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Anthony Burgess’s Novel of Shakespeare

Recently I read Anthony Burgess’s 1964 novel Nothing Like the Sun. It’s a tale of William Shakespeare’s life, largely written in Elizabethan late 1500’s English. At first, starting out the book, it seemed too hard. But, just like when I see a Shakespeare play, I adapted a bit—and lived with the fact that many of the unfamiliar words were unknown to the Oxford Dictionary in my Kindle. Indeed a few of the expressions or words don’t even turn up hits on Google. But I did find definitions for a lot of them, and the remaining ones I could figure out from context, which was kind of fun.

These days I often read books on Kindle—because I can put them into a font size suitable for my old eyes. I do love paper, of course, but font size matters more. Another bennie of using the Kindle is that I can highlight passages that strike my fancy, email the passages to myself, and use them as the text for one of my photoblog posts. So here are my quotes, with some short comments, also photos, mostly from New York and Santa Cruz, plus a couple of my new paintings.

“Gems Diptych” acrylic on canvas, August, 2019, Pair of paintings, each 24” x 30”. Click for a larger version of the painting.

The young Shakespeare has sex with a passionate older woman, who speaks in a ladylike way afterwards, even though, to his shock, “[her speech] in no wise congrued with her lying near-bare against him nor with that horrible steaming-out, some few minutes past of a mouthful apter for a growling leching collier pumping his foul water into some giggling alley-mort up by the darkling wall of a stinking alehouse privy.”

(I did the two paintings above by starting out by brushing in a flowing Art Nouveau grid, as if for a stained-glass window, and then filling in the cells with colors, going to great lengths to have the shading be nice and smooth. The first one took me nearly thirty hours to do. I liked it so much that I did a second, using approximately the same colors, so they make a nice pair, or diptych. The paintings have zero connection with the quote above, but I wanted to put the Gems first in this post because I love them.)

Life in a nutshell: “…the eternal terrible truth of the skull disclosed at the feast’s end.” (This summer will turn to winter…)

Nature writing: “Leaves gold and brown lying like fried fish; birds twittering like rats in branch-companies, ready to leave the sinking ship of summer.” (Photo from a Santa Cruz bluff.)

Ah, the Shakespearean insights. “The play we act in is still busily being written in that dark room behind, the final couplet not yet known even to the cloaked and anonymous writer.” (The picture shows J. P. Morgan’s rare book room in Manhattan.)

A resentful older rival of Shakespeare’s famously applies this description to him in a pamphlet, soon after our Willy the Shake made it into the London theater scene: “An upstart crow, beautified with our feathers.” (Full house at a Broadway performance of Hadesland.)

Shakespeare writes a pamphlet length poem called Venus & Adonis, dedicating it to an earl whose support he needs. “It is not good, but it is as good as many. I cannot waste my whole life in longing for this man’s art and that man’s scope.” (The beauty queen in the photo was on a float. She’s gearing up for a Cuban parade in Manhattan, and she’s checking out a photo her friend took of her practicing a pose.)

Birds really are not our friends. “They were swans, but like the swans that sailed in the barge’s wake, greedy and cold-eyed. And the kites that flew to and from their scavenging in the June air, the ultimate cleansers of the commonwealth, they attested the end of all noble flesh.” (I rode my bicycle along the cliffs between Three Mile Beach and downtown Santa Cruz, and hit on this deserted cove. The driftwood here looks like a an alien slug. Possibly a flesh-eater!)

Burgess really raises his game in Nothing Like The Sun . “It was for lying, he saw hopelessly, that words had been made. In the beginning was the word and the word was with the Father of Lies.” (Not that this innocent and entertaining busker in the photo in Madison Square is the Father of Lies! But his beseeching pose vaguely fits the quote.)

Shakespeare is a father now, and he ponders how strange it is to to have spawned new human lives. “Only from them, the makers [that is, the parent], was hidden the enormous pulse of the engines, whose switch they touched by an alien curse concealed in the fever of rose or apple or mirror.” And looking out at the spreading lives of your offspring, “Yet there was only the one personal burden of being the source of the whole, the centre of the projection of shadows into the real that, bigger and undying, yet moved as oneself moved, in the mock court of an endless sterile reign to truckle and mow [not sure what he means by mow here].” (Rudy Jr. and me in Maine, photo by Embry Rucker III.)

