Grab Bag of Burgess Tales

THIS volume collects nine unpublished oddments of a long and distinguished literary career. One hesitates to call it a ``grab bag'' because that term carries pejorative connotations. But if there was ever a literary grab bag, a story collection lacking stylistic or thematic unity, this is it. Which is not to say that these stories do not give pleasure. As is often the case, readers will probably enjoy the stories in proportion to what they bring to them.

Opera buffs, for example, may particularly like Burgess's retelling of ``Der Rosenkavalier,'' especially since he has placed it inside an envelope of musings about time. Meanwhile, other readers will wonder why a writer of Burgess's stature is spending his talents reworking the Hugo von Hofmannsthal classic.

Sherlock Holmes fans will read with interest ``Murder to Music,'' Burgess's pastiche on that genre. And other readers will again wonder what Burgess is about.

Readers with an appetite for history will be pleased by ``Hun,'' the 120-page novella about Attila. Set in AD 550, a century after Attila's death, the story unfolds as if related by a theologian/schoolteacher addressing boys in an Egyptian outpost of the Roman empire and posits Attila's significance in that context.

While nicely written and researched, the novella does not probe the mysteries of an unbridled barbarism - was it cultural? psychological? - that caused Attila and his followers to wreak unrelenting carnage on their enemies while forging a necessarily transient empire of horsemen.

Having lived in parts of the decolonizing third world, this reviewer brought special background to two stories, set in Malaya where Burgess served as a British education officer from 1954 to 1958. They deal with racism, depersonalization, and the sexual fascination of colonials for the peoples colonized.

In the three most unusual stories Burgess is at play, letting his writer's imagination free-associate on some improbable cultural possibilities.

``A Meeting in Valladolid,'' for example, hypothesizes a confrontation between Will Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes on the imagined occasion of the Globe Theatre troupe's visit to the site of treaty negotiations between Spaniards and British. The two masters, both a bit cantankerous, argue the merits of their works. A Spanish mediator judges Cervantes the superior artist, telling Shakespeare: ``You lack his wholeness. He has seen more of life.'' To which Shakespeare replies: ``I have done no more than earn my bread. Art is nothing but a livelihood.''

Tweaked by the challenge, Shakespeare commands his troupe to perform a version of ``Hamlet'' that includes not only Falstaff and Prince Hal, but employs the same actor playing both Queen Gertrude and Mistress Quickly. Cervantes's reaction: ``It was too long.''

Another story, ``The Most Beautified,'' serves up an antic meditation on feminine beauty and beauty in art, conducted by a Faustian university professor with a Mephistopholean assistant. The scene is the Wittenberg of Luther and Melanchton, and one of the students, a Danish prince is summoned home because his father has just died. (This appears to be Hamlet, doing an uncredited cameo.)

To the wonder of his students, the professor conjures up a kind of holographic image - first skeleton, then flesh - of Helen of Troy. ``Beauty in woman differs from that of art,'' opines the scholar, ``in that the organicity of art is pure metaphor.'' Which is to say that Burgess mixes the antic and pedantic.

The title story ``1889 and the Devil's Mode'' offers the most intriguing cultural high jinks. In it the reader meets Claude Debussy in Paris musing on the challenge of musically describing the newly built Eiffel Tower. Soon in London where Christina Rossetti wants him to set a poem to music, Debussy meets French poet St'ephane Mallarm'e on the street. Mallarm'e persuades the composer to accompany him to Dublin. There he hopes to find an early, and possibly lost, work by Edgar Allan Poe.

Instead, the two men find Robert Browning. The poet has come to Ireland to meet ``Father Hopkins'' (poet Gerard Manley Hopkins), who has recently died. The three men stop for tea at a hotel where a ``blue-eyed lad in a sailor suit and spectacles'' observes them, significantly enough for Burgess to mention the boy's presence ``thrice'' - to employ a favorite Burgess archaism.

Still later, Mallarm'e and Debussy visit an Irish brothel - in the interests of artistic research, Mallarm'e assures Debussy, ``not for the purposes of lust.'' There, tinkering at an upright piano, Debussy discovers his revolutionary tritone, unlocks the musical conundrum of the modus diaboli, a musical interval of three whole stops, and ``finds the faun.''

In this work Burgess gives readers a fruitcake of a story, chock full of nutty cultural coincidences, plot improbabilities, biographical curiosities, wild puns, and fin de si`ecle allusions.

In appreciating the story, it helps to know that Mallarme's most famous poem ``L'Apr`es-Midi d'un faune'' (written in 1865) inspired Debussy's best-known work ``Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun'' (1894); that Browning, Hopkins, Mallarm'e, and Poe all experimented with the sound of language in their poetry; and that the bespectacled boy is James Joyce (about whom Burgess has written several books).

Even so, readers know they missing a great deal. This reviewer acknowledges slipping up on musical allusions. (Burgess composes serious music.) He wishes, too, that he knew exactly why Browning contemplates confessing to a murder he may or may not have committed in 1861, the year his wife, poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, died. And he wishes that someone could tell him if the ``Dublin lady, somewhat horsy in face, with a spaniel on a lead,'' seen entering that crowded tea room is Lady Gregory, a leader of the Irish literary renaissance.

It's the nature of a grab bag to offer both delights and disappointments. In this grab bag some readers, especially those with an appetite for cultural antics, will find delights. Others may find disappointments.

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