Byrne

Anthony Burgess, Author Carroll & Graf Publishers $20 (160p) ISBN 978-0-7867-0456-9
Burgess, who died in 1993, was one of the most multitalented writers of the century (his works ranging from A Clockwork Orange through A Dead Man in Deptford), a man who surprised us with each new book. And this, his final work, completed only months before his death and at last appearing here thanks to the ever-enterprising Carroll & Graf, is one of the biggest such surprises. It's a novel in epic verse, no less, exhibiting the full range of Burgess's formidable wit, learning, linguistic skills and familiarity with every corner of contemporary culture. His hero--or at least his subject, who has apparently paid the author to tell his tale in ottava rima--is an Irish artist born around the turn of the century who is at once a composer of some skill (like Burgess himself), an artist of scurrilously pornographic paintings and a notable lecher. In the course of his odd career, having fathered a number of children, Byrne disappears into Nazi Germany and later resurfaces (perhaps) in a corner of Africa. In the second half of the saga, several of Byrne's children, twins Tom and Tim (an academic lecturer and a failed priest, respectively) and faded, TV-gaping Dorothy, are invited by a mysterious message to hear Byrne's will; and, in an amazing purgatorial scene, they learn to move beyond him for the sake of their own lives. Burgess brings it all off with a stunning mixture of rhetorical and poetic fireworks, wide-ranging vernacular speech and some incredibly ingenious rhymes. He ruefully ruminates: ""Why choose this agony of versifying/ Instead of tapping journalistic prose?/ Call it a tribute to a craft that's dying,/ Call it a harmless hobby. Art, God knows,/ Doesn't come into it."" But it does, of course, and Byrne is an endlessly stimulating, cherishable memento from a writer whose soaring imagination, capacious mind and Voltairian skepticism adorned his age. (Sept.)
Reviewed on: 09/01/1997
Release date: 09/01/1997
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