‘Nothing Like the Sun’ celebrates its fiftieth anniversary
William Shakespeare is 450 years old.
We have no way of knowing precisely when Shakespeare was born, but his birthday is traditionally celebrated on Saint George’s Day, 23 April. Today is also the fiftieth anniversary of Anthony Burgess’s 1964 novel, Nothing Like the Sun, subtitled ‘A Story of Shakespeare’s Love-Life’, originally published by William Heinemann in London.
Burgess described the lengthy gestation of this novel, which is written entirely in Elizabethan English, as ‘a literary task almost haemorrhoidally agonizing.’ Paul Boytinck gives a very useful account of the novel’s composition in his 1985 annotated bibliography of Burgess’s works, quoting the author on his own creative practice. Part of the challenge was to construct sentences which would look convincingly Shakespearean. Burgess claimed that ‘the Elizabethan spirit doesn’t take kindly to the Hemingwayesque, the spare and laconic, nor does my own spirit. I don’t think that Nothing Like the Sun has too many words; I think perhaps it has too few. One has to be true to one’s own temperament, and mine is closer to that of the baroque writers than that of the stark toughies.’
Reviewing the book in the New Statesman (on 24 April 1964), the poet and critic D.J. Enright wrote: ‘Nothing Like the Sun is a clever, tightly constructed book, reminiscent in its much smaller and more sensational way of Mann’s Doctor Faustus, full of the author’s old verbal ingenuity (with something of Shakespeare’s to boot), and likely to be one of the most remarkable (if most ambiguous) celebrations of the Bard’s quartercentenary — although what it celebrates is pretty clearly something other than the Bard. It is a tour de force […] Only a gifted word-boy could have managed an Elizabethan-style idiom which most of the time strikes one as simply good lively English, if rather gamy. Of minor false notes there are few.’
Aileen Pippett, writing in the Saturday Review commented: ‘It is not necessary to be learned to enjoy a brilliant book, for it all comes trippingly off the tongue, including the atrocious puns and indecent allusions […] If this is not truth, it is as close to it as we are likely to get. Come all the pedants in the world against us, the novelist is still the best witness to the reality behind the facts.’ This review would no doubt have pleased Burgess, who spoke elsewhere of having ‘probed’ Shakespeare’s life ‘with the novelist’s instruments.’
The journalist Derwent May, writing anonymously in the Times Literary Supplement (23 April 1964), wrote: ‘A great deal of the detail is very skilfully and attractively planted; WS’s half-mad brother, Gilbert, produces many of the lines that are later to appear on Hamlet’s lips, […] the repudiation of Falstaff is foreseen in WS’s own fears of Southampton denying him.’ But May went on to complain that the sexual scenes were too explicit for his taste (probably thinking of the notorious bedroom scene with Shakespeare and his wife).
The poet Elizabeth Jennings provided a lone dissenting voice in the Listener: ‘It seems a pity that Nothing Like the Sun should be so disappointing.’ She compared Burgess’s novel unfavourably to the long-forgotten Gentleman of Stratford by John Brophy.
Six years later, in 1970, Burgess went on to write a full-length biography of Shakespeare, which Vintage will be reprinting later this year. He composed settings of at least three songs from Shakespeare’s plays, and ‘Mr W.S.’, a ballet suite based on the life of Shakespeare, which received its first stage performance in France in 2010. Burgess also recorded extracts from Nothing Like the Sun for the audiobook publisher Caedmon in June 1974. The LP included sleeve notes by Eric Swenson, his American publisher.
The current editions of Nothing Like the Sun are published by W.W. Norton in New York and Allison & Busby in London. Ebook versions are also available.
The International Anthony Burgess Foundation’s podcast about Burgess and Shakespeare, containing previously unreleased material from the audio archive, is available as a free download here.