“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 for England, narrowly escaping the mischance of booking passage on the Lusitania. David joins the British Army, Ludmila settles down in Abergavenny and learns Welsh. When the Easter Rising breaks out in Dublin in 1916, David is one of the soldiers sent to pacify the rebels. Later he serves in France, and is reported dead.

The report is erroneous. David survives, and in fairly short order he and Ludmila produce a family of three children, Beatrix, Reginald, and Daniel. Most of the novel deals with these three, and their diverse involvements with Harry Wolfson and his sister Zipporah. There are many changesof scene: Abergavenny, London, Petrograd in the first weeks of the Russian Revolution, France in the Great War, Italy during the Italian Campaign in World War II, Gibraltar, New York, Odessa, Leningrad, Spain during the civil war, Tel Aviv, and the new state of Israel.

There are also two heavy symbols: the gold nugget inherited by David Jones, and the sword Caledvwlch or Excalibur, said to be associated with Attila the Hun and now prized as a symbol of Welsh nationalism. The gold nugget is hardly worth its weight in the story. It is mostly a treasured nuisance, cause of strife between Reg and Beatrix, and in the end is chucked into a deep pond by the dimwitted but heart-wise brother Daniel. The sword is exhibited in Russia, at the Hermitage no less, and is stolen by a Russian defector at Reg’s behest, an episode of notable derring-do. The last days of the sword are dismal, and its end is such that no one but an extreme Welsh nationalist will mourn it. If the gold nugget symbolizes the nuisance of money, the sword mainly testifies to the lethal character of every political myth.

It is not clear how a community would manage without a myth, or whether or not Burgess would be content to see people living their lives without a story to enhance them. The novel contains a great deal of verbal whispering about fish, Belshazzar’s Feast, an imputed consanguinity between Wales and Russia, and the historically complex fate of being a Jew. Burgess is evidently content to brood upon the significance of such things, in the character of a linguist or a historian, but he gets sour when other people start taking them seriously or acting upon them.


The matter is complicated by Burgess’s narrative procedures. Sometimes he lets Harry Wolfson do all the work, telling the reader what he needs to know about Welsh nationalism, the nature of the sword Caledvwlch, how radiocarbon dating works and why it doesn’t work on metal, the difference between an epithalamion and a prothalamion, and the gist of Belshazzar’s Feast. Harry’s tone is that of an old duffer who’s been around, knows a thing or two, and is ready for a highbrow joke:

You will find this story in Giraldus Cambrensis, who got it from Christianus Piger, who got it from a document called Notitia Dignitatum. Or so I understand: I have little taste for light reading.

He is also good enough for throwaway social generalizations:

But I had to attend classes in moral and political philosophy as well and meet the bewildering mess of man’s trying to impose order on himself.

Sometimes Burgess takes over the narrative duty and becomes an omniscient narrative voice, as if he couldn’t rely on Harry for the precise nuances. “My readers will approve now of my activating the fast-forward button,” he says as an excuse for getting through World War II with indecent haste. I don’t mind his using the fast-forward button, but I think it is formally disgraceful that he should tell me what he’s doing. Omniscience becomes intrusive in later chapters, too. Describing a voyage to Odessa:

The Sea of Marmora had been choppy, but now they were to enter home waters ever calm and warm, the climate marxly mild and stalinly sunny, passing to port the wind-borne scents, though faint, of citrus fruits.

When they arrive at Odessa:

There was a battleship in the harbour and a commercial transport being laded with what looked like old iron. The Duchess of Bedford seemed loath to have her skirt defiled by a proletarian port; she was, with fidgets, forced to the quay-side.

Whose are the ideological sentiments here? They can’t be Harry’s; he’s not in Odessa. Just possibly, he could have heard about the port from Reg, but Reg wouldn’t have described the arrival in these loaded terms. The first sign that we are beset with omniscient narration is that the prose discloses unusual knowledge of music, undue fascination with the foreign languages, and a determination to quote them. The second sign is that the narration absorbs whatever character is in its vicinity. Ludmila’s arrival in Petrograd is apparently described through her eyes, but in a metaphor that would not have occurred to her:

There was thin snow under a late winter sun, and there were people muffled against the cold tramping round in it, weaving brief codas of smoky breath.

