The Burgess Might-Have-Beens: The Black Prince
- 14th September 2017
It seems a little greedy, when Anthony Burgess finished and published so many wonderful novels, to want more. And yet, prolific as he was, he left a whole host of brilliant ideas for books unwritten on his death. Some of these are sketched in his two-volume autobiography, Little Wilson and Big God and You’ve Had Your Time; others are mentioned in letters and interviews.
Earlier this year the Burgess Foundation told the Observer about notes for three ‘lost’ novels in their archive.
Called variously the ‘George trilogy’ or ‘An American trilogy’, this triad was to consist of three thematically connected novels. The True Patton Papers, described by Burgess as ‘a very concise novel, totally unwindy, well-written but admitting no literary flourishes’, in which General Patton ‘with the connivance of a dithering Eisenhower’ would fight across Europe through Berlin and onto Moscow, ‘to plant the US flag on the Kremlin, fulfilling Churchill’s own mad dream’. The Rhapsody Man was to be a novel based on the life of George Gershwin, and The Fifth Gospel would be narrated by a modern-day ‘simple Hebrew youth’, whose religious insights are the product of drugs.
Intriguing as those three are, my personal interest is captured more by two other projects Burgess contemplated but never completed. One, It Is The Miller’s Daughter, is summarised in Burgess’s autobiography:
The novel was to be about flour and water, especially water. It was set in a French village near the Belgian border, and its hero, a lowly farm-worker, lived with his grandmother, who fed him soup ladled from a pot simmering on a fire which never went out. The soup had been bubbling ever since the days of Louis XIV, so that it stood for the continuation of history: the boy spooned in history twice a day.
All we have of this, apart from that summary (bits of which ended up in Burgess’s 1989 Arthurian novel Any Old Iron) is this short poem, included in Kevin Jackson’s selection of Burgess’s poetry, Revolutionary Sonnets (Carcanet 2002):
Love water, love it with all your being,
But only from the well or the picnic spring.
Tasteless, but grateful in summer, embracing the hollow
Of any vessel. But never never follow
Water to the river or sea. Nor ever call
Master or Mistress Water in the bacchanal
Of public waters stirred up by the rough
Wind’s rhetoric. Water from the well is enough.
But it was another unfinished Burgess project that really got its claws into my imagination. I came upon a reference to it in a 1973 interview Burgess gave to the Paris Review:
Do you expect to write any more historical novels?
I’m working on a novel intended to express the feel of England in Edward III’s time, using Dos Passos’ devices. I believe there’s great scope in the historical novel . . . The fourteenth century of my novel will be mainly evoked in terms of smell and visceral feelings, and it will carry an undertone of general disgust rather than hey-nonny nostalgia.
Which of Dos Passos’ techniques will you use?
The novel I have in mind, and for which I’ve done a ninety-page plan, is about the Black Prince. I thought it might be amusing blatantly to steal the Camera Eye and the Newsreel devices from Dos Passos just to see how they might work, especially with the Black Death and Crécy and the Spanish campaign. The effect might be of the fourteenth century going on in another galaxy where language and literature had somehow got themselves into the twentieth century. The technique might make the historical characters look remote and rather comic—which is what I want.
As a writer I couldn’t resist. In that interview, Burgess implied he had 80 or 90 pages of the novel already drafted; maybe (I thought to myself) he’d added more after 1973. I got in touch with Andrew Biswell, director of the Burgess Foundation in Manchester and the world’s leading expert on Burgess’s writing, asking if I could see what there was, with the idea of completing the project. Andrew replied that if Burgess had written so much, it had gotten lost along the way; but he was able to show me the typescript of a film screenplay Burgess had written, covering the Black Prince’s life from Crecy to his death.
Eventually it was agreed that I write a historical novel based on Burgess’s premise—the story of Edward the Black Prince told in the experimental Modernist style of Dos Passos, and drawing as far as possible from Burgess’s unmade screenplay.
Writing this novel took about a year, and involved me re-reading the complete run of Burgess’s novels to get myself into the right place, tonally. I worked hard to produce something of which, were he alive, he would not be ashamed. I’m immensely proud of the novel that has resulted. was a joy, and now the result is slated for publication by Unbound, provided it gathers the enough pledges. So I would ask you to check the site, and, if you’re able and willing, to pledge towards its eventual appearance.