Wednesday, June 09, 2010
Anthony Burgess’s Moses
I was pleased to pick this up, for next-to-nothing, in a second-hand bookstore. Hard to come by, never-reprinted, minor Burgessiana. But, my, what an eccentric performance it is! An 18-book epic poem on Moses’s life, written in more-or-less undisciplined, sprawly, four- or five-beat variable lines. This is what Burgess says in his foreword:
A few years ago I was commissioned, along with Vittorio Bonicelli and Gianfranco de Bosio, to provide the script for a television series on the birth, life and death of the prophet Moses. I found collaboration difficult and was forced to work entirely on my own, leaving emendation, addition and subtraction to be more or less improvised—by Bonicelli, de Bosio, who was the director, Vincenzo Labella, the producer, the actors Burt Lancaster and Anthony Quayle—while filming proceeded in Israel. The major aesthetic problem was a linguistic one, as it always is with historical or mythical subjects, and I found the only way out of the problem was to precede the assembly of a shooting script with a more or less literary production—this sort of epic poem you have now in your hands. To have written Moses first as a prose novel would have entailed the setting up of a somewhat cumbersome mechanism, in which the devices of ‘naturalism’ would have led me to an unwholesome prosaism both in dialogue and récit. Verse moves more quickly, and the rhythm of verse permits of a mode of speech midway between the mythical and the colloquial. Out of this homely epic I made my script, but the poem, such as it is, remains and is here for your reading.
It’s not entirely convincing, this, as a justification. Poetry, surely, doesn’t move ‘more quickly’; its compression, indeed, has the opposite effect; and writing verse surely doesn’t inoculate Burgess’s text against the debilitating ‘midway’ tone. In fact the poem itself swerves distractingly from the high-pompous King-Jacobean (‘I am come to deliver them out of the hands/Of the Egyptians, and to bring them out of that land/Unto a good land and a large’, 36) to the slackly discursive (‘One hundred and seventeen thousand/Five hundred and sixty-seven. That is the latest/Computation, your divine majesty’ 62) and the bathetically mundane (‘“Time to get up,” she said. “You have ruling to do.” 112). More, posterity has not been kind to some of Burgess’s handed-down-on-stone-tablet pronouncements (‘none of us will ever see a film of Beowulf,’ he ringingly declares at the end of his foreword).
At any rate, here’s the IMDB page for the resulting fillum. You can see what Piero Sbragia from Sao Paolo thought of it: ‘I’ve seen this movie just because of Burt Lancaster. The whole picture is bad. The direction, the cinematographer, the actors. The only exception besides Lancaster is the score by Ennio Morriconne.’ ‘Hansbearnl’ from the Netherlands agrees: ‘Worst Moses ever ... and the biggest question: where did the director get the story from?’ Well. Indeed.
Anyway, I read the poem, and it was an interesting experience. Some of it is pretty indigestible; but some works intriguingly, and rather well. Here’s book 6, ‘The Passover’, in which Burgess retells the familiar story with a slightly selfconsciously worked ‘dog’/‘bird’ thematic.
Moses in sunlight, with the whirring of Miriam’s doves
And the cry of children about him, sighed and spoke
Softly of the Angel of Death. “Who shall describe him?
Or her? Or it? Like a trained hound of the hunters
He has the scent in his nostrils. He follows the scent.
He will follow the scent of the firstborn.’ Miriam said:
‘You were told this?’ And Moses replied: ‘It is the
Last thing. The tenth figure of the dance.
Four days from now on the night of the
Fourteenth days of Nissan. The nose and teeth of the
Angel of Death will dart straight
For the firstborn. Whether Egyptian or Israelite—
It will be no matter to him of the
Separating out of the nations. Even the
Firstborn whelp of a bitch’s litter. The first
Hatchling of teh hen. He will go for the scent.’ 
Mo then explains the Passover ritual that will protect the Israelite firstborn; and the first Passover is described.
Then all suddenly listened.
But there was nothing to hear. ‘The silence,’ Aaron said,
‘Strikes like a new noise.’ Then Moses heard.
‘He is coming. God help them. He is coming. Now.’
Them, from afar, a scream, and another,
And soon the sound of wailing. They sat silent,
The meat grown cold on the table, listening.
Then the noise of a nearing wind at the door,
And the door shaking, but then the shaking ceased,
And the wind passed over. 
Which is fairly spooky, I suppose, in a cinematic-cliché sense. Meanwhile, ‘in the imperial palace’, Pharaoh’s ‘infant prince slept in his cradle, placed in the heart/Of a magical pentacle’. Magicians intone lengthy charms, but it won’t do him any good.
‘A geometry of lamentation’ is pretty good, and if the ‘passing over’ from pagan to Judaic divinity is a little heavily telegraphed, there’s actual emotional heft in Pharoah’s grief, I think.
Pharaoh looked down on his child, cradled in his arms,
Looked and looked and did not believe and looked
Incredulously toward his queen and all looked and
None was in any doubt as a bank of candles
Flickered as in the draft of a great wind,
And from Pharaoh went up the cry of an animal,
Filling the chamber, the palace, spilling into the night ...
The palace took up the cry and gongs and drums
Turned it to a geometry of lamentation,
While, like a thing of wood or metal, the king
Carried the child blindly, the mother following,
Choked in pain the gongs muffled, till they stood
Before a god of metal and Pharaoh whispered:
‘What do I do now? Beg you to comfort him
On his passage through the tunnels of the night?
Beseech you to remember that he is still
Of your divine flesh, and to restore him to the light
Where he is—needed? Or do I see you already
As very hollow, very weak, impotent, a sham?