A young writer’s unkind thoughts about his elders in the field. “There are examples enough of other poets and players who sought, when their powers failed for the enactment of sin, to whine to Almighty God of their deep and profound repentance. Yet call time back and they would be staggering anew in their drunkenness and grunting in beastly thrusting at their ragg’d and spotted drabs.” (That’s a full-size car. Sculpture in Manhattan near the midtown boat taxi stop.)

Love this quote. I’d like to start using this all the time. “I have news for thee, snorer.” (Photo in the Met.)

“Then to thy bed, belching in sloth, to lie there, paper unwritten on save by random sprawling greasy greedy fingers, ale-drop jottings, dust settling on the pile.” (At one of our fave restaurants in Manhattan, L’Express on Park Ave at 20th St.)

“WS blinked back to the painful world on a hot morning, openmouthed at the strong mid-morning sunray infested with motes.” I love looking at motes in the sunlight. Each mote a universe. (Cubans getting their outfits on for the parade. Love how cheerful they are. A holiday outing.)

“Five Eggs” acrylic on canvas, August, 2019, 24” x 30”. Click for a larger version of the painting. (This was a third version of the “Gems” paintings, but this time I wanted to put critters into the cells, so they’d be like eggs.)

“…a thrust of opal drops in animal ecstasy unleashed a universe — stars, sun, gods, hell and all.” “Soon, his heart sank to think it, she would be enticed to cornfields to beguile the dullness of a country spring.”

You never really know what you’re doing when you’re writing. All you can do is hope for the best. “…a man’s art and skill grew or languished or merely changed, and all beyond his control.” (The Met. I like to pretend that the crater at the top is the mouth of this being, with the black dot the eye. Sort of a half-fish half-human Bosch/Bruegel critter.)

“Only he himself knew what might be done if the words and craft could descend in a sort of pentecostal dispensation of grace. He saw dimly, a vision lay coyly beyond the tail of his eye. This stuff was play. There was a reality somewhere to be encompassed and, with God’s grimmest irony, it might only be grasped through playing at play, thus catching reality off its guard.” (A shrine to the Blessed Virgin Mary in Los Gatos near a Jesuit Center. Dig the praying saint on the left.)

“For the first time it was made clear to me that language was no vehicle of soothing prettiness to warm cold castles that waited for spring, no ornament for ladies or great lords, chiming, beguiling, but a potency of sharp knives and brutal hammers.” (Some of my recent Night Shade reprints on the shelf in the Barnes & Noble in Union Square in NY. Yes!)

4 Responses to “Anthony Burgess’s Novel of Shakespeare”

  1. paradoctor Says:

    It’s good to see Gems Diptych online, having seen you at work on them. Which of the two was the second one you made?

  2. womans voice Says:

    Haven’t been here in a few months. Rudy, there are some really extraordinary photos in this blog entry. The one of the Virgin Mary grotto is spectacular. But it’s in good company. Also loved the shot of a bookshelf with all your titles, in a row, in paperback, sporting your own art on the covers. The driftwood snake. You may be developing “old eyes” but your camera eye is as sharp as ever. 🙂

  3. Rudy Says:

    paradoctor, the first of the Gems paitnings is on the right.

    womans voice, thanks as always for your kind words.

    Current reading: I got hold of Anthony Burgess’s 1970 nonfiction book called simply Shakespeare. He wrote it six after his novel Nothing Like the Sun, and to some extent it functions as a set of annotations to the novel. That is, in the nonfiction book, Burgess fills out and explains a lot of the background characters and action in the novel. But it’s more than notes, it has its own flow. It’s a VERY enjoyable book. I never expected to get so interested in Shakespeare, after all these years. I’ll be rereading some of the plays next, and there’s many I’ve never read at all.

  4. Tom Says:

    The gems are cool.

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