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Earthly Powers (2004)

Earthly Powers (2004)

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4.16 of 5 Votes: 2
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0099468646 (ISBN13: 9780099468646)
vintage classics

About book Earthly Powers (2004)

I'm unsure if I'll remember this as fondly in a few years as I do now. The second quarter of the book was extremely dull, and the narrative 'technique' is silly (bad novelist travels to a dozen or so countries in order to pick up royalties cheques through the twentieth century--necessary because there were such restrictions on currency movement). These two problems almost, almost destroy the book's excellent qualities. But then it more or less comes together. The narrator's friend, Carlo Campanati, is the intellectual center of the novel. He will be elected after Pius XII, as Pope Gregory, in place of the real world's John XXIII and Paul VI. He is, more or less, semi-Pelagian, obsessed with ecumenism, and insists on dragging the church into modernity; he's also charmingly human, stands against fascism and is an orphan. In the middle of the book, he asks the narrator to publish a book of ecumenism and semi-Pelagian theology under the narrator's name, and 'Earthly Powers' then becomes an extended meditation on freedom, predestination, grace and how much or how little human beings can contribute to their own salvation. All of which is enough for me, but those of you who don't revel in obscure theological controversies (or even fairly well known ones) might prefer to think about this through the narrator, Kenneth Toomey, and his sexuality: he insists that he didn't 'choose' to be gay. If he didn't choose his sexuality, however, that's ipso facto evidence against the freedom that his friend the Pope insists (against the traditional doctrines of the church) we possess. Toomey wanders through the twentieth century, generally doing things despite himself. So whereas Carlo/Gregory shows what's possible for a human being who (acts as if he) was entirely free, Toomey shows how life can equally well be understood as nothing more than one contingent event after another (e.g., he 'accidentally' saves Goebbels' life). At the center of all this is a miracle performed by Carlo/Gregory, and the question arises there, too: how much credit does he deserve? In addition to all this kind of thing Burgess piles on the laughs with groan-worthy puns, literary in-jokes (Toomey meets many of modernism's most important figures, despite being decidedly unmodernist), and occasional thoughts on the unreliability of memory and therefore of first person narrations... like that of Earthly Powers, which of course twists history in important ways to show something like the truth of the twentieth century. Burgess's prose is clever, sometimes excessively so, and sometimes pointlessly. But I'd far rather read that than yet more sub-Hemingwayan blandishments for the undemanding reader. For some reason, this stays with me: "He had a compassionate face: he would be compassionate while supervising human liquidation: this liquidates me more than it does you."

Just as Bela Lugosi will forever be known as Dracula, and Boris Karloff as Frankenstein's Monster, so Anthony Burgess will forever be known as the author of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. Alex casts a long shadow!Nevertheless, take this book on its own terms and read honestly, and you will find that by and large it stinks on its own merits. Burgess has a sense of humor and can talk entertainingly about literature, history, and religion. But that's about it. Emotionally this book is a galactic void. Toomey is a non-character with no real emotions, needs, values, aspirations, or even resentments. He's a homosexual before political correctness who regards his own sexual preference with disgust and dismisses all of his lovers with a sneer -- except one young doctor who dies conveniently before they can get it on. Mostly this book just drifts from one wisecrack to the next. To the extent that Burgess takes anything seriously he seems to be writing some sort of extended tribute to the Catholic church. But this is propaganda, not art. Burgess never once tackles the horrendous failures of the church, in the ancient world, the medieval world, or in modern times. He has no interest in the Crusades, the Inquisition, or the African slave trade. He pretends to be appalled by the crimes of the Nazis, but takes plenty of cheap shots at Jews in Hollywood, in the theater, in the literary world, and so on. He has nothing to say about Catholic anti-Semitism, or racism, or the church's twisted attitude towards sex or towards the female sex. He fudges the record on every occasion, showing his priest hero "defying" the Nazis when both the Church leadership and the vast majority of Catholics in Europe were either apathetic or openly sided with the Nazis. And needless to say, for all the hero's disgust with homosexuality, he never so much as hints at the existence of sexual deviants within the Church itself.EARTHLY POWERS is a big, sloppy book by a man who knows he's lying and knows he can get away with it. Because his friends are a lot more powerful than his enemies.

Do You like book Earthly Powers (2004)?

Can a man write as a woman? An adult as a child? Black as white? Or, as in this novel, straight as gay?Well, only partially successfully if this is anything to go by. But it doesn't matter.This is a tour de force. The account of 80 years of life, drawing heavily on the author's own, intersecting with the major events and some of the major characters of the twentieth century. The life of Kenneth M. Toomey. A man with a dicky heart - just one of the many jokes - a heart condition, and a heart that leads its owner away from societal and religious norms.Grubby religion is a major theme - good and evil, political and pragmatic.Just brilliant!
—Derek Bridge

In Paul Theroux's introduction to this novel he wrote that when Burgess set out to begin this novel he "promised a novel of 'Tolstoyan proportions.'" In Earthly Powers, Burgess may have fulfilled this promise.I will admit that there were times when I thought I wasn't going to finish this. It is not a novel for the faint of heart, and definitely not a quick or light read. It's pace is slow, but I have to admire that Burgess was able to maintain the same steady pace throughout the entire novel. The diction is incredible--you will probably need a dictionary at hand; and Burgess flouts his education with innumerable references to literary and philosophical works and those who created them, biblical allusions, and jokes presented in a variety of languages, including French, Latin, Italian, and German.Spanning continents, and many tumultuous decades of human history, including both World Wars, the story of the life of author Kenneth Toomey, and simultaneously the story of Carlo Campanati, a man who rises through the Catholic hierarchy to eventually become pope, is presented without frills. Burgess freely admits the fallibility of all of his characters while simultaneously underscoring the same issues discussed in other, more famous works of his: the presence of inherent evil in the human situation, the inherent imperfections of all political systems--be they Marxist or democratic, and the eternal struggle to identify with a God who allows evil deeds to continue through the humans he thought to create in His image. Tie all of these issues in with the juxtaposition of a homosexual main character and his familial relationship to the Pontiff, and a novel emerges which demonstrates, more than anything, a quality of tension.Even though I thought I might give it up, I'm glad I persevered and stuck with Kenneth Toomey to the end. Sometimes, in larger works, I am let down by the ending, no matter how good, because I feel that it's impossible to gracefully bring an end to such a tour de force. That being said, while this novel is famed for having one of the greatest opening lines of all time (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.) the last sentence also summarized the novel beautifully...but I'll let you find that out for yourself.

One of my top five my favourite books, Earthly Powers is, above all, a compelling bit of storytelling. A sprawling, multi-generational tale that follows the protagonist's life from teenager to octogenarian and includes a number of real people such as Churchill and James Joyce. It is essentially the 20th Century distilled through the eyes of its' protagonist—who is cynical, but a humanist at heart. It's the fictional autobiography of a gay, expatriate English novelist now living in Malta. It opens with the writer being visited by an arch-bishop who asks him to be a witness in the canonization process of a dead Pope, who was a long-time friend of the writer. Most of the book is a series of flashbacks consisting of the bulk of the writer's life. Using this architecture, Burgess comments on the nature of art: "All fiction is autobiographical and all autobiography is fiction". Utterly captivating: funny, moving and an intellectual feast.

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