Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Burgess's The Doctor is Sick

Anthony Burgess's 1960 novel The Doctor is Sick is relatively early and more autobiographical than most of his 30-odd novels. As Burgess told the story, his collapse while teaching in Brunei and subsequent diagnosis of a brain tumor, which led to his repatriation to England and further time in a neurological ward before the diagnosis was shown to be false, led him, at the age of 42, to concentrate full time on his dream of being a writer. At the time of his passing over 30 years later in 1993 the penniless orphan and itinerant teacher would be a millionaire celebrity author, a Monaco-based tax exile with a string of properties across Europe. Burgess dramatized this story a bit: he was already a published author as well as an accomplished composer when he collapsed.

Nonetheless Burgess's talents and output were prodigious. In addition to several dozen novels he composed hundreds of pieces of music, spoke many languages fluently including Malay, Urdu, Arabic and Russian (he debriefed Dutch refugees in Gibraltar during the war), published works on literary criticism (including two book-length studies of Joyce that are well-regarded to this day) and linguistics, translations, and travel writings, all the while lecturing and teaching at universities across the world. In fact he resented the success of A Clockwork Orange (1962), the novel that made him rich and famous, for obscuring the rest of his work and skewing his reputation, which it certainly did (he would pointedly refer to it as one of his "minor works"). He is one of my favorite authors (one of my "culture gods," as my college poetry professor A. McA. Miller would say) and at this point I'm not sure how many of his books I've read. Thankfully there is always more.

The Doctor is Sick is, as I said, autobiographical, being the story of Edwin Spindrift, professor of linguistics, who is repatriated from Burma after a collapse and admitted to a hospital in London where he is scheduled to undergo brain surgery after a series of excruciating tests. He is accompanied by his wife Sheila, who has been for some time enjoying the company of other men owing to Edwin's impotence, and who quickly stops visiting him in the hospital in favor of haunting nearby taverns (Burgess's first wife Lynne died of cirrhosis of the liver due to alcoholism in 1968, at which point Burgess married his mistress Liana and acknowledged their four-year-old son. One wonders what Lynne made of the present novel).

Doctor is a good example of my favorite Burgess mode, satirical farce. The best of his comic novels are the four Enderby novels, academic comedies following the misadventures of the hapless and sordid poet. Another favorite is Honey for the Bears (1963), a satire of the Soviet Union that, like A Clockwork Orange, reflects his love for the sound of the Russian language. All of these novels chronicle farcical drunken escapades where various characters meet up with each other and alternate between befriending and assisting each other and robbing and abusing each other. They have an obvious debt to Evelyn Waugh in that wicked satire and lampooning of human foibles is the sugar coating over a deeper strain of moralistic outrage at what society has come to (Spindrift passes through a pinball arcade where the goal of one game is the destruction of the Earth). In both Waugh and Burgess there is a surface of hedonism and ribaldry that is perfectly entertaining in itself, and an underlying moral space for those readers who care to look.

Burgess's fascination with language is also given free rein here through the vehicle of the desperate Spindrift, who, dreading and doubting his impending brain surgery, "escapes" from the hospital, penniless, head shaven and wearing his pajamas under a stolen jacket, and goes on a mock-epic search for Sheila. Both the residents of the hospital ward and the various London lowlifes he encounters display various accents; this is Burgess's London speech novel. Edwin also muses on etymologies, orthography, cognates and usage while trying to survive his desperate adventure.

A mock-moral of the tale is that Edwin, the otherworldly academic (his surgeon resents that Edwin insists on the honorific "doctor"), must actually learn to survive on the streets, and thus "finds himself," this consisting of a) realizing that he might not necessarily be desperate to find Sheila after all, b) finding that he rather likes petty theft, which he turns out to be good at and which opens the possibility of "living in the moment," and c) discovering and learning to act out on his own inner reservoirs of rage towards authority and hypocrisy. In the end he returns to his life as a linguist, but liberated (from Sheila, from Burma, from his job). A nice drunken romp through late 50s London. I recommend it.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Declan Kiberd

Declan Kiberd is one of the foremost contemporary Irish literary scholars. I have just read The Irish Writer and the World, a collection of essays published in 2005. This is a follow-up to the much larger anthology Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation, which was published in 1996 to wide acclaim. At 699 pages (35 essays), Inventing Ireland is a bit too big of a bite for me right now, although I have a copy and I will get back to Kiberd, maybe on a vacation sometime (my idea of beach reading!). At 320 pages (19 essays) The Irish Writer was itself a bit of an experiment for me; I'm a philosopher by trade and I read novels and keep this blog for pleasure. Once I got into it, though, I found that it was a pleasure to read - I wish I had time to read Inventing Ireland right now, I just don't.

