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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Earthly Powers

Anthony Burgess

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To purchase Earthly Powers

Title: Earthly Powers
Author: Anthony Burgess
Genre: Novel
Written: 1980
Length: 653 pages
Availability: Earthly Powers - US
Earthly Powers - UK
Earthly Powers - Canada
Les puissances des ténèbres - France
Der Fürst der Phantome - Deutschland
Gli strumenti delle tenebre - Italia

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Our Assessment:

B+ : darkly comic and impressive, though trying a bit too hard to be heavyweight

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Atlantic Monthly A 2/1981 Phoebe-Lou Adams
London Rev. of Books . 16/10/1980 D.J. Enright
National Review B- 12/6/1981 Mitchell S. Ross
The New Republic . 3/1/1981 Robert Towers
The NY Rev. of Books . 22/1/1991 Nigel Dennis
The NY Times . 30/6/1981 John Leonard
The NY Times Book Rev. . 7/12/1980 Martin Amis
Sunday Times . 12/10/1980 Bernard Levin
Time . 15/12/1980 R.Z.Sheppard
The Times A 20/10/1980 Michael Ratcliffe
The Washington Post . 23/11/1980 Robertson Davies

  Review Consensus:

  Some impressed by the sweep and ambition, others find it, to varying degrees, too much; generally impressed by the writing

  From the Reviews:
  • "All this sounds heavily clerical, but the story that emerges is nothing of the sort. It is more like an acid history of the twentieth century. It involves mischievous sketches of the literary great, all of whom Toomey has known; satirical summaries of the art fads of the time, all of which Toomey has endured; parodies of musical comedy lyrics, inane movie plots, and erotic purple prose, all of which Toomey has committed" - Phoebe-Lou Adams, The Atlantic Monthly

  • "Since complaints will follow -- grave matters incur grave complaint -- let me say at the outset that Earthly Powers carries greater intellectual substance, more power and grim humour, more knowledge, than ten average novels put together. (...) Earthly Powers is theological and linguistic in equal proportions, quite properly. Less properly, it is too heavily both, in the sense that one can have too much of a good thing. (....) There is a sickening, suffocating weight to this book. So, one is meant to be sickened and suffocated. At all events, it is egregiously difficult to say where the author has stepped over the line, because it is hard to know where to draw the line." - D.J. Enright, London Review of Books

  • "The thing turns out to be a sort of gay Garp, which suggests many interesting lines of analysis, none of which I shall pursue. (...) Why, then, for all its flaws, is this novel worth reading ? Because of the high quality of the writing, primarily. Burgess puts the English language to work. In a day when the neurasthenic novels of Joan Didion and Elizabeth Hardwick win praise for their stylistic distinction, this is an uncommon and admirable thing." - Mitchell S. Ross, National Review

  • "Tolstoyan or Luciferian ? That is the question with which the reviewer of Earthly Powers must wrestle. (...) The decades flash by almost as fast as the countries, marked by snatches of popular song and detailed accounts of whatever the chic Hortense is wearing when she makes one of her appearances. (...) So crammed is Earthly Powers with events and plot-turning that a mere catalogue of them would run to many pages. (...) Some of this is entertaining, but there are disadvantages to the method. The namedropping is incessant and finally, as in real life, a bore. Too often the dialogue becomes portentous, weighed down by the necessity of speaking for history (.....) Is Earthly Powers to be read as a covertly reactionary attack upon the whole Johannine revolution, as vengeance for the abandonment of the Latin mass, as a reassertion of St. Augustine's defeat of the heretic Pelagius ? That would be to take the whole performance with undue gravity. Sensationalism -- not moral or religious profundity -- is what Burgess has to offer. (...) To give the devilish author his due, a good deal of entertainment is to be found in Earthly Powers." - Robert Towers, The New Republic

