Though he’s been busy at the fiction trade since 1956, Anthony Burgess first started to loom on American horizons with his Clockwork Orange (1962). I haven’t read any of the six novels that preceded that minor bombshell (only a couple have been published here), and list them here, mostly out of antiquarian piety. Time for a Tiger, The Enemy in the Blanket, Beds in the East, The Right to an Answer, The Doctor is Sick, and Devil of a State appeared at about one-year intervals from 1956 to 1961 without creating much of a stir. Perhaps stir would have been excessive; for even the Orange, which clearly broke through something, was just as clearly a flawed literary product. Its language was jazzy: in the tradition of sour Utopias, it was horrifyingly seedy and brutal. But it didn’t have much dimension for character, or rather a lot of the character was obviously mechanistic; and the over-all structure of the book left something to be desired in the way of clarity and point. Alex the droog as narrative agent posed some problems which were far from neatly solved, and in general one felt the presence of more raw energy than the author could gracefully control.
Now, in The Wanting Seed and Honey for the Bears, we have two more volumes by this supremely prolific writer—the former published here just a few months ago, the latter new: and from a critical point of view, they represent a very satisfactory sortingout of elements which made the Orange such a fixed performance. Most of the grand-Guignol gadgetry has gone into one book, most of the literary art into the other. Instead of two mediocre books, we have a pretty bad and a very good one. The gain is obvious.
Seed, to this reader’s taste, is a mechanically contrived and clumsy novel; its gimmick is the population explosion, and it relies on no other allurements—neither plot nor character nor style nor atmosphere. All the foreseeable grotesque horrors are here; the teeming rabbit-warren cities with contraceptive-dispensers at every street-corner. population police, castration-propaganda, a diet of plankton-cakes, mass murder, and mass homosexuality. After many trials, the featureless heroine bears twins, not only illegal but illegitimate; how heroic can you get? Her heterosexual but low-pressure spouse, persecuted like Edgar by his evil, ambisexual brother like Edmund, sees the smashup of the artificial society, and experiences a pseudo-religious fertility-revival movement which is allowed to trail off without getting anywhere. Having passed by novelistic contrivance through a mass-murder establishment, he returns to Brighton for a last-page reunion with his ever-loving. Since the reader has never really made the acquaintance of either one of these paper-dolls, it is possible to feel less than misty-eyed at their regrouping across a baby-carriage within which the twins—still illegitimate, but now apparently legal and in fact okay—coo and gurgle at the English Channel.
Honey for the Bears, on the other hand, is a novel for people. For one thing it isn’t science fiction. Its setting is still odd, maybe crazy—being contemporary Leningrad seen through a haze of linguistic inadequacy and conspiratorial enterprise, but without other gimmickry. Paul Hussey and his American wife Belinda, ostensible tourists, are transporting twenty dozen drilon dresses to Leningrad where they will be sold on the black market. Everything misfires. Belinda gets a curious rash, is hospitalized for psychological researches, disappears into Hospitalia. The dresses are mislaid, recovered, bandied about, hurried from hiding-place to hiding-place, and finally given away on the public streets. The Leningrad contact has been arrested, the Leningrad fuzz is wildly suspicious in a manner both inept and sinister. Meanwhile, back at the customs, the cement which is supposed to hold Paul’s denture in place has been confiscated as narcotics, and an entire little mock-epic is enacted having to do with a restless platelet containing four lower front teeth.
This is satiric comedy complicated with slapstick that is hard, fast, and funny; the conversations in the book are persistently inconclusive, incomprehensible, or off the point, the actions of the characters are incompetent and irrelevant. Solid surfaces give way without warning, levels tilt dangerously, landmarks shift, fatal falls are miraculously cushioned. Elevators and telephones never work, cabs can never be had or insist on taking one via immense irrelevant detours, servants are wholly unmanageable; in short, all the machinery of exasperation and comic misunderstanding clanks and bangs magnificently throughout the book. But in addition—and this is not everyday—Mr. Burgess has worked up a really high comic style. It is learned, it is vulgar, it is swiftly pictorial, it is dexterously psychological—above all it is mobile and figurative. For instance. Paul Hussey, among the capped tieless proletariat for the first time, feels out of place:
He wanted a taxi quickly, to escape to the decent normal luxurious world built, however ephemerally, by capitalist tourists (safe drinking round a table, laughing in conscious superiority to the natives outside). Ashamed as, he remembered, his father John Hussey had been ashamed when in work at a time of mass unemployment, he joined the taxi queue at a post marked with a large T. The queuers ate his shirt, tie, shoes, even the greasy raincoat over his arm. But, damn it, they had Yuri Gagarin and the Bolshoi and Kirov Ballets. They had Comrade Khrushchev’s sky-pie promises, they had the monopoly of truth, beauty and goodness. What more did they want?