Those codas are Burgess’s, not poor Ludmila’s. Reg, too, although he isnot unlettered, is hardly likely to be able to quote from Four Quartets and report that Eliot stole a passage—“The whole earth is our hospital, endowed by the ruined millionaire”—from a Bach cantata, Die ganze Welt ist ein Krankenhaus. Maybe Dr. Lewis, the local doctor in Abergavenny, would talk in the pub about justifying “tuberculosis because it produced Keats’s last poems and syphilis because it bred the Ninth Symphony,” but I doubt it. In the war scenes, the narrative is usually restricted to words the soldiers might have used if they were reporting the action, but there are many sentences in which Burgess puts aside the restriction and writes from his own larger store:

The First Battalion of the Royal Lancasters was to be held in reserve, the spear of the main attack being in the fists of the Irish and Scots Guards. Dan Jones heard them crunching up the railway line under cloud, frogs croaking and dogfoxes holding colloquies over a distance; then the moon came out big and full and the Jerries started.

Whatever Dan heard, he did not hear the dogfoxes as holding colloquies.

Burgess has always liked a fancy style, or at least to have such a style close by. In Any Old Iron he doesn’t need to invent a special argot, as in A Clockwork Orange with its droogs, goloss, rassoodocks, chellovecks, and other veshches well viddied. The normal style in Any Old Iron is middle-range speech, reduced to military expletives and the usual fighting man’s obscenity when occasion offers. But Burgess goes fancy when he wants to. Ludmila doesn’t wash her eyes, she laves them. The Hallé Orchestra “toured and discoursed beauty in northern town halls,” a truck failing “coughed itself to sleep.” When Zipporah arrived at Cranford Lodge, “it was a wet day and the greenery lisped in the wet wind.” When soldiers at sea vomited, they “gargoyled into the foamy green.” Of Beatrix: “Her pubic mane was rich gold leaf.” Leaves on a chestnut tree “shushed at the window.” A train engine came to a stop “and sighed out its steam.”


I assume that these opulent phrasings are Burgess’s way of keeping himself free from the mess he describes. The intricacies of a language, or of several languages, have always provided him with pastoral consolation; at least there, if nowhere else, one may find peace and stimulation. Elsewhere and pervasively in Any Old Iron, the tone is world-weary, dismissive, the irony ready even to shrug itself off. “Merlin’s long gone under and there’s no magic anymore,” Reg tells Dan near the end of the novel, when it has become impossible to think of Malory and Morte d’Arthur. The sentiment provides a motto for the entire book. Burgess sounds like Dryden at the end of the seventeenth century. Thy wars brought nothing about. Thy lovers were all untrue. ‘Tis time an old age were out. The implication of Any Old Iron is that nothing has been achieved. The Great War and the Peace of Versailles made the Second World War inevitable. The Russian Revolution led to Stalin. Versailles led to Hitler and the Holocaust. The Spanish Civil War was a mess. The world is divided between Russia and America, six of one and half-a-dozen of the other. The Jews who survived got to Israel; but look at the Middle East now. Harry’s father was working as an engineer in Palestine in 1928, “when the failed Schofin Letsipren project was initiated: this was to be a triumph of metallic tension, the thinnest building in the world”:

I remember in 1929 the eruption of the riot over the Wailing Wall, and, young as I was, realising that the future lay in terrorism…. Destruction, best expressed in this age in which I write as terrorism, is truly there for its own sake, but the pretence of religious or secular patriotism converts the destructive into the speciously creative.

Harry should know, because he learned in the British Army during the Second World War the skills he has practiced for the Israelis after the war, not only in the Middle East but in London. He shows no particular misgivings about training young Israeli men and women to kill their enemies. Tired of fighting now, he seems fairly content with the prospect of being a teacher of philosophy. Beatrix is in Manchester, but Harry does not expect any joy from her. Reg and Zipporah and their new child are to live in a kibbutz nearCaesarea. At the end, about to leave Israel, Harry ascribes to Reg a desire he might justly ascribe to himself: “not to have been reserved for the life of this century.”

If the Burgess of Any Old Iron finds peace only in his extravagant sentences, what corresponds to that peace at large is the plenitude of the natural world—landscapes, horizons, clouds, the smell of oranges:

The Roman ruins we stumbled through told us all about injustice that could never be avenged. The citrus fruits outlived them as they would outlive the law of Moses.

If what I hear from environmentalists is true, citrus fruits are just as vulnerable as the law of Moses or Harry Wolfson’s philosophy. Not that Harry takes his pastoral gestures very seriously. In an early conversation with Reg, he mentions La Nausée, describing it as a novel “about a man who is appalled by the fecundity of a chestnut tree. All that excess, that teeming ghastly life contradicting the human desire for refrigerated simplicity.” Harry claims to see Roquentin’s point. So, it appears from Any Old Iron, does Burgess: he is determined not to be appeased. In the beginning, if there is natural plenty, he enjoys it and is willing to see it spread by the force of analogy into personal and social life. But in the end he calls it surfeit, and longs to be rid of it.

This Issue

March 30, 1989