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 of which the rules are to love and take nothing seriously. The game is called the kingdom of God within you.
However, Azor’s main value is that he is an accomplished and fluent story-teller. Although he is supposed to be writing before the Gospels appeared, he is really blending them together in a continuous narrative, in the manner of the Diatessaron. He draws on both Matthew and Luke for the infancy narrative (and so getting in the Magi and the shepherds); on Luke alone for the story of Elizabeth and the birth of John the Baptist, for the Roman census, and for the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (here, a little unhappily, reduced to prose, though the parables are sung by Philip as ballads). Luke provides the teaching in the Temple, Matthew the reading from a scroll of Isaiah. And so on. Azor rejects the apocryphal stories of the childhood of Christ (making clay birds fly, etc.) but describes the early friendship of Jesus and his kinsman John, later the Baptist. His account of the relation between their mothers, Elizabeth and Mary, is an example of Burgess giving his old narrator a hand; in stressing the antithesis (Elizabeth too old for childbearing, Mary a virgin and too young) the ancient storyteller sounds a bit like a modern structural anthropologist. Incidentally, the marriage of Mary and Joseph is treated as a sort of marital adoption, the old man impotent as a result of a workshop accident.
When first-century Azor feels like providing a rationalizing explanation he does so; when he doesn’t, he doesn’t, and of course he relieves the author of certain awkward responsibilities in the process. The Temptation in the Wilderness is done fairly straight, with a rather Goldingesque aura; the devil is there, and so, I think, is the Milton of Paradise Regained, read by Burgess but not by Azor. A neat trick, and there are lots of others.
Azor ties some very clever knots. Herod Antipater, impotent in respect of normal sex, is unable to commit incest with his unlawful wife, but longs for her daughter Salome, whose dance provides him with an orgasm. But Salome is not just the dancer; one of the women who followed Jesus to Jerusalem has the same name, so Azor identifies that woman with the daughter of Herodias. Nicer still is the story of Barabbas whose full name (on sound textual evidence, though for obvious reasons the shorter form was preferred) seems to have been Jesus Bar-Abbas. Azor introduces us to his father Abbas, a leader of the Zealots, Jewish militants pledged to end Roman rule. We see him executed by Pilate for removing from the Temple a blasphemous icon of the emperor Tiberius.
Azor’s history is odd, for he must be thinking of Caligula and his attempt to set up his statue in the Temple; but that was in AD 40, and the date implied for this attempt of Tiberius is AD 14; Pilate didn’t become Procurator until AD 26, and anyway there were no Zealots, so far as is known, in AD 14. But it seems the story needed a tradition of zealotry in the Abbas family. Burgess, not Azor, had been thinking about the Gospel description of Barabbas as læstæs, usually translated as “thief” but more probably “terrorist” or “freedom fighter”; so the idea has got about that he might well have been a Zealot.
Azor now cuts through modern speculation about the possibility of Jesus also being a militant nationalist by giving him a chance to take over the Zealots. Not only does he refuse it, but he offends the Zealots by curing the centurion’s servant; thenceforth they are his enemies. But Burgess’s real trick is to exploit the coincidence that there are two Jesuses. Pilate, in this version, offers to free them both, but the Zealots in the crowd make sure that only their man is released. When Pilate washes his hands of the whole affair his subordinate, who is in the pay of the Temple priests, simply uses the death warrant already prepared for Jesus Barabbas, signed and lacking the patronym, for the other Jesus. Jesus Barabbas at once kills the converted centurion, and is crucified next day.
A great many fictional conjectures exist to explain the behavior of Judas, and Azor-Burgess has a new one. The intellectual young man who asks the question “Who is my neighbor?” and so gives rise to the parable of the Good Samaritan turns out, in this version, to be none other than Judas. As innocent as he is subtle, Judas wishes to save Jesus from the consequences of his insistence (which he regards as erroneous) that the Scriptures will be fulfilled by his capture and death in Jerusalem. He therefore confides in the priest Zerah, once a fellow student, who arranges for an arrest of Jesus that he pretends will be purely protective. The arrest takes place in the garden of Nicodemus at Gethsemane; Judas unlocks the door. His kiss is a kiss of farewell; Jesus is, he thinks, going to a safe place. But then they plant a bag of money on him. It is ingeniously done, by Zerah, Azor, Burgess.
The earnings of Mary Magdalene in her profession as prostitute go to the purchase of the precious ointment and the seamless robe. The mysterious youth who, in Mark 14:52, escapes by slipping naked from his tunic, is identified as John the Evangelist, a new and bad solution, I think, to this famous puzzle. More boldly, the first miracle, which is the turning of the water into wine at the Cana marriage, is here performed at Jesus’ own wedding. Azor holds heretically that the experience of sex and marriage must have been necessary to the manhood of Jesus; of course he gets rid of the wife quite soon. Meanwhile he economically uses in his narrative the only wedding we are told Jesus attended.
