Apt Reading for Holy Week

For choristers (like, ahem, me), the run-up to Easter is much more about singing than it is about reading. Good luck to you if you sing regularly and can get hold of a spare hour or so between Palm Sunday and Easter morning to chew up a novel (although the glorious Glinda, for one, has managed to go on tour, read a novel, and write a review of it for us at Quadrapheme, because she’s amazing.) This year is the first year for…a really long time…that I haven’t had a regular singing engagement somewhere. I hate it and will be finding somewhere new to sing should my proposed springtime move to London occur (fingers crossed). However, as a result, Holy Week has been all about them books.

The first half of the week was given over to Mark Doty’s new collection Deep Lane, which I’ll also be reviewing for Quadrapheme. I can’t give too much away here and now because, well, then you won’t read the proper review. Contemporary poetry is always difficult for me to start analyzing. I’m not quite sure why this is; possibly because the way I was taught to engage with poetry was formally, looking at its features and techniques. Much of contemporary poetry doesn’t yield to formal technique, or if it acknowledges it at all, it does so with an ironic smirk and twist. Doty’s work is wary of formal technique, but he has that ability to keep it all pinned together which I appreciate; he doesn’t do it through meter, but the lengths of his lines keep pace with each other, and his imagery is so direct, his voice so intimate and confiding.

Damn, there I go, writing the review! Anyway. On to book number two of this week: Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess, proof that a) when traveling I should always be made to keep a paperback in my shoulder bag, because b) if I don’t have one close to hand, I will go into a bookshop and buy one just for the purpose, never mind if I have two books in my suitcase already, because that suitcase will be on the luggage rack of the train for the duration of the journey and what will I read in the meantime, eh?? Answer: Earthly Powers. (At least I only bought one. In the past, as regular readers will know, travel paranoia has induced me to buy three at a time.)

Earthly Powers is a great book to be reading during Holy Week because it is all about religion, although it’s also not. As a teenager, I used to make a game out of seeing how much I could compress the themes and plot of a book whenever anyone asked me “What’s it about?” Were I to play the game with Earthly Powers, I would have to reply, “A gay Catholic novelist and the Pope.” (If I really wanted to compress and confuse, “gay Catholic novelists” would have to do. Maybe just “gay novelists”, or even “novelists”–our narrator, Kenneth Toomey, drops many a name, including Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, “Willie” Maugham, and Norman Douglas, to whom one character rather delightfully refers as Abnorman Fuckless.)

That little pun–Abnorman Fuckless–is a good barometer for Burgess’s linguistic pyrotechnics. I know that’s an overused phrase, “linguistic pyrotechnics”, but the things he does, the wordplay, the vicious, perfect wit, reminds me of Catherine wheels going off one after the other. It’s so fucking funny; not laugh-aloud funny, but definitely snort-into-your-soup funny. There’s a delicate bitchiness to the diction that reminds me, at times, of Blackadder:

“As I foresaw, I am to assist in the canonization of the late Pope.”

“Oh God, oh my God, oh my dear God, you? Oh, Christ help us.”

“Don’t be silly, Geoffrey. You forget certain facts of my biography, if you ever, which I am inclined to doubt, knew them.”

And the one-off observations are peerless, as when Toomey, watching the Archbishop of Malta attempting to equivocate, says that he “played an invisible concertina for two seconds.” The precision of “two seconds”, the absurd picture of “an invisible concertina” and yet the absolute accuracy of how it looks when someone flutters their fingers back and forth, looking for a word… It’s very good writing.

At present, I am with Toomey in Malaya (now Malaysia, then still a British dependency), watching the effects of an exorcism performed by the aforementioned “late Pope”, who happens to be Toomey’s brother-in-law, back when he was merely Don Carlo Campanati.

It’s an incredibly weird book, but I’m enjoying it.

Also, it’s on my Classics Challenge list! So perhaps a fuller review once I’ve finished it. I’d like to finish it by tomorrow; goodness knows if that will happen. I’m off for a cup of tea and a good natter with the great-granddaughter of the Duchess of Warwick now, my dears. (This is actually true, although not as pretentious as it sounds. I’m staying with the Revered Ancestors for Easter and they live in one of those villages where everyone is either a great-granddaughter of a duchess or a retired brigadier colonel.) Toomey and Geoffrey would no doubt approve.

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