Earthly Powers at 40: Toomey, Maugham & Burgess
As we celebrate the 40th anniversary of Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers, we look at Burgess’s attitude towards Somerset Maugham.
When Anthony Burgess began his career as a novelist, inspired by his experience of teaching English in colonial Malaya, his goal was to become a sort of Somerset Maugham figure. In particular, he wanted to emulate Maugham’s international focus, yet he became far more interested in non-European voices and perspectives than Maugham had been.
In his introduction to a 1969 selection of Maugham’s Malaysian Stories, Burgess writes:
‘Maugham cannot be blamed for making his stories centre on these expatriate Europeans, since they were the only people he could really get to know. There are exceptions – the Malay woman in ‘P&O’, for instance, and the Chinese clerk in ‘The Letter’ – but these characters are not as fully drawn as the European characters who provide the substance of the story. If Maugham had started writing in, say 1954, his plots and main characters might have been very different.’
When Burgess went to Malaya in 1954, his experiences were defined by the memory of the Japanese invasion during the Second World War, and by the waning influence of the British Empire. The Malaya he knew in the three years before independence was a very different place from the booming colony that Maugham had witnessed in 1919.
Burgess’s fictional representation of Malaya and its inhabitants was totally unlike the writing of the Europeans who had been there before him, not least because he quickly became proficient in the languages of the country, especially Malay, Chinese, Arabic and Urdu.
Nevertheless, Burgess continued to find Maugham a fascinating figure. Apart from his introduction to the Malayan stories, he wrote an obituary for the Listener when Maugham died in December 1965, and he reviewed the subsequent biographies by Ted Morgan and Robert Calder.
But his most creative engagement with Maugham comes in Earthly Powers, through the character of the novel’s narrator, Kenneth Toomey.
The facts of Toomey’s biography find their foundation in Maugham’s own life: Toomey is presented as a wealthy man of letters who lives in a palatial villa (below) on the Mediterranean, having found success as a writer of fiction, theatre and film. Toomey’s criticism of his own work as ‘sedative’ and ‘slipshod’ is brought into question by its evident popularity. The description of his talent as ‘dubious’ (on the dust jacket of the first edition) cannot reflect reality as Toomey is shown to have won awards and to be held in great esteem by the Academy.
In a bold metafictional gesture, Burgess introduces ‘Willie Maugham’ into the story as a separate character. Early in the novel, Toomey and Maugham are said to be rival playwrights in the West End of London, with the latter’s success being commented on by Toomey.
‘I was already working on a new comedy as Christmas approached,’ he remembers. ‘Willie Maugham had had, in 1908, four plays running in London at the same time, prompting a Bernard Partridge cartoon in Punch that showed Will Shakespeare not too happy about his namesake’s success. I was not so ambitious. I still regarded myself as a novelist making plays somewhat cynically for money, and three plays, for the time being anyway, would be quite enough.’
If Maugham is one of the main pillars of Toomey’s character, Burgess uses elements of his own literary career to build a more rounded and realistic character, drawing on his experiences as a Hollywood scriptwriter, a university lecturer, an expatriate writer, and a musician and librettist.
But to call Toomey a hybrid of Burgess and Maugham would do a disservice to the other influences on his character. There are echoes of many other writers in Toomey’s character: the suaveness of Noel Coward, the camp of Ronald Firbank, perhaps a hint of the self-examination of Christopher Isherwood, the internationalism and Catholicism of Evelyn Waugh, and the ill-advised radio broadcasts of P.G. Wodehouse from Nazi Germany.
Toomey may have been constructed from these sources, but as a character he is uniquely himself. While his fictional biography is defined with reference to actual people and events, it is not overshadowed by them. His emergence as a fully autonomous protagonist is due to Burgess’s skill in transmuting biography and literature into a compelling narrative structure.