the main business of mankind. Dullness and lack of literary quality even gave the book a sort of purity; its success said something for middle-American morality, though very little for middle-American taste.
Burgess lacks Douglas’s lacks, lacks that kind of purity, and will not have millions of readers. He is even guardedly sectarian, as befits a Lancashire Catholic, though he is also guardedly heretical. He has views on Jesus, and views on other views of Jesus. And as a puzzle-solver he takes an interest in the narrative problems created by defects of harmony in the canonical Gospels; in loose ends of their narrative that he can tie; in learned conjectures that can add spice to his, the latest version of the story. His first and most essential maneuver is to establish a narrator, Azor, a first-century storyteller expert in Greek, Latin, and Aramaic. (Linguistic jokes begin on the first page, when we are told, for instance, that Azor works for a crooked wine merchant named Akathartos.) The narrator, thoughtful but not learned, has Manichaean tendencies, describing crucifixion as an instance of “a great principle of wrong in the world”; he believes that Jesus was a great man, playing a beautiful game …