  • "This is a most difficult novel to review, not because it is a quarter of a million words long and a good deal shorter in quality, but because it is confusing in its intentions. (...) (I)t seems equally likely that the struggle between evil and muscular Christianity is what the book’s about (...) Mr. Burgess’s problem has been to accommodate his material. The changing backgrounds of eighty years he manages very well, drawing on snatches of period songs and describing women’s fashions with remarkable completeness (...) (B)rute force is really the only prime mover with which Mr. Burgess is at home. His approach to his subjects and his readers is brutishly dictatorial: the neatness and cleverness with which he handles words and constructs sentences would be pretty to see if an infinitely boorish spirit were not to be felt behind them. (...) Of his limitations as a novelist, Burgess lives in perfect ignorance: it is plain to see that his forte is the short, scabrous incident and, above all, mimicry and the comic aspects of conversation; but pomposity drives him into long dissertations which he seems to defy the reader to dismiss as worthless." - Nigel Dennis, The New York Review of Books

  • "The usual Burgess obsessions are to be found in Earthly Powers. They include food, music, linguistics, Joyce, Dante, Shakespeare, the Far East and the Mediterranean and movies. New to me are his preoccupations with mint, dentistry, cigarette lighters and the adjectives "venerean" and "prolettic." All are deployed in the service of a meditation on the nature of evil. Does this sound daunting ? I hope not. Mr. Burgess plays. (...) Mr. Burgess is prodigal. He intends to woo us on behalf of the traditional novel, while making fun of the traditional novelist and at the same time sending up the postmodernism which junks coherence and guilt, which would make of empirical reality a dull linoleum. He has written an entertainment about God, after the laughter stops." - John Leonard, The New York Times

  • "Even at 600 pages, however, the book feels crowded, crammed, bursting with manic erudition, garlicky puns, omnilingual jokes. (...) Toomey acts as a lightning rod for the evil energies of the 20th century. (...) What affirmation is possible in Toomey's grimly determinist world ? Mr. Burgess sees artistic creation as man's only god-like act, which is appropriate in a book whose twin themes are art and evil. (...) It is a considerable achievement, spacious and intricate in design, wonderfully sustained in its execution, and full of a weary generosity for the errant world it re-creates." - Martin Amis, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Earthly Powers is unusually long; a third of a million words, perhaps. Next, it is by no means too long; though not everything in it is wholly successful, it would be the poorer for pruning anywhere. More important, it is meat, not slops; the enormous imagination and vitality are applied to themes that concern all of us. And the meat is strong; he has written a book about evil, which he is firmly convinced exists, and about free will, on which he has terrible doubts. (...) And you will also certainly agree, if you read this book, that it is written not only in uncompromising philosophical terms, but in a style of rich and varied gusto shot through with laughter (some of it reads like a George Steiner with a sense of humour), transfixing the attention without a paragraph's pause. (...) I have rarely known an author so courageously willing to leave his readers to make up their own minds. (...) (A)n achievement which any living writer would be proud of, and no dead one ashamed. In every sense of the phrase, a huge book." - Bernard Levin, Sunday Times

  • "The book is a high entertainment. It is, at 600 pages, also long enough to display Burgess at his best and second best: the penetrating dramatist of culture clash and the clever animater of received wisdom. (...) Mostly, Toomey observes from the side lines. He is supported by an endless gusher of royalties and protected by his international reputation. Sadly, ironically, he watches as Western civilization slides into barbarism and banality. (...) Ideas about good and evil, the spirit and the flesh, are regularly set forth. But Earthly Powers is no Magic Mountain. Having to cover much ground quickly, Burgess shaves his peaks" - R.Z.Sheppard, Time

  • "The book is ruthlessly well organized -- there is no point at which the reader feels he is not getting on with it and no incident or character not in place by design -- and highly entertaining. (...) In the welltempered garden of contemporary English fiction, Earthly Powers is a hellfire tract thrown down by a novelist at the peak of his powers who cannot forbear to invent, divert, embellish and dazzle us the entire length of the way." - Michael Ratcliffe, The Times

