When the novel was first published in October 1980, Burgess received a telegram from his French translator, who wrote: ‘It is your Ulysses.’ Unlike most of Burgess’s novels, which he wrote in the space of a few months, Earthly Powers was begun in 1970 and completed a decade later. The incomplete manuscript travelled with Burgess and his family on their travels from Malta to America, to Italy, and then to France and Monaco. The international flavour of his life, which had been established when he took up a teaching post in Malaya in 1954, is visible on every page of Earthly Powers.
The novel is narrated by an eminent writer, Kenneth Marchal Toomey, whom we first meet in Malta on his eighty-first birthday. His memoirs, told in flashback, weave across seven decades of the twentieth century, taking in both World Wars, the rise of cinema, the decline of the British Empire, and the rise of new-age suicide cults. It also concerns Toomey’s friendship with his sister’s brother-in-law, Carlo Campanati, a muscular priest with a huge appetite, who is determined to reform the Catholic Church.
Earthly Powers blends the known history of the twentieth century with fragments of Burgess’s biography. It brings into focus many of the ideas that had preoccupied Burgess throughout his writing career, notably the conflict between sin, free will, and religious faith, as Toomey struggles to reconcile his sexuality with his Catholic upbringing.
Throughout this anniversary year, the Burgess Foundation will present a programme of events and activities to celebrate the novel. Our website will be the centre of operations, where you will find new articles, videos and podcasts, shedding fresh light on this complex and rewarding novel. We will be hosting an online reading group, and we encourage readers to take part in a pioneering Earthly Powers Wiki Project, which aims to annotate the text for the first time in a free, online, open-access format.
We invite you to join us in celebrating the fortieth birthday of this remarkable work of fiction. Start browsing our new Earthly Powers microsite here.