Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Anthony Burgess, ABBA ABBA (1977)

English Keats dies in Rome, over 80 densely vivid pages. Then, over forty more (what a shame it couldn't have been sixty), we encounter a clutch of sonnets by Roman poet Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli.

The second volume of Burgess's autobiography, You've Had Your Time, includes an account of Keatsian quasi-haunting (Burgess himself calls it 'psychic'). Burgess was asked to read aloud from Keats's poems inside the Rome building where the poet died: 'Reciting the odes, I became aware of a kind of astral wind, a malevolent chill, of a soul chained to the place where the body died, of a silent malignant laughter that mocked not my reading but the poems themselves.' On another occasion, working on a programme for Canadian TV, Burgess returned to the steps outside that house and read out Keats's sonnet "When I Have Fears That I May Cease To Be." He insists that during the course of this brief reading the weather changed completely from a clear sunny sky to a thundrous, stormy downpour that drowned out the words. By way of explanation, Burgess claims not to be "imputing a demonic vindictiveness" to Keats's soul, although doesn't repudiate the idea that the young poet's 'fierce creative energy', thwarted by death, in some sense haunts the house where he died. But it occurs to me that we need not take this sort of thing any more literally than any of the other things in Burgess's unreliable memoirs; but it pinpoints two useful things -- one, that there is something haunting, something hard to rid oneself of, about Keats's poetry (we could go further and suggest that that something, as in this novella, has to do with the uncanny superposition of sexual desire and death); and two, that this haunting is not benign.

ABBA ABBA strikes me as a characteristically good, though small-scale Burgessian achievement. The historical recreation is surprisingly lively, in the sense of avoiding musty cardboardness in the way it disposes of its research into living prose. Keats and Belli feel real, as are some of the characters who cluster around them: Keats's friends Joseph Severn and Lieutenant Elton; Pauline Napoleon, the deposed Emperor's sister. But there's also a fictional character, Giovanni Gulielmi ('John Wilson', Burgess's real name, of course), who translates Keats's sonnets into bad prosaic Italian, and who introduces Belli to Keats in the novel. In real life the two poets almost certainly never met, which is to say that Giovanni Gulielmi performs, in the logic of the novel -- bringing Keats and Belli together -- the same task that 'John Wilson' performs by actually writing the novel. There's also an element of 'what-if?' about the imagining -- like Andrew Motion's 2003 novella The Invention of Dr Cake (which parses the 'what if Keats never died?' question), this short novel  flirts with alternate history, particularly in the second section, where Gulielmi's family tree diverts into an alt-Anthony-Burgess, born one year before the real one, having a roughly parallel though less literarily productive life (including a stinging run-in with the critic Geoffrey Grigson, a real life enemy of Burgess and here rather coyly referred to as 'G--y G--n') and a death in New York at the hands of muggers.