  • "In his latest novel the powers of Anthony Burgess seem to be stretched to their uttermost extent, but with this constantly astonishing writer we can never be quite sure. (...) Why does God pick on Toomey in this way, Toomey wants to know, and as he cannot escape God, he is driven to live in defiance of God, which is an uncomfortable position for anyone but an obstreperous atheist. These problems are explored brilliantly, and the incidental discussions are deeply interesting. (...) There is too much historical realism to be absorbed by the romance. For that is what Anthony Burgess' novels are -- romances. They are too large in scope and ornate in workmanship to fit the somewhat pallid definition of the novel. (...) Let it be repeated, this is a very serious book by a man disillusioned and disgusted by the despoiling of his Church." - Robertson Davies, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Earthly Powers is narrated by Kenneth Marchal Toomey. It begins in 1971, on the afternoon of his eighty-first birthday, but, after a present-day account that is at first leisurely before then taking on some urgency, Toomey vaults back in time, with the novel then presented basically as memoir, a chronicle of his life -- that of a successful writer -- from early days, looping back to the starting point (and then moving slightly on from there).
       Before he makes the leap, Toomey already has occasion to wonder:

But the real question for me was: how far could I claim true knowledge of the factuality of my own past, as opposed to pointing to an artistic enhancing of it, meaning a crafty falsification ? In two ways my memory was not to be trusted: I was an old man, I was a writer.
       Burgess, too, blurs these lines -- suggesting a 'factuality' to the account by having Toomey frequently interact with well-known literary and other figures (with cameos by, among others, Mussolini and Goebbels), even as we know that it is entirely a fiction. Toomey (and Burgess) grapple with this issue -- of fact and fiction -- throughout the novel -- most amusingly when Toomey (re)turns to a novel in progress:
I went to my study and, sighing, numbered a new sheet of foolscap (140), recalled some of my characters from their brief sleep and set them talking. They started talking, to my surprise, about the novel which contained them, rather like one of those cartoon films in which anthropomorphic animals get out of the frame and start abusing their creator.
     'A novelist friend of mine,' Diana Cartwright said, 'affirmed that a satisfactory novel should be a selfevident sham to which the reader could regulate at will the degree of his credulity.'
       [The 'novelist friend' would be Flann O'Brien; the unattributed quote is from At Swim-Two-Birds.]
       Much earlier -- but when he was already a well-established and successful writer --, Toomey already argued:
I can't accept that a work of fiction should be either immoral or moral. It should merely show the world as it is and have no moral bias.
       Whether the fiction here has no moral bias can be debated, but certainly the underlying reality, 'the world as it is' here, is one where immorality figures prominently. In chronicling much of the worst of the twentieth century, with quite a few fictional examples added for good measure, Burgess confronts protagonist and reader alike with a great deal that is immoral, from natural horrors -- notably of disease and suffering -- to the violence perpetrated by man on man. Typically, however, at least in the grander schemes of things, Toomey is bystander or at best inadvertent actor; so for example, incidentally, when Toomey leaves the United States for Germany he mentions: "I'm booked on the Hindenburg. From Lakehurst, New Jersey" -- and he does cross the Atlantic on it, without incident (and maintains, on his arrival in Germany: "I can thoroughly recommend the Hindenburg. It is the only way to fly"). (A rare semi-exception, where Toomey actually plays a role in changing history (or rather, keeping it on (its awful) track), comes when he -- albeit still mostly in an incidental role -- impulsively acts and saves the life of Heinrich Himmler.)
       On a personal level, Toomey and the course of his life are in no small part determined by a fundamental moral dilemma he faces: Born a Roman Catholic, he's also a dyed-in-the-wool homosexual -- as is made clear in the novel's opening sentence, which finds the then-octogenarian: "in bed with my catamite". From early on, he recognizes -- or rather, it's repeatedly explained to him -- that this practice is irreconcilable with what the Church demands. He doesn't understand why his sexual activity -- and he insists on activity; chastity, too, is largely out of the question ("I need the release and comfort of the flesh") -- can't fit within the Church belief-system, but there's no question that they won't have it. (With the official position -- certainly still in the early part of the twentieth century -- then still being that sexual congress is acceptable only with procreative intent, many more followers were of course also running afoul of the official doctrinal line, but in the case of heterosexual activity it was apparently much easier to fudge the issue.)
