Sunday, February 23, 2014

`To Speak As Though It Were Something'

By the time Anthony Burgess published Earthly Powers in 1980, I had lost interest in his work. This was not a delayed act of revulsion as had happened earlier in the case of William Burroughs, whose sadistic comic books I read on the cusp of puberty and soon discarded for more age-appropriate reading matter. Burgess visited my campus in April 1971, at the peak of my enthusiasm for his novels and non-fiction. He was about to publish M/F, which I soon bought in hard cover – a sizable cash commitment at the time – and Kubrick hadn’t yet released A Clockwork Orange. As a lecturer Burgess was a showman and he made an entertaining drinking companion. He represented for this Ohio boy a type I hadn’t before encountered in the flesh – the bookish, word-drunk impresario who drank whiskey with style and some discretion. Within a few years, after reading most of his books, we drifted apart, civilized, without acrimony. 

Several readers have lobbied me to read Earthy Powers, with its famous opening line -- “It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.” – and I slipped it into my Someday But Probably Never file. Until last week, when I found an English first edition in a customarily disappointing and overpriced used bookstore in Houston. The manager fancies himself a critic. Most of the books come with a yellow card taped to the plastic-wrapped cover -- half sales pitch, half price tag -- on which he helpfully writes: “1st Edition. He wrote more than Clockwork Orange! A bargain! $15.00.” I bought it. The cover is potboiler-tacky – a sun burning through black and red clouds. I enjoy owning previously owned books. I fancy they carry traces of previous owners and readers. This volume is worn, the cover creased, a few pages stained with brown spots as though someone had sneezed on it while drinking coffee. No underlining or annotations, but the front page is signed “Judith de Steifuer” in a flamboyantly spidery hand. She underlined her name, apparently for emphasis. I’ll take good care of him, Judith.
I wasn’t going to say anything until I’d finished reading Earthly Powers, but Nige shared a charming anecdote about an inscription he found in a copy of Watt. It remains my sentimental favorite among Beckett’s novels, the one I’ve read most often and the only one I ever read as a class assignment. I pulled out my old Grove Press paperback, worn but perfectly intact, the one with the pale green cover and the black circle, broken at the bottom, that has always reminded me of a Zen painting. Traces of an earlier, more pretentious self remain. On page 44, next to the sentence beginning “Do not come down the letter…,” I wrote: “Wittgenstein!” And on page 77 I underlined “for the only way one can speak of nothing is to speak as though it were something….” On the front page is my signature and the date of purchase: “1-11-71.” 

Beckett’s final entry in the novel’s “ADDENDA (I)”: “no symbols where none intended”

1 comment:

George said...

I did not care for Earthly Powers. It suffered, I thought, from the determination to get in absolutely everything that had ever crossed the author's mind: religion, music, phonetics, cracks at higher-brow writers and the critics who admire them, etc. But then came The End of the World News, which begins, as I recall it, by saying that it isn't worth the trouble of writing good novels any more; it continues by showing that Burgess wasn't kidding. Anyway, whether or no you think that Earthly Powers is any good, you might enjoy his memoir Little Wilson and Big God. One sees where various bits and pieces of Earthly Powers, the Malaysian trilogy, etc., came from.

As for Beckett, it sounds like a borrowing from Mark Twain's notice at the beginning of Huckleberry Finn.