Art & Design Magazine

Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess

By Ianbertram @IanBertram

How’s this for an opening sentence?

It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.

There can’t be many so outrageously and self-consciously dramatic - Brighton Rock perhaps[FN1}? Even so it is a great book. I read it first on publication in 1980 but for some reason I don’t think I have touched it since. I recall enjoying it but no more. Now, on re-reading I think it is one of the greatest books I’ve read. Its warmth and compassion for human life in all its frailty shines through. William Sutcliffe, writing recently in the Independent says it told him “something about love, loyalty and friendship that I have never seen so poignantly expressed” and that’s my feeling too. The relationships between the protagonist Kenneth Toomey and his friends family and lovers over a period from the First World War to the mid-60s provide the peg for most of the great events of the 20th Century to be interwoven.

One thing is clear to me though – despite Toomey’s fairly flamboyant homosexuality this is not a ‘gay’ novel. It is about real people trying to make sense of big problems in a world that appears to be going mad around them -  problems like the nature of evil, spirituality, love, sex and death. I said big problems and I meant it, but these are still wrapped up in almost 650 beautifully written pages of entertainment.

I’m not going to provide a full review (look here for that or simply read the rather plodding Wikipedia article) I just think you should read it. If you’ve already read it, do so again – and again. It will stand it.

FN1: ‘Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him’.

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