       Toomey is disappointed that the Church has no place for him, and doesn't really understand it, but if the choice is between living up to Church expectations and demands -- i.e., at the very least, embracing abstinence -- or simply living it up, Toomey opts for indulging in his sinful desires. It's not that sex is first and foremost in his mind -- he can manage without, if he has to (as does, at some points) -- but what fuss there is about it seems to him to be largely misplaced. And there is quite a good deal of fuss, from the barrier that is Church's strict prohibition of the act to more general societal disapproval; it gets him near if not entirely in hot water repeatedly.
       As he sums up (and another character echoes later):
     "Sex," I said, "can be a damned nuisance. As I know. As I shall continue to know.
       (Toomey isn't the only to find sex, in one way or another, a nuisance, as the book offers basically no examples of a satisfactorily sex-enjoying conventional-traditional (i.e. also heterosexual) couple, down to the parents Toomey and Campanati, while even something as would-be straightforward as paternity turns out be anything but. (With a towering God-as-father figure looming over the story, the concept of paternity is one of the side-issues Burgess deals with, in somewhat curious manner -- going so far as to have Toomey insist: "Paternity is a fiction".) Pretty much all the sexual couplings, incidental or (slightly more) long-lasting, homo- as well as heterosexual also have a rather unpleasant aggressive edge to them; meanwhile, the one true love Toomey describes, in Malaya, is one in which Toomey, at least in his description of it, leaves sex entirely out of it)
       For all the tension that it brings to the book, Toomey's homosexuality is only one of the issues -- with part of the flipside, the question of faith and belief, ultimately the one that is more prominently featured and involved. To address it head-on, Burgess deviates considerably more from the historical record in the second major figure in the novel, Carlo Campanati, having him become nothing less than Pope -- here, Gregory XVII.
       (Almost everywhere else, Burgess at best fiddles with the historical record -- as, for example, in imagining an Austrian novelist whom Toomey admires greatly: "The reader will at least know of Jakob Strehler", Toomey confidently notes, "since he was in 1935 awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature", Burgess neatly slotting the figure in in a year the prize was not awarded. (Though Toomey truly admires the works of Strehler, the mention also works nicely as a little dig at the present-day obscurity of so many previous Nobel laureates, repeatedly rubbed in as Toomey continues to find, pretty much wherever he goes: "Nobody seemed to have heard of him".))
       Carlo Campanati already comes up at the very start of the novel, as octogenarian Toomey is visited by the local Archbishop at his Malta home, His Grace is looking for Toomey to offer a kind of affidavit, testifying to a miracle he witnessed Carlo performing decades earlier, as the Church is pushing the (at that point already deceased) Pope for canonization. (In the Catholic Church, sainthood is open only to those who have demonstrably performed a miracle. (Actually, apparently sainthood requires at least two: one during the candidate's lifetime, allowing for beatification, and then one after death (yes, after death), which allows for canonization.)) The miracle itself is only described considerably later in the novel -- as indeed Carlo only becomes a more significant figure well into story -- but Burgess plants his seeds early; there is a design to the novel, and while Burgess can be slow in the placing of them, the pieces will eventually fall into neat place.
       Initially, Toomey is closer to one of Carlo's brothers, the composer Domenico, who (soon) goes on to marry Toomey's sister, the very young Hortense. Yet from the first, Carlo is also in the picture -- Carlo and Domenico first encounter Toomey together, and even as Carlo is often busy with various Church duties, he repeatedly crops up where Toomey is, including as far away as Malaya and the United States.
       The area of expertise in which Carlo first makes a name for himself is exorcism; as Toomey notes:
