Sunday, October 12, 2014

Book Report: THE WORM & THE RING by Anthony Burgess

Finished reading Anthony Burgess' 1970 revised version of his 1963 novel THE WORM AND THE RING last night. This is one of his most difficult novels to find; the original British edition was withdrawn by its publisher and pulped when threatened with libel litigation from persons who knew Burgess at one of his earlier teaching posts - including, the biographies say, a fellow woman teacher with whom Burgess had been smitten. There never was an American edition. Finding an unpulped original edition will run you into the high hundreds or low thousands; even this less elusive edition doesn't come cheap, but I take my Burgess seriously.

Though meticulously observed and typically well written, with the author's attention bobbing and dipping from the surface of life to its most profound interior monologue depths, this is a disappointingly slight novel about the awakening, indecisive and dying passions among the students and teachers at a British public school. It juggles and toggles between four major and a couple of minor characters, some of whom are pointedly Catholic and ponder the disadvantages of this when one is assailed by the temptations of life. The book hits its high points during a field trip to Paris, where two married (but not to each other) teachers, tempted by temporary liberty while being entrusted to supervise a mixed group of students, but there is no sense of momentum to carry us along, and the book's comic, serious and philosophic selves are not smoothly blended. The last few chapters - where the revising took place, is my guess - feel rushed and alternately blunt and jagged as glass. The title is drawn from a rhapsodic latter chapter paragraph that maps the highs and lows of existence, from the rings of church bells and holy matrimony to the lowliest worm subsisting on death, but it also carries an ornery allusion to male and female sexual apparatus. The book is full of such ornery wordplay, as when one student improbably calls out "Merde de chat!" after tossing a ball to a classmate. ("Catch it" - get it?)

This was one of the five novels Burgess wrote in the year after being given his imminent death notice by a doctor who allegedly found in him an inoperable brain tumor; A CLOCKWORK ORANGE was another. The tumor turned out to have been a false alarm and a Burgess went on to write dozens of more books. I'm glad I was finally able to find and read it, but THE WORM AND THE RING is among the least of them.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.