Sunday, February 11, 2007

Burgess channels Joyce

There was a period in my life – roughly from 14 to 17 – when I read everything by the English novelist Anthony Burgess I could lay my hands on, probably a couple dozen novels or more. I followed his career more sporatically after I went to college, reading maybe 3 or 4 of the novels of the 1980s and ‘90s, buying remainders & leaving them unread. I reread his Shakespeare novel, Nothing Like the Sun, a few years ago, & found myself surprisingly entertained.

(I only spoke to him once, when I was a caller to and he was a guest on the Dianne Rehm radio show (at the time a local DC area program, not yet in national distribution). He was flogging a Mozart book in connection with some bicentenary or other, and I opened my call by telling Burgess that I had always regarded him something of a verbal Mozart. “Well, I suppose that’s true,” he replied, “if by that you mean that I’ve written far too much, & have done it mostly for money.”)

It’s been a while since I’ve read Burgess’s Re/Joyce, tho I still recall it with affection as one of the best short career-spanning introductions to Joyce’s work. I’ve only now gotten around to reading his Joysprick: An Introduction to the Language of James Joyce, and I’m not at all surprised by how intelligent and beautifully written it is. I am a bit surprised by how closely Burgess knows the work – he claims to have written the book without recourse to any secondary literature at all – and the sophistication of the linguistic analyses he brings to bear on Joyce’s words. Chapter 5, “The Joyce Sentence,” is about as good as descriptive, dissective criticism gets.

There are two bravura passages worth noting: the opening pages of the book, where Burgess rewrites the beginning of Ulysses in the style of what he calls a “Class 1” novelist (Irvings Stone & Wallace are his examples), one of those meat & potatoes writers who are out to tell a story and style be damned; and the end of chapter 5, where Burgess rewrites a paragraph from Arthur Hailey’s bestseller Hotel in the style of Ulysses:
‘Doctor,’ Christine said, ‘just this moment…’

The newcomer nodded and from a leather bag, which he put down on the bed, swiftly produced a stethescope. Without wasting time he reached inside the patient’s flannel nightshirt and listened briefly to the chest and back. Then, returning to the bag, in a series of efficient movements he took out a syringe, assembled it, and snapped off the neck of a small glass vial. When he had drawn the fluid from the vial into the syringe, he leaned over the bed and pushed a sleeve of the nightshirt upward, twisting it into a rough tourniquet. He instructed Christine, ‘Keep that in place; hold it tightly.’
–Doctor, Christine said, just this moment–

He placed with grace on the bed, nodding, his leather bag and snaked out swiftly a stethescope. Hirudo medicinalis, a leech for a leech. With grace of speed he nuzzled the cold steel snout in under the flannel nightshirt, cocking a perked ear to back and chest and back again. Back at his bag, he assembled a syringe from glass tubes and a glancing needle and smartly cracked the neck of a vial. With care he watched the fluid follow the track of the retracting plunger then, leaning over the bed, pushtwisted up a nightshirtsleeve into a rough tourniquet. He said to Christine:

–Keep that in place. Hold it tight.
“Something like that,” says Burgess, “only much much better.”

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