He never had any doubt about the externality of evil, and this is what made him so formidable. Man was God's creation, and therefore perfect. The devil got in in the Garden of Eden and taught man how to be evil, and he was still doing it. Why didn't God annihilate the devil, then, and all his works ? Because of free will.
       Carlo is not just secure but completely certain in his philosophy (i.e. the Church's dogma), allowing him, to a certain extent, to shrug off the horrors of the century (and of daily life). It's not that he isn't moved -- to the core -- by the misery of many, and he tries his best to do what he can to help (with the tools at his disposal -- which includes both verbal and physical dressings-down), but he accepts the world as God-given and refuses to challenge His authority. So also, he believes: "Everyone has a right to be born. No one has a right to live". And he accepts:
There are many things that people say are terrible. They are mostly things decreed by the laws of nature, which are God's laws, or by the laws of the Church, which are also God's.
       It's a pretty blinkered way of looking at things, but also offers a clear course, and Carlo comfortably stays on it, undeviating. Hortense has the measure of the ideologically unyielding man -- "He means harm" -- but it also serves him well on his path to the papacy.
       And it's not like Carlo doesn't want to effect change, at least of the institutional sort. To this end, he even writes a tract, a blueprint for The True Reformation -- and has Toomey publish it under his name, so that it isn't too obviously an insider-job. (It's an unlikely work of non-fiction to come from the pen of the by then very popular author, but the ruse seems to have worked reasonably well.) (The older Campanati brother, Raffaele, had previously asked Toomey to publish something on his behalf, in his own crusade against evil, and Toomey had not done so; no doubt his guilt as to Raffaele's grim fate made him more amenable to helping out Carlo.)
       Carlo's rise in the Church hierarchy affords him various platforms where he can make his philosophy clear, and Toomey presents a great deal of this, especially once Carlo has risen to the highest ranks, but beginning already when he was just a lowly Monsignor -- but already an important figure in, for example, the Vatican's 1929 deal with Mussolini, the Lateran Treaty, as he also takes part in the signing ceremony (and makes his own feelings crystal clear to Benito). Throughout, Carlo sees the need for reform -- his view also expansive, encompassing all of Christianity, not just the Catholic branch. But he certainly has his own ideas about (the) religion, a curious mix of elitism and populism, expecting blind obedience from the flock on the one hand (to his particular vision of faith) but also, in many ways, more open and receptive to more than the Church has historically been (though not extending, for example, to the error of Toomey's carnal ways). So also, for example, he opines:
Of course, the scriptures should never be entrusted to the laity. That's how all the trouble began, letting untrained minds feed on the Bible.
       The dangers of blind obedience are, however, made clear, in the example of a cult which Toomey's grand-niece gets caught up in -- religion gone completely wrong, under a strong personality.
       At times, Toomey comes across almost as some sort of bad-luck charm, everything that he touches, or brushes by, going dreadfully wrong. He means well -- as in paying for his nephew's wife to go along to Africa with her husband -- only for catastrophe to result. While his own life goes reasonably smoothly, he does have quite a knack for getting himself in awkward situations; still, even as the (many) hiccups are annoying (and sometimes rather embarrassing), he's quite philosophical about them, and manages well enough. Many of mishaps tend towards the comic -- so, for example, when he takes in Jakob Strehler's very wayward son, sent abroad to escape the Nazis. His choice of personal assistants/secretaries also doesn't help matters -- the emphasis on the 'personal' rather complicating the professional side; unsurprisingly, he gets robbed blind repeatedly.
       A bit disappointingly, Burgess only gives so much sense of Toomey's own creative writing. Toomey's early career, which includes several successful stage-works, is what we learn most about, while it's hard to really get a sense of his apparently popular novels. Burgess does quote -- several times at considerable length -- from a variety of work, but much of it is not Toomey's; among the longest is a full chapter-excerpt from a work about Carlo, attributed to a Howard Tucker ("I have his permission to reproduce the following chapter. A fee has been agreed and will be paid"). Other examples range from Carlo's own preaching to a few odds and ends from Domenico's operatic efforts (some of which Toomey has contributed to) -- including an attempt at an opera based on Joyce's Ulysses.
