From Hun to Holmes, a Writer’s Romp Through History : THE DEVIL’S MODE <i> by Anthony Burgess (Random House: $18.95; 288 pp.; 0-394-57670-5) </i>
In the nine stories in “The Devil’s Mode,” the prolific Anthony Burgess diverts himself and us by making Mozart, Shakespeare, Attila the Hun and Debussy, to name a few, personages in the tales narrated. The result is funny and also thought-provoking. Was Attila really a reluctant Scourge of God?
Sherlock Holmes is here too, with Watson even dimmer than usual. Holmes unravels a deliberately far-fetched plot by dint of guessing that the musical syllable re, uttered in extremis by someone, means also “king” to the utterer, and thus Holmes sets himself on the track. Typical of Burgess’ comedy is Holmes’ remark on seeing a stage-doorman dead on the pavement, murdered: “Poor Simpson. I knew him, Watson.”
If this sounds familiar, Attila’s tale may not be, and it might be wise for a reader to refresh himself by looking up Attila in his handy Encyclopaedia Brittanica, preferably the 11th Edition. There Attila’s grotesquely ambitious and nearly successful career can be read straight, along with important details such as Attila’s resurrection of a betrothal pledge from Honoria (granddaughter of Theodosius II) in the form of a ring sent by her to Attila, with a request that he be her husband and her “rescuer” from romantic rumors (or facts) circulating in her court circle at that time. Nothing came of this odd proposal (don’t forget, this happened around 445 AD), but Attila brought the matter up years later with farcical effect, when he tried to hold her to her promise after she had become otherwise occupied.
Attila was fond of trampling upon Rome, in its declining days, and also upon Constantinople. He took on Gaul but met with surprising resistance. A short, thickset man of primitive tastes and habits, Attila in Burgess’ story is a little dynamo, ruthless in regard to human and animal life, bent upon enlarging his empire, which at one point stretched from the Caspian Sea to the Rhine--though his base, if indeed he had any, seems to have been near Buda-Pest.
At 117 pages, the story of the Scourge of God, called simply “Hun,” is the most ambitious effort in this collection. Plainly Burgess has enjoyed describing these barbaric, sometimes frightened, rarely sensitive characters from history, giving them speech and emotions, making them vomit and belch under circumstances provoking same. It is as if Attila’s nearly incredible career were spread out before us as in a television newsreel, warts, laughter, bloodshed, wind and all. Vital of course is the strong threat of truth in the whole epic.
Attila died the night after a great wedding banquet on the occasion of his marriage to a damsel called Ildico. He died of unknown causes, “perhaps because of his excessive way of life,” according to historians. But Burgess has Ildico equip herself with a dagger in her waistband, and it is she who kills the drunken Hun when he comes into the bedroom on the wedding night.
Many are the side remarks, such as Vespasian being remembered not as a great Caesar but only as the man who put a tax on public urinals; and a comment from a character in “Hun” that a certain group of fighters does not understand what is meant by a cause; they understand and want only gold. Deprive them of pay, and they go away. Do certain freedom fighters spring to mind?
In “Snow” and “The Endless Voyager,” Burgess plays with the Malayan language and present-day computer-arranged air travel respectively. “Snow” is a near-fantasy of Malayans denying the existence of snow anywhere, because they have never seen it. The hero or protagonist is a Briton employed by his government to make a phonetic description of the Malay language. Girls are involved, so are puns, and by happy turn of events our hero ends up with an 18-year-old mistress of extraordinary pulchritude.
“The Endless Voyager,” on the other hand, begins with a man of late middle age who cares not where he goes nor where he sleeps (usually on an airplane) because his name has been changed from Paxton to Pixton by a clumsy clerk at Wolverhampton years ago, and the authorities have insisted on his sticking to Pixton. Paxton, furious at this injustice, tossed his passport away just before boarding a plane. He intends to use his bank account for travel from country to country until his money runs out.
The story has funny moments, as when the first-person narrator (a business traveler, not Paxton) keeps encountering Paxton in faraway places as Paxton becomes increasingly seedy and disoriented through exhaustion. But it is not one of the stronger stories in this collection.
In America, Burgess probably is best known for “A Clockwork Orange,” which yielded the unforgettable film of the same name. But he has written at least 30 novels and more than a dozen books of nonfiction, mainly on English literature and criticism, including one with the engaging title “But Do Blondes Prefer Gentlemen?” not to mention his Enderby series in the fiction department.
Since Burgess knows his history and has an unbounded imagination, anything can happen. “A Meeting in Valladolid,” a story in the book under review here, Shakespeare is in Spain on tour with his young male actors, and learns of Cervantes--creator of the skinny knight Don Quixote and the knight’s fat squire Sancho Panza--and said to be a great writer. Is Cervantes really better, greater than Shakespeare? Yes, say the Spaniards, for Cervantes is able to write of flesh and spirit at the same time. Shakespeare ponders this, even as he presses one hand against his abdomen, so sickened is he by the fare provided in the dry and (to him) backward towns of Spain.
So Shakespeare re-writes his “Hamlet” and Falstaff now plays a Sancho type, while Hamlet is rechristened Hal--instead of Ham, a change of but one letter, as someone remarks. It is four in the morning when the audience staggers out of the theater, wilting with fatigue. Sir Philip Spender, one of the audience, has slept soundly throughout, so he can vigorously propose that the “Comedy of Hamlet,” for such it has become, be played nightly so that its riches can be better understood. The Spanish and English are to forge a peace soon, or at least their respective rulers are. Shakespeare has tried to be obliging, but can’t wait to get home.
Either a reader will like this kind of fun or will soon tire of it, after trying. The stories may be best enjoyed one at a reading, and a day or so between them.
The tales are, most of them, not flippant. They are rich fare. Burgess plays with history as he wishes, and the amusement therefrom often is similar to that derived from musical puns. Burgess knows his music too.
“The Devil’s Mode” will send some people to their local libraries to check on Roman history, others to a bookshop to buy some Tacitus and Thucydides. That will add to the pleasure.