Nothing Like the Sun by Anthony Burgess

LikeTheSun

We all know or think we know something about William Shakespeare: everyone knows the titles of at least a couple of his works, everyone knows some basic biographical facts about him, and everyone knows his portrait which is featured not only on the cover of Burgess’ novel but also in probably every single high school textbook of literature.

The main character of Nothing Like the Sun is William Shakespeare, and the novel is about his life and artistic career. Just like a regular biography, the book features such details as Shakespeare’s birthplace, the name of his spouse, and the names of the theaters and companies he worked for after moving to London from Stratford-upon-Avon. However, all this is just background, and this novel is about everything which is usually left out from the regular biographies: what was Shakespeare like as a friend, lover, father? What were his passions and how did he live his everyday life? Where did he get the ideas for his plays and sonnets from? Who or what inspired him? What was he like as a person – honest, open, careful, corrupt?

400 years after his death, these questions, of course, cannot be answered with any kind of „scientific” accuracy and authenticity – and Burgess didn’t attempt to do this. What he wrote is not a biography proper, but rather an exceedingly clever and entertaining fictive biography in which he doesn’t write about the „real” Shakespeare but about the poet as he may-have-been.

The great playwright starts out as a true poet-in-the-making: during his teenage years, he should spend his time learning the basics of his father’s trade (glove-making), but his mind is occupied not with gloves and leather, but with puns and as yet immature and clumsy sonnets. And even though the young bard is not at all sure that he has any artistic talent whatsoever, he is definitely sure that he doesn’t want to spend his life working as a glover, so when he’s presented with the chance to join a playing company, he doesn’t think twice before leaving his family for London. After his escape, he spends most of his time in London where a lot of work, a lot of animosity and a lot of success lies a-waiting for him – and this is also where he meets his two muses: the golden man and the dark lady who inspire him to write his sonnets.

Shakespeare, as depicted/imagined by Burgess, is an intriguing and ambiguous character: he is very practical and businesslike, but his mind is just as full of fascinating ideas and free-floating lines of poems as we like to think about great poets; he enjoys the company of his lovers and his life in general, but he cannot for a moment forget the melancholy fact that he’s getting older; he seems to neglect his family and hardly ever pays them a visit, but he never forgets to send them enough money for their daily needs. And so on.

Reading about the (fictitious) course of the poet’s life is exciting in itself, but Burgess offers other thrills and games as well. For instance, he includes some famous lines from his plays in his conversations with others, or he mentions a seemingly unimportant episode in Shakespeare’s life in which you can recognize the basis or a crucial plot element of one of his later works. Just one example: Shakespeare once witnesses an execution which is carried out by the executioner cutting out the convict’s heart. And of course you never know how a real life event is actually transformed into the artistic output of a writer (or if it ever gets transformed into art), this episode may easily remind you of The Merchant of Venice, the plot of which, among other things, revolves around cutting out a pound of meat from a man’s body, and you may think that Shakespeare must have gotten this element of the play from the execution he saw several years earlier.

And the novel is full of literary games like this, so if you happen to enjoy thinking about topics such as the connections between reality and fiction, and their effects on each other, and if you’re prone to look for allusions and half-hidden references even in the most innocent lines of a novel, then you will quite probably enjoy this creative and marvelously witty book.

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One Hand Clapping by Anthony Burgess

One Hand Clapping is one of those novels I can re-read any number of times. It’s not one of my all-time favorites, it’s not one of those books which changed my personality or shaped my world-view, and I wouldn’t say that it’s a flawless, inimitable, fascinating, carefully plotted and executed masterpiece – but the character of the novel’s narrator and her mindless, casually ignorant, schoolgirlish story-telling style continues to grip my attention and always makes me gasp in wonder whenever I re-read the book.

The story is set in the 1950s, in Bradcaster, a boring small town in England. Janet and Howard Shirley live their simple, comfortable married life here. Their most striking feature is that they have no striking, remarkable features at all, their age and environment fully determine their way of life: they live in an average council flat, they go to their workplace everyday, they eat cooked food for lunch because that’s the way everyone does it, and cuddle up on the sofa at night to watch TV together – as it is, they enjoy their lives in their own way.

There’s one thing though which makes the Shirleys a little bit less than average – Howard’s unique and very powerful visual memory which enables him to learn the contents of whole encyclopedias just by glancing at their pages. Making use of his wonderful talent Howard enters a quiz show on TV and wins a whole lot of money. He decides to make the best of his wealth and buys everything money can buy – and then he draws the necessary conclusions from his experiences.

Although the real protagonist is Howard, the story is narrated by his wife, Janet, and she is (or seems to be) a fearfully ignorant narrator. Janet is a shallow, empty-headed, pretty-in-an-average-way woman who immediately buys the newest brand of chocolate cookies because she saw the ads on TV; a woman who tends to wonder whether she should put another log on the fire or brew a tea even during the most critical moments of her life; a woman whose motherly instincts only (but then immediately) arise when she sees a heart-warming commercial featuring a mother and her infant child. Janet is a woman conditioned by television, commercials, women’s magazines and the general expectations of society – a Cosmo girl in the 50s.

And it’s not only that beauty is in the eye of the beholder – the moral lesson is also in there: Janet is unable to grasp the meaning of Howard’s unusual thoughts, motivations and deeds, therefore the only conclusion she can come to is that poor Howard must have been driven crazy by his unique brain – and that’s that for her. Still, even though Janet is pretty dumb (to say the least), her obtuse reactions to Howard’s plans are strangely appropriate and acceptable. Of course any reader will easily understand against what Howard wants to revolt, still, his actions seem somewhat irresponsible, meaningless, futile and of no effect, so it’s no wonder that a person with Janet’s limited powers of comprehension will find them such an immensely big mystery.

By the way, it seems to me that Janet is, after all, not as dumb as she looks. Despite the fact that her vocabulary, immature personality, desires, thoughts, emotions and reactions all show the mind-numbing effects of television, it’s worth noting that she still retains the power to reflect upon herself. She continuously comments on her own ignorance and simplicity, she admits that due to her prettiness she doesn’t have to be clever because men will love her anyway, and she even reflects upon the fact that there’s such a huge amount of junk on TV. It seems to me that Janet is well aware of her strengths and her limitations, and at the end of the novel she even learns how to take the initiative and shape her life to fit her needs.

And this is the most frightening and satiric aspect of this novel – no matter how easy it is to justify Howard’s dissatisfaction and to understand his awkward attempt to change his life, those self-assured, assertive, narrow-minded and in a way dangerous people like Janet always manage to make sure that attempts like Howard’s end in failure and that the world remains the kind of cozy, lukewarm place where they feel at home.