There are some novels that engrain themselves in people’s consciousness and then there are some that go on beyond that and become cult novels. A Clockwork Orange is a cult novel for most people I’ve met. They swear by it (even if they do not understand it) and claim to have to read it more than once (mainly because they did not understand it). However, for me Earthly Powers by Burgess is his strongest and sometimes most underestimated effort (at least when compared to A Clockwork Orange).
“Earthly Powers” was first published in 1980 and since then has been in reprint, almost every other decade or after a couple of years. The edition which I read is the one published by Europa Editions. The book revolves around two men and so to say around their ideologies and perceptions. At the same time, it is a broader work in terms of the art of writing and the expanse of the novel.
At the center of the book are two twentieth century men, who represent different kinds of power statuses. On one hand there is Kenneth Toomey, a past-his-prime gay author of mediocre and pulp fiction, who has outlived his contemporaries, who is now living his years at Malta. It is almost a self-exile but that is what he wants. On the other, there is Don Carlo Campanati, a man of God, a priest so to say, with an ambition greater than anything else and the thirst for power so strong. The core idea of the book is power and it is surrounded but obviously by betrayal, guilt, Hollywood, divorce, censorship, exorcism (lo and behold) and sometimes love thrown in for good measure. The aspect that struck me the most was that here is a gay writer whose life is going to soon cross paths with a man of God. That to me was also one of the most interesting elements of the book.
The writing cannot be doubted or touched since it is vintage Burgess. It is sharp in places where it has to be and subtle in the others. The idea of power and courage (sometimes) that comes across is so strong that as a reader I had to shut the book in most places and contemplate on what I had read. There are a lot of references in the book – modern and traditional that one can relate to and that integrate seamlessly.
Earthly Powers is a magnificent read. It is rich in its scope and the cities that it traverses through forms the perfect background for a novel of this magnitude. Earthly Powers is a fantastic read. I want to say more but I cannot otherwise it would be spoiling the book for you. You have to read it to find out.