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“Then the flaming sheet, with the whirr of a liberated phoenix, would fly up the chimney to join the stars.”

I’ve been reading a couple of old books of book reviews by Anthony Burgess. Lots of great stuff. He’s a sort of Chesterton with a conscience, for example in this appreciation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin:

As for Tom’s forgiving Christianity—‘O, Mas’r! don’t bring this great sin on your soul! It will hurt you more than ‘t will me! Do the worst you can, my troubles’ll be over soon’—it doesn’t deserve the sneers of the Negro intellectuals, or the white ones either. What palliative ought a progressive slavery novel to make available to the victims of Legree—a bundle of abolitionist pamphlets, gems from Tom Paine? The visions of secular reform have always been the real pie in the sky; a man entering the gas chamber needs heaven.

And this:

Kipling had much of the epic poet’s equipment, but he could not write an epic. I don’t, of course, mean a verse epic; I mean a great novel. The novels he did write are interesting, but they are structural failures: even Kim is pasted together. Kipling did not have the architectural gift. Looking at a collapsed empire, we feel that it ought, in its greatest days, to have been recorded in some huge Tolstoyan unity, and that Kipling ought to have been the man to do it. He was too small, however; the halo of greatness which his devotees make sit on him is really an emanation of that vast wasted subject-matter. Many of us want him so much to have sung that finished empire—Britain’s only epic theme in a thousand years—that we sometimes dream he actually did it.

This was interesting, in part because it seems that just about every time anyone writes about Kipling now, they take great pains to say how you appreciate his artistry and not get distracted by the jingoism—except for the those who say that we should celebrate the jingoism. It’s great that Orwell made the case, so many decades ago, about how to think about political art in general and Kipling in particular, but it’s time to move on. I think Burgess wrote the above passage in 1965, so we’ve moved on already, but I get the impression that modern critics aren’t comfortable enough taking Kipling as he is, and they can’t see past the politics. My point is not that Burgess’s judgments are the last word, just that he can offer his take on the literature in its social and political contexts without being tripped up by his (Burgess’s) own political views.

My favorite bit, though, was when he quoted Nabokov in Speak, Memory:

So I would heap on more coals and help revive the flames by spreading a sheet of the London Times over the smoking black jaws of the fireplace, thus screening completely its open recess. A humming noise would start behind the taut paper, which would acquire the smoothness of drumskin and the beauty of luminous parchment. Presently, as the hum turned into a roar, an orange-colored spot would appear in the middle of the sheet, and whatever patch of print happened to be there (for example, ‘The League does not command a guinea or a gun’ or ‘. . . the revenges that Nemesis has had upon Allied hesitation and indecision in Eastern and Central Europe . . .’) stood out with ominous clarity—until suddenly the orange spot burst. Then the flaming sheet, with the whirr of a liberated phoenix, would fly up the chimney to join the stars. It cost one a fine of twelve shillings if that firebird was observed.

That’s just soooo Nabokovian. “The smoking black jaws of the fireplace.” Also the liberated phoenix: at first this seems flashy and a distraction, but upon reflection it’s precise and just right.

Burgess was enough of a literary artist and enough of a critic that I think he’d appreciate that the best passage in his book was written by somebody else.


  1. I should reread Kipling again. I enjoyed the Jungle Book. He wrote some very good children’s books.

    As a matter of fact, my 8 years old granddaughter and I are writing a children’s storybook. So thanks for bringing up Ruddie.

  2. OliP says:

    I’m not sure what you are getting at with your comments about Orwell on Kipling. Orwell’s essay on Kipling (his review of Eliot’s A Choice of Kipling’s Verse, often used as an introduction to books of collected Kipling) is similar in tone and conclusion to the Burgess extract you offer. For instance, Orwell refers to Kipling as a ‘good bad poet’, but perhaps I am missing your point about Orwell’s approach and how that relates to Burgess and modern critics.

  3. Jonathan says:

    I loved his criticism. This bit about writing about DH Lawrence is beautifully written and closely observed:

    His attitude toward the profession of writing was similar to Wodehouse’s, without the self-deprecation. Wodehouse made more delightful sentences. Burgess is to me the quintessential of the matter of fact.

  4. oncodoc says:

    Horrorshow, bolshoi horrorshow.

  5. steven t johnson says:

    This is so provocative a post I can’t help it, even now.

    Perhaps it’s merely my ignorance but to me the sudden thump of wings on air as any bird takes flight isn’t a whirr, which is steady, constant. But then I couldn’t imagine reading so much newspaper print from feet away, highlighted by an orange glow or not. I did get a vague sense Navokov was angry about the fine(s.)

    And I was entirely bemused at the notion the novel was a form defined by structure. Indeed I was rather inclined to think the old joke about the novel being a long prose piece with something wrong with it was funny because it was fairly truthful.

    As to Burgess’ thinking Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a religious tract for slaves? I hope this is an artifact of selective quotation. But Tom, a black man as Christ figure, was condemning the slavers, not consoling the surviving slaves. Tom doesn’t actually sacrifice a hang nail for white people. Condemnation of Tom as servile for not rising up in (suicidal) rebellion seems to me contempt for slaves for being so ignoble as to live. There were other characters in the novel too whose stories don’t gibe at all with Burgess’ slant here. Life Among the Lowly is the Great American Novel in the sense that it still touches a nerve for those who actually read it.

    I’m not so sure Burgess was notable for a conscience. Chesterton the Distributist was most certainly engaged in work of conscience…but in the end his bad faith vitiated all attempts.

  6. Eric B Rasmusen says:

    Thank you for recommending this—the Kipling and Nabokov bits are so good I want to read more. I’m a Kipling fan, but Burgess is right. Kim is very good, but it doesn’t have structure. It’s more like putting together teh Mowgli stories as a novel. And I think the same might be true of Captains Courageous, another very good book.

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