Any Old Iron

Anthony Burgess, Author Random House (NY) $19.95 (360p) ISBN 978-0-394-57484-4
Few novelists writing today have the range and erudition of Burgess; and = when, as in Earthly Powers , he gets hold of a subject in which his own powers can be brought into full play, the result is dazzling. Any Old Iron (the title is a word play on King Arthur's sword, which has a symbolic role in the proceedings, and on the name of a derisive British music hall song) is another bravura performance, marred only by a few eccentricities. The very start of the novel, for one thing, is heavy going, Burgess at his most pedantic; and it is only with the sinking of the Titanic , which blessedly supervenes, that a narrative takes hold. Then the book develops like one of those dread ``multi-generational sagas,'' but done almost in shorthand, such is the speed and vigor with which 50 years are traversed, following the lives of two familiesone Russian-Welsh, one Jewish from WW I through the founding of Israel. War from the profane viewpoint of the ordinary British soldier has never been better conveyed than in a dozen scenes here, and there are other passages, like the machinations that follow the killing of a German by a British sergeant in neutral wartime Spain, that are social comedy of the highest order. The characters, including old David Jones, his Russian wife Ludmilla and their children Reg, Beatrix and Dan, are wonderful creations, and if the Jewish group is less interesting it's because the first-person narrator of their story remains a rather shadowy figure. The leitmotif of Arthur's sword, woven into the lives of all of them, and also into some prolonged debates about Welsh nationalism, often seems a touch mechanical, and the book's ending is oddly unresolved. But these are minor flaws in a novel that is for the most part breathlessly readable, touching and funny by turns, and which passes much of the history of this dreadful century in finely sardonic review. BOMC alternate. (Feb . )
Reviewed on: 02/01/1989
Release date: 02/01/1989
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