Earthly Powers, by Anthony Burgess

first published: 1980

edition: Vintage Classics edition, 2004

provenance: purchased from Waterstone’s in pre-travel mania mode

read: early April 2015, on various trains between London and Hampshire


This is going to be an unusual Classics Club post for various reasons. One is that I’ve covered Earthly Powers, to some extent, in a previous post, which contained my initial reactions and a general description of what the book is about. The other is that I won’t be able to quote much from the book, or even refer to it, except by way of Google Books, because I’ve left it at the house of the Revered Ancestors. With little spare space in the suitcase and a possible impending move (keep your fingers crossed!), I couldn’t really bring it back with me once I’d finished it. So, after a marathon on Easter Monday wherein I read about three hundred blissful pages in a day (and did very little else), the elegant volume has been popped into a large plastic box in the RAs’ garage, where it is keeping company in hibernation with perhaps fifty other books, the majority of my little library.

As a result, this will be a much looser review than my Classics Club mini-essays usually are, but in a way this pleases me. Earthly Powers is so fat and crammed with incident and idea that the notion of trying to corral my reactions to it all into some sort of order is daunting. Herewith, a very patchwork piece. For specifics, you will have to read it yourself.

Much of the book is concerned with the nature of good and evil. Burgess doesn’t engage with the issues in the abstract, although there are probably half a dozen Serious Philosophical Conversations scattered throughout the novel. Instead, he positions his protagonist’s life, and the lives of his sister, brothers-in-law, mother-in-law and friends, during the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, so that we are faced, unavoidably, with historical events that comprise both the best and the worst that humanity has to offer. Mostly, though, it’s the worst. There is homophobia; there are race riots; there is cult religion; there is the nuclear threat; there are the dying throes of the British Empire; there is tropical disease. There is, of course, the Holocaust. This looms large. Toomey, in attempting to arrange a passage out of Nazi Germany for the Jewish Nobel laureate Jakob Strehler, is arrested himself (the war breaks out a week after he arrives in the country) and can only ensure his safe deportation home by making a deal with the government. If he speaks in favour of the Nazi regime, or at least not against it, on Berlin radio, he will be returned to England safely; if he refuses, he will be interned in a civilian POW camp for the duration of hostilities. He chooses, of course, the get-out option.

I say “of course” because Toomey is distinctly unheroic, from page one all the way through to page six hundred and fifty. It makes him sometimes quite grubby to read about, but mostly what it does is remind the reader, again and again and again, that compromising ourselves morally in favour of survival is perhaps the most human act imaginable. We are all weasels. Heroes have a place only in the sentimental pap that Toomey writes for the lower middle-class British public, hungry for fantasy. In reality, we collaborate with revolting regimes if we think it might ensure us life, or even just greater comfort. Even those who appear heroic–for instance, Toomey’s mother-in-law, who dies trying to assassinate Heinrich Himmler–act from a variety of motives, almost none of them pure. (In Signora Campanati’s case, she is dying of cancer and would prefer to go out with a bang than with a whimper.)

In this context, the actions of Toomey’s brother-in-law, Don Carlo Campanati, while Bishop of Moneta in Italy, seem frankly praiseworthy: he constantly agitates both against Italy’s Fascist government and against its Nazi affiliations. Yet Campanati also permits a teenaged girl to be tortured in front of him, instead of giving up the whereabouts of a resistance group. He claims not to know where they are; the whole horrible scene plays out (it isn’t gratuitously graphic, but it involves amateur dentistry and it made me feel a bit sick anyway); the girl passes out. Then, like a bombshell, one sentence on its own: Carlo knows perfectly well where the resistance is hiding. The girl awakes; Carlo remonstrates with the SS colonel, who is unimpressed; he addresses the man with the dental drill, whose first name he knows. The torturer, moved and disturbed, walks out. The colonel remains unimpressed. What happens to the teenaged girl? We never find out. Carlo, of course, becomes pope.