Kiberd is a scholar of the Irish Literary Revival, also known as the Celtic Revival, of the late 19th-early 20th century. This was the literary and cultural vanguard of the renascent Irish nationalism that culminated in the establishment of the Free State in 1922. It was, among other things, a sustained attempt to rescue the Irish language and Celtic traditions in general from oblivion, in which it was to some extent successful (Kiberd informs us that there are about 400 books published annually in Irish today). Its leading lights were the poet W.B. Yeats (1865-1939) and the folklorist Lady Gregory (1852-1932), who together established the Abbey Theatre that still mounts productions in downtown Dublin. Kiberd is perhaps the foremost expert on J. M. Synge (1871-1909), the playwright of The Playboy of the Western World (1907), which famously sparked riots during its premiere, and other plays that critically examined internalized Irish stereotypes and influenced Sean O'Casey (1880-1964) who produced many political plays including Juno and the Paycock (1924) and The Plough and Stars (1926).

Like his subjects, the protagonists of the Gaelic League, Kiberd is fluent in Irish, and the earlier essays here are interesting for their discussions of Irish-language novels and poems. However Kiberd is a dialectician by inclination and training (at one point he describes himself as a "radical") and he has not done his days' work if he does not deconstruct some set of preconceived notions about Irishness or the other. One theme I found refreshing was his work to break down the barrier between "Anglo-Irish" identity and literature and that of the "Catholic" (I suppose) Irish. This is important as many of the historical leading lights of Irish literature, from Swift to Wilde, have been members of the Anglo-Irish minority. Kiberd argues that the writers of the Irish Literary Revival and their successors developed a poetic style of English prose by writing English with Irish grammatical patterns and, more provocatively, that the Irish-language literature of the Revival and subsequently is deeply inflected by English. Irish cultural studies and literary criticism cannot Quixotically ignore the fact of deep Anglicization, in short. This is a striking example of the way Irish literature helps me understand cultural and social issues here in Puerto Rico where a defensive nationalism also sometimes leads to willful obtuseness about popular culture (lots of little jibarito tchotchkes in the tourist shops, lots of hip-hop fans in the classroom). Kiberd will have none of this.

This allows Kiberd to develop a broader compass of Irish literature, one that embraces Anglo-Irish writers like Wilde and Yeats and freely makes use of this resource in examining "native" Irish writers. Kiberd shows that the question of language is crucial for all Irish writers (and he is unafraid to weave an ongoing discussion of Joyce into his work). Kiberd is of the new generation of Irish artists and thinkers who want Irish letters to look forward, not backward, and he resists all attempts to manufacture Irishness. He is as much a political and social critic as a literary one, bringing to mind the contemporary Irish historian Diarmaid Ferriter whose The Transformation of Ireland (2004) documents the transformation of Ireland into a modern European country in the 20th century.

Ferriter understands Kiberd to be framing the cultural identity issue as "posing the choice between nationality and cosmopolitanism," and it is true that Kiberd points up the apparent irony of the rise of Irish cultural nationalism in the form of the Revival at the same time as a generation of great Irish writers (Yeats, Joyce, Synge) writing in English. However, on Kiberd's view (I think) this is not an irony at all, rather we see two facets of one development, which is precisely Irish worldliness: the acceptance of a living presence of the Irish language and high aspirations for English-language Irish literature, rather than a self-defeating rejection of both. (Kiberd doesn't mention Ferriter, probably because Kiberd is the older man. Colm Toibin, inevitably, has blurbs on the jackets of both.)

Kiberd wants to foster a living Irish culture that is not self-conscious about drawing on both the Irish and the English elements when appropriate. He places Irish literature very persuasively in the larger context of modern-day Ireland, excoriating both the "designer Stalinists" (a recurring phrase) who would globalize Irish architecture and style out of existence, and those who would treat native culture as a kind of diorama to be preserved as an exhibit for the delectation of tourists (another problem common to Ireland and Latin America). He sees clearly that Ireland is at an historically defining crossroads, something he shares with contemporary novelists like Anne Enright and Dermot Bolger (Kiberd is disdainful of Bolger in earlier essays, warms up to him later. I agree Bolger is not a great novelist). Kiberd makes much of Ireland's modern prosperity, which he argues is another transforming element that renders past stereotypes worthless; reading essay 17, "The Celtic Tiger: a cultural history" (2003), I wonder what he has to say about Ireland after the economic downturn and real estate bubble that is causing such hardship today.