The late Anthony Burgess, a man of many talents and many books, did not leave quietly. His last work is this novel in ottava rima, frankly descended from Don Juan. Where Byron's Donny Johnny was a hapless wanderer through a corrupt and hypocritical society, Burgess's Byrne is "a lecherous defective dreamer" resembling someone in Homer called Margites. "Him the gods / Had not made skilled in craft or good in Greek. / He failed in every art." Byrne is the artist as predatory parasite. His musical compositions are hissed. His painting exhibition is closed down by the police ("The gallery was full of ladies fainting"). His reliable area of success is the bedroom -- preferably one belonging to a rich widow with an itch to support the arts, although "to give Byrne his due, he was a maker, / A natural father far more than a wencher." Even his versifying biographer may be one of his scattered, multiracial offspring. Byrne is last seen in Marrakesh, on the run from a bigamy charge, discredited for cooperation with the Nazis, introducing "'My boys. / I prefer women, but these make less noise.'" The novel's second half concerns some of Byrne's offspring and their ludicrous attempt to rehabilitate the paternal reputation. It is as learned, witty, and wildly rhymed as the first half, and bloodies sacred cows with similar energy. If Burgess's satire has a single target, it is those excesses of avant-garde modernism that have led to what he considered dead ends. Byrne sees his proposed biography as "a cautionary tale." It is, but a vastly amusing, sparkling, stimulating variation on that dreary genre.
Foreseeing much ado over the arrival of the year 2000, Mr. Gould provides "A Rationalist's Guide" to the countdown. He covers the calendrical history -- some of it practical, some of it absurd -- that has put us when we think we are. He implies, courteously, that for much of the world's population A.D. 2000 has neither religious nor historical significance and is, in fact, not 2000 at all. He presents a sound defense against dateline hysteria.
Mr. Louvish, who teaches at the London International Film School, must have worked long and hard on this biography of W. C. Fields. Fields was a superb comedian, but he was also a mischievous, amusing, and habitual liar. The hard-drinking curmudgeon who hated babies, kicked dogs, and stashed money in unlikely places under fantastic aliases was a deliberate invention, except for the drinking. Fields's biographer is faced with the problem of replacing entertaining fantasy with mere fact, and Mr. Louvish surmounts it very well indeed, with histories of vaudeville (Fields began as a juggler), of the extravagancies of Ziegfeld Follies, and of the uncertainties of early movie-making, while enlivening his text with effective quotations and sketches of everyone concerned -- a gallery of great clowns. The reader gets a sound view of Fields and of his world.
Mr. Coetzee writes, as always, with striking elegance, but it is not clear whether these "Scenes From Provincial Life" are to be taken as factual memories or fictional projections. If they are fiction, the author has afflicted his young protagonist with so many problems, real or semi-imaginary, that the final family disaster becomes an anticlimax. If they are factual, one cannot avoid the suspicion that any pleasant memories have been ruthlessly suppressed. The creation of a self-operated ball-throwing rig for the solo practice of cricket was a considerable achievement for a boy aged ten, and even though it usually threw wild, it must have produced a thrill of satisfaction when it worked accurately. Triumph is mentioned, but no joy is conveyed. Individual scenes in Mr. Coetzee's text are expertly, even beautifully, presented, but as a whole the book is ambiguous and may not produce exactly the reaction that the author intended.
Mr. Moorhouse's re-creation of monastery life in medieval Ireland is half fiction and half history. The fiction consists of stories, dated from 588 to 1222, about the activities of individual monks on Skellig Michael, an island of terrifying austerity and awesome isolation. The history covers the wide-ranging and sophisticated ideological connections of early Irish Christianity, the influence of Irish scholarship on the European mainland, the surviving effects of pagan mythology, and other topics too numerous to list but of equal interest. The anchorites on Skellig Michael hoped to approach the divine through martyrdom, of which the Church recognized three degrees -- white, green, and red. Red, actual death in the service of Jesus Christ, was the most meritorious but not to be achieved except through outside sources -- not available in unpersecuted Ireland. The men on Skellig Michael counted on a combination of white and green -- unheated stone huts, constant hard work, inadequate clothing, miserable food, and limited sleep. There are no statistics on life expectancy in the community. Mr. Moorhouse writes with eloquence and a quiet humor calculated to charm even the blackest of heathens.
He was "The First Private Eye," a Scottish cooper who came to the United States in 1842, established a prosperous business in barrels, and was lured into detection when he accidentally revealed a talent for catching crooks. His company still exists, and many of Pinkerton's methods are still in use by police departments and the FBI. A simple success story -- except for the details of criminal gangs and Civil War espionage, which provide a steady run of lively Americana.
"The Treatise of Fishing With an Angle" was written around 1420, according to tradition by a nun and noblewoman whose name, spelled with medieval insouciance in her own time, is here given as Juliana Berners. Mr. McDonald and his assistants (Sherman Kuhn, Dwight Webster, and the editors of Sports Illustrated) have been unable to document the existence of Dame Juliana, but why should anyone doubt it? Who in the sixteenth century would have invented a sporting nun? And why? This handsome book contains a modern English translation of the treatise, a facsimile of the surviving manuscript with a printed version on the opposing pages, and illustrations of the flies mentioned in the treatise. There is also bibliographic and antiquarian detail for the pleasure of specialists. Modern anglers will find that despite unfamiliar terms and the English setting, Dame Juliana was sound on the essential requirements for success on pond and stream: good gear, proper weather, and water with fish in it.
The Atlantic Monthly; October 1997; Brief Reviews; Volume 280, No. 4; pages 116-118.