Are his acts during the war good or evil of themselves? Are they neither? Carlo’s stint in the papacy, at least, is clearly modeled on that of John Paul II. He is described as revolutionizing the Church with a doctrine of ecumenicalism, universal love; Catholic teenagers shout out affectionate rhymes about him (reminiscent of the “JPII, we love you” jingle); in every city, he preaches to packed football stadia. Carlo–or rather Pope Gregory XVII, as he becomes–asserts that evil is not of human making. Made in the image of God, we are inherently good. Evil is external, of demonic provenance. Those who do evil things are possessed; they are not themselves. Earthly Powers’s power comes from asking us to consider whether Carlo is right, or whether, regrettably, people are most themselves when they do evil things. It’s a question that religion, ethics and philosophy have yet to answer definitively, although contemporary thought seems to be edging towards the latter conviction.

One character whom the contemporary reader will almost certainly enjoy, however, is Toomey’s sister Hortense. Conventionally, her morals are sketchy; she has affairs, drinks, pursues her own happiness (always a questionable path for a woman…) Yet she is the voice of conscience throughout the novel. Where Toomey is prissily hypocritical and condemnatory, she is fierce. She is full of rage at Toomey for failing to stand up for the rights of homosexual writers and artists in the repressive Britain of the 1940s; she has nothing but disdain for Carlo and his oratory. She is utterly herself. Her interpolations are the sound of pure common sense and show a greater compassion for human frailties than we see in either her brother or her brother-in-law. She remains a second-tier character, but an extraordinarily interesting one.

Finally, there is Domenico Campanati, Hortense’s husband, Carlo’s brother, and all-around reprobate. Domenico is a composer, ambitious at first (opera and concertos) but then settling into his true metier: “plastic” music, composing background scores for the new medium of film. (He earns, we are told, an Oscar for his score to a Hollywood version of The Brothers Karamazov.) Domenico and Toomey collaborate on several occasions; the last of these is an opera of the life of St Nicholas (Toomey’s idea), one of whose miracles was that he raised three murdered brothers from the dead. In the opera, the three brothers–one of them actually turns out to be a woman–wreak havoc in their newly restored lives, murdering, pillaging, starting wars, and generally embodying evil. Toomey’s libretto has St Nicholas at the end on his knees, clutching a dead child, crying out to God, before being struck by a vision: this was all a test, Job-like, to see if Nicholas would curse his Creator; he has not done so, he has passed; cue ascent into heaven. Domenico makes some changes at the dress rehearsal, however, and the premiere finishes with the saint still on his knees, the child still dead, and the final words of the opera–Maledico, maledico, I curse you, I curse you–echoing into empty air. God is dead, if he was ever alive. Evil has come from good. There is no heaven.

This, obviously, is an extreme answer to the questions that Burgess is raising, a despairing one. Domenico’s opera is the counter-instance to his brother Carlo’s determined optimism about the human condition: it doesn’t make any grand claims about innate evil or innate good, but it is very clear on the state of our solitude in the universe. In this mindset, no one is coming to save us. We’re on our own.

Depressing as this sounds, it’s probably the take-away from Earthly Powers as a whole. If no one is coming to save you, you’re responsible for your own actions. The weaseling of Toomey and others is perhaps more reprehensible in a Godless universe than in a divinely ordered one; it has consequences. Yet despite the message of human corruption that resonates throughout the whole book, there’s a sense of pity too. As the novel ends, Toomey composes himself to sleep, and considers that death will be coming for him soon: “I hope there are no dreams,” he writes. One gets the impression that an afterlife would not necessarily constitute a good dream. But are we better off without one…?


For more by Anthony Burgess, see:

The Kingdom of the Wicked (London: Alison and Busby, 2009)

A Dead Man in Deptford (London: Vintage Classics, 2012)

The Malayan Trilogy (London: Vintage Classics, 2000)


For more on Burgess’s work and context, see:

Anthony Burgess and Modernity, Alan Roughley (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2008)

A Clockwork Counterpoint: the Music and Literature of Anthony Burgess, Paul Philips (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2010)

Anthony Burgess: A Study in Character, Marina Ghosh-Schellhorn (Frankfurt: Peter Lang,  1986)

6 thoughts on “Earthly Powers, by Anthony Burgess

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