Any Old Iron
by Anthony Burgess
Random House, 360 pp., $19.95
“If this were a novel and not a record of historical fact…,” we read on page 223 of Any Old Iron. But it is a novel, and while it alludes to many historical facts it is not a “historical novel.” It refers to many historical figures major and minor, including Chaim Weizmann, Churchill, Eden, Stalin, A. J. Cronin, and an unnamed “arithmetic teacher with a Spanish name,” whom Irish readers will recognize as Eamon de Valera. But the main concentration of the book is on the invented lives, not the real ones to which Burgess refers in passing. The background of the book, and sometimes the foreground, include wars and other nightmares that occurred in Europe and the Middle East between, roughly, 1910 and 1950, but these are included for their impingement on the fictive characters, not on the real ones. In this respect, Any Old Iron differs notably from Burgess’s The Kingdom of the Wicked, a historical novel in which he deals with the emergence of Christianity from a setting that gave no sign of harboring such a thing. His concern in that book was to imagine how Christianity came to occur, as a momentous social event, rather than to concentrate upon the people caught up in it.
Any Old Iron is crowded with incidents, so I’m not giving much away by referring to the initiating ones. The narrator, we are told off-handedly on page sixty, is Harry Wolfson, son of a Manchester Jew who was a Reader in biochemistry at Manchester University. Harry has been a student of philosophy at the same university, and when the novel ends he is getting ready to go back there to teach. While the book lasts, he sees much and suffers many disappointments, but he is a survivor, as narrators tend to be. On the first page, without yet disclosing his name, he describes himself as “a retired terrorist and teacher of philosophy.” How he got to be a terrorist is part of the story; how he found himself in philosophy is an incidental motif.
But the main story involves Harry’s friend Reg Jones and Reg’s sister Beatrix, with whom Harry has been unsuccessfully in love; unsuccessfully in the sense that she slept with him but, in the end, marries a dissolute American soldier who is trying to write a novel. Going back a bit, we are asked to believe that Reg’s father, David Jones, ran away to sea, turned himself into a cook on board, and may have served with a dour Pole named Korzeniowski who wrote novels under the name Joseph Conrad. After further adventures, David joined the crew of the Titanic, but was rescued when it sank, got to New York, and married Ludmila Petrovna, daughter of Piotr Likhutin, owner of the Nevsky Prospect restaurant in Flatbush. David inherits, from his father in Wales, 324 sovereigns and a gold nugget weighing thirty-eight pounds. In May 1915 he and Ludmila sell the restaurant and sail …