Am, I born too early or too late? Does heaven
Remake itself? Has the dominion passed over
To that single God who was neither sun nor moon
But the light of both? But in your eyes there is nothing.
Your head is the head of a bird.’
Burgess is at his best in these sorts of, frankly novelistic, moments of quiet inwardness. He tends to fluff the larger, more epic set-pieces. The parting of the Red Sea, for instance, is pretty ropily handled: we do not share the Israelite ‘awe’ at ‘a wind that seemed, oh God, to be parting the waters/As a comb parts hair’  (that’s right: as a comb parts hair. Awesome!) Into the desert they wander. Moses goes up the mountain whilst his people dally orgaistically with the golden calf, and Burgess gets to unload his characteristically strong sexual revulsion (‘an obese matron, naked,/Pig-squealed, pleasured by a skeletal youth’, 117). Then, chastened and recipients of the law, the Israelites wander on, through a widescreen wilderness:
The wilderness of Paran. Wilderness
After wilderness, and now this wilderness.
Sand, rock, distant mountain. A copper sun
Riding a wilderness of bronze. 
Reading the whole was assisted by the pencil annotations of the previous owner. Beside Burgess’s self-penned author note at the back, s/he has written ‘pretentious trash’ and drawn two lines to cross out the text. Elsewhere s/he adds things like ‘contrived’, ‘?’ and ‘he would never artic with these words’ ... this is alongside a passage in which Burgess’s Moses artics thuswise: ‘This/punctilious observance, as you term it/somewhat grandiloquently, is of the very/essence of the law.’  Which is probably fair comment.
Here’s my typically cranky response:
I’m currently reading Woolf’s *The Common Reader*. In the brilliant essay, “The Lives of the Obscure,” Woolf dramatizes the act of reading the memoirs of the forgotten. She makes no claims to be recovering lost classics. Instead, she simply brings to life what is most alive in these wisely ignored books. Which would seem to me to be the only reason to write about literature that the author, the publishers, and time itself has thankfully relegated to high density storage.
Luther: which I have signally ... failed to do here, is it? I’ve always had the softest of soft spots for your Crank, you know.
Which is why you’re turning it now, Adam?
Well, no, but I don’t think that was your goal, so it’s unfair to weigh you on that scale. I mean, I’m glad to know that this book exists, even if you’ve also made me glad to know that no one really wants this book to exist.
I suppose my hackles are raised any time someone with your powerful, literary mind spends time with bad books. It’s one reason I left the academy: the idea of having to read bad books to write literary scholarship seemed like a harsh price to pay after the struggle to get the Ph.D. and (had it ever happened) get an academic position. I’m glad I can spend my time with my high school students reading and discussing and writing about literature that is powerful. And I wish more academic lit scholars fought for that privilege as well.
Again, just being cranky.
Thanks for the reminder just how uneven Burgess could be, but this is surely an outlier (and I’ve read more of him than most, but this is the first I’d heard of this). It was followed by one of his better efforts, the underappreciated ABBA ABBA (Pt I: Keats meets Belli, dies; Pt II: selected Englishings of the latter’s sonnets). For all his incapacity to poeticize (Byrne’s better by a lot but not by enough), he pegged it prosaically (eg Enderby) and was otherwise well served by his gifts for the English language; and then there’s himselfabulized (the 2vol autobiog), and he can even be worthwhile in failing large ambitions (Napoleon’s Symphony). But clearly not this time.
The book is worth picking up for no other reason than AB’s hilarious 3rd person author’s note at the back of the book.
’Powerful, literary mind’ is much too flatteringly put! Yes, of course I see your point. In fact, I’m sitting here sipping my coffee thinking about the implications of what you say.
I do find myself rather drawn to ‘bad’ literature, for want of a better phrase ... and, actually, that’s not it: life is too short to waste on actively bad literature. I am fascinated with a particular sort of aesthetic failure, one that procedes not from mere incompetence but from the over-reaching, or blindspot, or sheer verve of a talented writer. In part this is because I have the sense that precisely a low-level competence is stifling literary culture more generally: hundreds of thousands of books are published every year, and most of them are dully accomplished in their narrow way. I’d prefer something gnarlier, something less conventionally polished. I could go further, as I have done on occasion: competence is killing the novel, and what’s needed (what I try to do in my own writing) is take conventional well-made-novel forms and tones and mess about with them, fuck them up, shake them into messier, uglier, Picassoish shapes.
As for reading obscure books, titles left at the wayside by the onrushing Literary Juggernaut: yes, I love doing that. Some of these unconsidered trifles, when picked up, reveal themselves to be not so unconsidered.
Also, like nnyhav, I’ve read a lot of Burgess; and lots of his work is really good. I admire his shamelessness, his unembarassed productivity and the way he gamely had a go at almost every form of literary production. Earthly Powers is prevented from being a great book only by its ending; the Enderby books are patchy but often brilliant; I *loved* Napoleon Symphony, actually; and Clockwork Orange of course, and the two-vol Memoir, and I’ve a lot of time for M/F. What especially interests me about Burgess, I think—as with this Moses thing—is that what makes his exceptionally good is not easily separable from what makes him embarassing, or clumsy, or sometimes just bad.
”...that what makes him exceptionally good… “
It’s those pesky details again.
Matthew: “The book is worth picking up for no other reason than AB’s hilarious 3rd person author’s note at the back of the book.“
Yes! The selfsame ‘pretentious trash’ that annoyed my previous reader. It is splendid.