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Earthly Powers:


A brief introduction to Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers


Earthly Powers was published 40 years ago. It won the Best Foreign Novel of the Year award in France, and was shortlisted for the 1980 Booker Prize for Fiction, alongside Alice Munro, Anita Desai and William Golding. To celebrate #EarthlyPowers40, we’re revisiting one of Anthony Burgess’s most acclaimed novels. Expect highlights from our archive, a series of podcasts and new articles on Earthly Powers.

‘It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.’

What is Earthly Powers about?

As told by the central character himself, a distinguished British writer in his eighties, Earthly Powers is the life story of Kenneth Marchal Toomey — from the First World War to his later years of sun-drenched idleness in Malta.

A gay man who is unable to reconcile his nature with the teachings of the Catholic Church, Toomey opts as a young man for a life of loneliness and exile — first in the Paris of James Joyce and Ezra Pound and later in Hollywood at the height of its glamour and corruption.

His travels, his many assignments and, indeed, the affections of his heart, bring him face to face with the most savage manifestations of evil in the modern world: the murder of a beloved friend in Malaya; the brutalities of Mussolini’s fascists; a Nazi death camp; mass suicide in the name of love in California.

Breathing the stench of Buchenwald, Toomey sees finally that evil comes from man himself; for his brother-in-law Carlo, the saintly but sybaritic priest, it is a force at large in the world that must be challenged constantly in all its guises.

How did Anthony Burgess approach writing Earthly Powers?

Earthly Powers comes from a period when Burgess was thinking about writing his autobiography.

During the 1970s, he began to write about his early life in Manchester and his experiences as an education officer in Malaya. Fragments of his autobiography were written in the mid-1970s (it was published in 1987 as Little Wilson and Big God), and he began to write novels such as The Pianoplayers (published in 1986) and Beard’s Roman Women (1976), which deal with the events of his own life.

In the early stages of writing Earthly Powers, he was thinking about his early years as a Lancashire Catholic, his family’s relationship with the Church and the evolution of his own Catholic faith. Although Burgess did not identify himself as a practising Catholic after 1933, he refused to describe himself as an atheist, stating: ‘I have never been able to doubt the existence of God … But whether really this affects the way I live, I don’t know.’

His reluctance to describe himself as an unbeliever may be connected to the more devoutly Catholic branch of his family. Burgess remained on friendly terms with his cousin, George Patrick Dwyer, the Catholic Bishop of Leeds and later the Archbishop of Birmingham. George Patrick was part of the inspiration for Carlo Campanati, Kenneth Toomey’s brother-in-law in the novel.

Other fragments of autobiography which feature in Earthly Powers include Toomey’s expedition to the Federated Malay States, his employment as a Hollywood screenwriter, and his deep interest in music. Lyrics from Burgess’s musical Blooms of Dublin appear in the novel: this adaptation of James Joyce’s Ulysses was completed in 1975 and broadcast in 1982 on RTÉ and BBC radio.

Which writers influenced Earthly Powers?

The genesis of the novel came not only from Burgess’s own life, but also from his wide reading, and from his work as a literary critic for the Observer and other newspapers.

In the second volume of his autobiography, You’ve Had Your Time (1990), Burgess claims that he was wrote Earthly Powers as a technical exercise which would demonstrate what the novel form could do, as Ford Madox Ford had done in The Good Soldier.

The novel’s narrator, Kenneth Toomey, bears many resemblances to the writer W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965), and Toomey’s adventures in Europe, Hong Kong and colonial Malaya reflect Maugham’s life and writing. Speaking about the connection between Toomey and Maugham, Burgess said: ‘I had to start with a real person.’ He was fascinated by Maugham, a popular novelist who, rising to fame after the Oscar Wilde trial, lived as a gay man but never wrote directly about his sexuality. Burgess was drawn to the idea of the writer as a sexual dissident whose life-story might be used to raise questions about mainstream, hetero-normative culture.

Other important influences are visible in the book. James Joyce, who did more than any writer to determine Burgess’s idea of what the literary novel could be, appears as one of the characters. His novel Ulysses is adapted by Toomey as a stage musical.

In a letter to his German translator, Burgess wrote that Earthly Powers was ‘an attempt to show that I could write a novel as long as one of those nineteenth-century blockbusters, although Dickens and Tolstoy were long because they wrote for serial publication — no longer, alas, an available outlet for the novelist.’ He added that the novel ‘is also meant to be funny.’

How much did Burgess rely on historical research for the novel?

Despite the novel’s beginnings in Burgess’s autobiography, his relationship with other writers, and the history of the twentieth century, he is quick to remind readers that this is a fiction which takes liberties and creates its own autonomous world. ‘Oh, there are a lot of lies in it,’ he said, ‘a lot of things which could not have happened — my publishers were very worried that I might be making mistakes. George Russell, for instance, could never have seduced my author in that Dublin hotel. But this book is about memory. We rely on memory, but we don’t know how reliable it is.’

The history of the twentieth century plays a major part in the novel, from two world wars and the decline of the British Empire to the complexities of Hollywood and the Jonestown massacre.

Although historical events anchor Toomey’s story in the real world, Burgess did not intend his fictional story to be constrained by historical research. He said in an interview: ‘When Nothing Like the Sun came out, one reviewer said, “Learning drips from every sentence, like sweat from the nose.” I thought: I’ll never do that again. Let’s bamboozle the reader rather than feed him history.’


Celebrating 40 years of Earthly Powers