No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Sunday, June 04, 2006

#56: A Dead Man in Deptford -- Anthony Burgess

Burgess's last novel, written in commemoration of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Marlowe's death: I think it's the first of Burgess's novels that I've read and enjoyed, after sampling him at too early an age and not appreciating the wit, the wordplay or the subject matter.

The Marlowe (Marley, Merlin, Morley) of A Dead Man in Deptford has the passions of a young man: for tobacco and boys, as the apocrypha has it, but also for learning, for the theatre, for poetry. He's a proto-heretic, in that he questions divine teaching, and never quite seems to lose the mindset that he acquires at Cambridge: the notion that it's all a game of rhetoric and argument, that the worst that can come of any discussion about religion is to be outwitted on a point of theology. He's too free with his talk of heresies and sin, and that would be enough to damn him. But he's also involved with Walsingham and Poley, with a network of spies and infiltrators and trouble-makers, and it's his distaste for that work that leads him to an inn in Deptford.

Step back. The narrator, never-named, is one of the actors who Marlowe consorts with 'in a very palpable sense': and he begins "You must and will suppose (fair or foul reader, but where's the difference?) that I suppose a heap of happenings that I had no eye to eye knowledge of or concerning." All right, our narrator is unreliable: he supposes and perhaps invents: but he is present just often enough to remind us that he's there, pretending omniscience.

There are all sorts of games and sports with language in this novel. Perhaps the finest is a sex scene, which has to be a contender for Best Fictional Sex Ever, though I reckon it could also vie for a place in Private Eye's 'Pseud's Corner', depending as it does on a working knowledge of Latin: Oscula, oscula, engagement of light beards and oscula oscula elsewhere, amplexus, complexus, and also sugere of this and that, and then interjectus and also insertio and great clamores gaudii, laetitiae, voluptatis.

Here too is Walter ('Water') Raleigh, and his new-found Vice of smoking: his courtly gossip and his unsanctioned marriage. Here's Shakespeare, a mild-mannered acquaintance of our narrator who sucks him mildly dry of all he knows about plays. Here are diverse and horrid executions -- a good show if the victim's alive to see his entrails torn out -- and rumours that the Queen's hounds are fed on human flesh. Here's hothouse rumours and the sense of paranoia and oppression that comes from a regime teetering on the edge of tyranny.

And here at the end is 'your true author, I that die these deaths, that feed this flame, mourn as if it all happened yesterday.' I think it's that love, that engagement, that shines through this whole novel, that brings it to vivid life: that and Burgess's love of language. Oh, I have learnt a deal from this book.

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