They wanted his clothes and pigskin suitcases, that’s what they wanted [p. 53].
Or the port of Leningrad as the ship approaches it:
Chaika, chaika went the gulls, announcing that they were Russian gulls or chaiki. They screamed and wheeled, beaked hungry maws planing on the wind, their greed as whining under one regime as another. Buoys, tramp-steamers, launches, brown faces laughing up, teeth white and gold. And the gold breast of St. Isaac’s flashed like an old dull filling. Paul and Belinda leaned on the taffrail, squinting at that distant relic of Holy Russia [p. 43].
Or, on the same page, Belinda devouring a postcard like a potato crisp; or the splendid ruminant coinage “omnifutuant” which forms in Paul’s mind to describe his versatile dead friend Robert (p. 109); or the enchanting taxi driver on p. 81:
“Restoran,” Paul had ordered, and and the driver had at once suggested the Metropol, which, he indicated, making a crucifix of himself, lay on that arm of Sadovaya Ulitsa which was north of Nevsky Prospekt. He was a kind of Cockney Leningrader with an Old Bill moustache, the East End bazaar-whine in his voice. He was quick with his limbs, ready to mime everything, so that he illustrated “Metropol” with a swift montage of piano-playing, drumming, trumpeting, dancing, love-making,. eating, drinking, getting drunk, and all this without seeming to take his hands off the controls.
The book is full of goodies and gaudies for the onomatophile, no page without its delight; and this, no doubt, is a better reason for liking it than the social satire which, obviously, will make it popular. But a curious problem arises in all these books by Burgess, which elbows its way into the literary problem and the problem of novelistic construction and resolution. It’s simply the tired old matter of sex.
Honey ends with both the main characters deprived of their sex. Paul, told by his wife that he’s a dull and uninterested lover, and by his wife’s psychiatrist that he’s a homosexual who won’t recognize the fact, hangs in a void where he’s neither one thing nor the other. His wife, recognizing that she hates men and has done so since the bloom was rubbed off her by her own father, in Amherst, Mass., when she was just seven, is now ready to embark on a Lesbian career with Dr. Lazurkina. Paul has tried to assault Anna but failed—to her lazy, contemptuous amusement; he recalls homosexual experiences with Robert, but has no interest in renewing the experiment. In a ghastly parody of sex, he returns home with Opiskin’s burly son (or a criminal who may be masquerading as Opiskin’s son) masquerading as his wife. Humiliated in a thousand different ways during the action of the book, he is most deeply humiliated in his sex—by Alex, by Belinda, by Anna, by the androgynous doctor, by the Lesbian doctor, by policemen, stewards, chamber-maids, by the transvestite Opiskin. He is humiliated beyond protest, beyond explanation or excuse, beyond comprehension; he gives inner assent to his own humiliation. In the Seed, too, sex was chiefly an agency for humiliating people. Even when Tristram was reunited with his Beatrice-Joanna (the cute literary names are another thing I can’t stand about that book), one can’t forget that she didn’t really like him, and couldn’t bear him physically, when they first cohabited. And in Orange sex did not exist apart from rape and sadism, while love was out of the question altogether.
I’m not proposing that Anthony Burgess is a lesser novelist because he doesn’t take Coventry Patmore’s view of love and marriage. But in this brilliantly equipped and resourceful comic novelist, it does seem to me that some of the harmonies, which he needs, and tries to use, as resolutions, are unaccountably and inartistically sour. Burgess is an artist of violated landscapes and brutalized or defeated minds—of smudged, corrupted, and fouled existence; this qualifies his comedy sharply. His castrated middle-aged heroes—shamed and shaggy and prematurely senile—are kicked from jail to gutter and back again by sadistic, mindless, and potent young hooligans. The bears get Paul Hussey’s honey, and they get—even in the last act of being tricked by a plot (the plot)—his inner assent to their having her. Kafka, we’re told, giggled continuously as he wrote; Mr. Burgess may do likewise, and with good reason, for comic he is, diabolically comic. But the reader’s laughter will be tempered by the terrible sense that these jokes take place on the fringe of an indescribable and shameful act, the fall of valor in the soul. Funny book; and funny like a crutch—at the same time. Better see for yourself. It’s the one with a red star and valentine on the dust-jacket. Accept no substitutes.
January 23, 1964