The title, as countless reviewers and critics (including Burgess himself, both in his autobiography and, oh, in this very novel itself, p.81) is (a) the rhyme scheme of the octave of the Petrarchan sonnet, and (b) the Aramaic for 'father father', which is to say, the words Christ yelled on the cross. It's also, of course, Burgess's initials, set out, then reversed (as if in recognition of the more Scroogey element in Wilson's own makeup) twice. "Abba Abba" is also the epitaph on Burgess's marble memorial stone, behind which the vessel with his remains is kept, in Monte Carlo. One problem with the 'father, father' conceit is that there are no fathers in the novel, either actual or Papal (designedly, I suppose: Burgess brings forward Belli's appointment as Roman censor for dramatic purposes, he could just as well have brought forward the 1824 birth of Belli's son). Father, we intuit, is not worked-through here in familial or biological ways, but it rather a formal and textual quantity, the crucifiction cry rendered, bathetically, into the chant of a theatre audience 'author! author!' Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say: form itself becomes the father of art, and the actual subject of this narrow, carefully worked text. Here's A S Byatt, from her introduction to a 2000 reprint of the novel:
In an essay published in 1967, in a collection entitled The God I Want, Burgess typically conducted his argument as a dialogue between two speakers, in this case "Anthony" and "Burgess". "Anthony", the sceptical voice, interviews "Burgess" who confesses to believing in a God whom he compares to mathematics, to grammar, and to the score of a symphony. Not, he says, the composer. The score, the notation, the form itself of the symphony, the potential experience of coherence and beauty. Like, he might have added, the sonnet form. Elsewhere, he said that his God did exist, but was like a Beethoven symphony eternally playing itself to itself, unconcerned with human plights.
The danger, I suppose, is that this works out in practice as a kind of watery Platonism. Here's Burgess's dying Keats:
He had one dream or vision that shocked him at first with a sense of blasphemy, though it must be a sense borrowed from Severn, since he who did not believe could not well blaspheme. Christ pendebat from his cross and cried ABBA ABBA. Now John knew that this was the Aramaic for father father, but he knew better that it was the rhyme scheme of a Petrarchan sonnet octave. It came to him thus that the sonnet form might subsist above language, but he did not see how this was possible. Language itself was perhaps only a ghost of the things in the outer world to which it adhered, and a ghost of a ghost was a notion untenable totally. And yet it seemed that two men, of language mutually unintelligible, might in a sense achieve communication through recognition of what a sonnet was. Belli and himself, for instance. Then breathing became a craft to be craftily learnt again, a matter of catching the gods of unbreathing off their guard.
The shift from a vague sense of the mystical ultimate formal reality of art to an emphasis on translation perhaps saves this.  In the novel Guliemi translates Keats, Keats translates Belli, Belli translates 'official' Italian into Roman dialect, and (of course) Anthony Burgess translates a clutch of actual Belli sonnets. And the way the novel captures the sense of Keats's actual death as a process of relentless diminution that is both well written and moving:
St Valentine's Day came, and with it Valentino Llanos to announce he would go to England soon. Then a week passed and two more days, and John knew his dying day had come, yet to achieve death might be a day's hard labour. Severn held him, as it were carrying him to the gate, but he could not bear Severn's laboured breathing, for it struck like ice. To put off the world outside – the children's cries, snatches of song, a cheeping sparrow, the walls and the wallpaper and the chairs that thought they would outlast him but would not, the sunlight streaking the door – was not over-difficult. A bigger problem was to separate himself from his body – the hand worn to nothing, the lock of hair that fell into his eye, even the brain that scurried with thoughts and words and images. It took long hours to die.

"I'm. Sorry. Severn. My weight. "

"Nothing, it's nothing, rest now. "

He tried to give up breathing, to yield to the breathless gods, but his body, worn out as it was, would not have that. It pumped in its feeble eggspoons of Roman air, motes in the sun and all, but there seemed to be nothing in his body to engage the air. The afternoon wore on to evening and his brain was fuddled and he groped for the essence he had called I. It fell through his fingers.

"John. John. "

There was nothing there to make any answer. Severn dropped the body to the bed and the body gave out some teaspoons of fluid and a final sigh.

The quiet house became busy. The apartment was stripped of everything, and the children gaped at the carts outside in the piazza, on to which furniture, rugs, rolls of stripped off wallpaper were piled, to be taken off for the burning. Signora Angeletti presented a bill. "I have money enough, fear not, madam, " Severn said. "Only enough, but enough. " The plates and cups they had used, these he smashed with his cane, smashed and smashed while Signora Angeletti cried, "Accidenti."
This latter word is unobtrustive enough in its double referent, the Aristotelian/Catholic hint that only Keats's somatic accidents have died, that his spiritual substance continues, not to be clanging. And the thinness of the dying poet is parleyed into the slenderness of this novel.

Enough for now: at some future point I'll engage with Colin Burrow's interesting, kind-of perceptive and yet, I feel, somehow massively point-missing LRB essay on Burgess. It's about time Burgess's bright star began to wax again.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I've just finished rereading ABBA ABBA after many years and stumbled on your essay here. Thank you for your thoughts and insights into this amazing slender little window into the last days of Keats. I love how Burgess describes JJ Wilson as Keats himself would have been described -- hilarious and sneaky. ... an odd book that, like the poet himself, does not let go.