       Burgess weaves a decent-sized cast of characters neatly through the novel, with secondary figures like Toomey's older brother, a comic who dies tragically young, or an early (would-be-)poet lover who repeatedly reäppears in Toomey's life, and the way they are used throughout the novel firming up a narrative which otherwise might tend too easily to a shaggy-dog chronicle-of-the-century. The various side-trips and stories sometimes remain too open, as Toomey does get around a lot, but on the whole his narrower focus works quite well, as he does not let himself get too distracted when immersed in what could otherwise be episodes that could easily lead the story astray -- say, his time in Paris, starting in 1919 ("me breathing in the oxygen of literary modernism"), or his Hollywood-stint as would-be screenwriter.
       If some of the historical tie-ins can feel a bit forced, they can be quite amusing -- such as Joyce giving an alibi, in Ulysses, to the man who first seduced teenage Toomey (on Bloomsday), or some of Toomey's Nazi-related mishaps.
       Toomey is twice called on to testify on behalf of books on trial for their depiction of homosexuality. The first time is regarding Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness; Toomey demurs -- not least because of the poor literary quality of the work, Toomey noting:
     The only defence you can raise in law is literary value, which they take, wrongly of course, to mean the same as moral value. You know, like Paradise Lost. It strikes me as wrong to pretend a book's good when it isn't.
       Decades later, he does go to bat for a book whose quality he is similarly unimpressed by -- and also takes the occasion to 'come out'; time's have changed by then -- if only some.
       Questions of morality are central to Earthly Powers. The homosexual question is prominent, but also clearly treated as a sort of false issue: morality has little to do with it (though this is certainly much clearer from a contemporary perspective, when it seems to have almost become a non-issue, than even when Burgess wrote his book). Evil, in its actual manifestations, from various examples of pettiness to outright, through-and-through physical violence unto death, is what Burgess really means to grapple with -- as well as the role of faith, and the Catholic Church (and its dogma). The characters' God -- certainly Carlo's -- shows Himself willing to let mankind (or at least individuals) go very astray, and the horrible suffering that often results does not change His mind.
       As Burgess has Carlo observe (delightedly):
'Exactly. Religion is the most dangerous thing in the world. It is not little girls in their communion frocks and silly holy pictures and the Children of Mary. It is,' he said, 'high explosive, dynamite, the,' he smiled at the conceit, 'splitting of the atom.'
       If not fully head-on, Burgess does tackle it with considerable gusto and brio, getting down and very dirty. Readers might find -- as the Hollywood-types complain about one of Toomey's scripts --: "Too much jabber about religion. We want a human story", but on the whole Burgess does offer enough human story to make Earthly Powers a very engaging read. It helps that Burgess is a very fine storyteller, the writing rolling along with a confident, comfortable ease; aside from everything else (much of which weighs it down), Earthly Powers is consistently good fun and simply a pleasure to read.
       In its outlines and its details, Earthly Powers is actually stunningly grim -- not least in the final revelation about the miracle Carlo performed: the world Burgess portrays is really one in which it seems no good deed can go unpunished. Yet there's a lightness to the novel that makes it all bearable (and, of course, ultimately also all the more terrible) -- Toomey's almost insouciant attitude, in particular, carrying it all along.
       There's no question that one can feel some of the strain of Burgess trying to write a magnum opus, but he has more than enough talent to make the reading of it worthwhile even if some of the grander ambitions don't work so well. Earthly Powers is also interesting as a rare modern work that engages seriously with questions of Catholic faith, and the Church (and still manages not to bog the whole fiction down in that).
       It is ultimately a somewhat strange work, but does impress in a variety of ways; it's also thoroughly entertaining -- a fine drawn-out read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 27 September 2021

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Earthly Powers: Reviews: Anthony Burgess: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       British author Anthony Burgess lived 1917 to 1993.

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© 2021 the complete review

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