Finally one example out of many to show Azor’s amused interest in scholarly detail: the saying that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom is given in Greek with the key word spelled thus kam?lon. When the question arises whether Jesus said kamilon, rope or cable, or kamælon camel, he allows either choice. Nobody nowadays believes the word can have been kamilos, but they used to; Burgess lets Azor make a pleasant first-century scene out of a famous nineteenth-century conjecture.
The theology of the book seems simple enough—it is roughly the Augustinian “love and do as you please.” However, the Last Supper, given in a blend of the rival versions, with a Johannine discourse thrown in, insists a little more than it had to on the doctrine of the Real Presence. It is beautifully done, and quite undogmatic in the circumstances: Azor, in his ignorance, puts down the Protestants in advance. Throughout Burgess can have his cake and eat it; healings may be rationally explained, maybe not; miracles are miracles or Egyptian trickery; the world of the book is natural, yet it contains the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection.
I don’t mean, by saying so much of Burgess’s own trickery, to underplay the solid narrative virtues of his account. There is a lot of expert characterization and there are some well-imagined scenes, for instance in Herod’s Palace, and in the Sanhedrin. His Jesus is a convincingly powerful athlete, a plainspoken godman. His soldiery is convincingly licentious and obscene. His Jerusalem, dangerous in the crowded days of the feast, is strongly presented. The prose is always full of life and interest. It is hard to think that anybody else could have done this job so well.
Here is a part of Burgess’s treatment of the last hours of Judas:
…he ran wildly round the town in the small hours looking for an open rope shop but howled like a dog when he found he had no money in his purse, A little boy appeared in a doorway and crowed like a cock, flapping in wing fashion his little arms. Judas Iscariot ran from this, only to confront another prodigy in a lamplit alley, where a girl, encouraged by her parents very kindly, was vomiting up copiously writhing and talking worms. “I too can speak Greek,” cried Judas Iscariot, and he ran away. There was a street in which a toothless laughing old man sold crude pictures of him, Judas himself, writhing in a fire. Judas ran yelling from the old man, who laughed loudly. Then a young man came down another street selling coils of rope, calling: “Rope, rope, fine rope, best hemp, rope….”
Stanley Elkin, another ludic novelist, also offers a ludic God. His “triptych,” three linked tales, is an eschatological fantasia, including death, judgment, heaven, and hell, and ending with the end of everything. A liquor-store owner, a man of altogether exceptional virtue, is shot dead in a holdup. He goes to heaven, staying long enough to identify it as a theme park with Pearly Gates, Heavenly Choirs, harps, all the low-powered human fantasies, before he is dismissed to hell—“the ultimate inner city.”
Hell is a more potent dream, and Elkin is good at dreaming it:
Because it was the fate of the damned to run of course, not jog, run, their piss on fire and their shit molten, boiling sperm and their ovaries frying; what they were permitted of body sprinting at full throttle, wounded gallop, burning not fat—fat sizzled off in the first seconds, bubbled like bacon and disappeared, evaporate as steam, though the weight was still there, still with you, its frictive drag subversive as a tear in a kite—and not even muscle, which blazed like wick, but the organs themselves, the liver scorching and the heart and brains at flash point, combusting the chemistries, the irons and phosphates, the atoms and elements, conflagrating vitamin, essence, soul, yet somehow everything still within the limits if not of endurance then of existence. Damnation strictly physical, nothing personal….
God explains to poor Ellerbee why he had deserved hell: he broke the rules, said to his wife “Come on, sweetheart, you’re awfully g-ddamn hard on me,” honored his foster-parents, not the natural ones he didn’t know.
The fantasies grow wilder. Another man, smitten by God for interrupting a concert he was listening to, successfully enlists the mediation of Jesus, who does not get on with his Father, and gets to heaven, finding there a little boy killed by God because of his prowess in playing Suzuki violin and therefore wanted in heaven. During the final countdown to the end of time we have vignettes of the Holy Family, some hilarious, and a long address by God about his omniscience and his slip-ups. He explains why children suffer and how to do the latest disco steps; he admits he cares nothing for goodness, denies Free Will, and says the only thing he really cares about, and this explains everything, is a good story.
Elkin is writing, I suppose, in the tradition of Nathanael West, but he is certainly an original with his sour manic prose, his cult of outrage. He takes the dirty joke to new heights, out of a horrified sense that the world is a plot largely made up of interwoven dirty jokes. Profoundly vernacular, literary, welcoming the obscurest argot, the fanciest neologism, he is distinctively the exponent of a comic terror that matches many modern nightmares. It isn’t easy to grasp why the accuracy of this match has so far not won him wider recognition. And perhaps this is not the book to change the position; the targets seem somewhat too large and easy. But only on a cursory inspection; the fine print will stand a lot of attention from anybody who thinks he could get hooked on a taste so wild and bitter.
August 16, 1979