A guy called Gerald


From en.wikipedia.org


A few years ago, I wrote a piece on this blog about how the popularity, fame and acclaim won by many writers during their lifetimes seem to evaporate with, or soon after, their deaths.  Once they’re gone, they’re usually forgotten too.  I was inspired to write this after taking a wander in Dalry Cemetery in Edinburgh and discovering a tombstone for the novelist George Cupples, who died in 1891.  When I did some online research into Cupples, I found out that he’d written ‘dozens of nautical novels’ and his 1856 novel The Green Hand: A Sea Story (1856) was reckoned to be ‘one of the best sea stories ever written.’  But does anyone apart from a tiny handful of specialists know of Cupples and his work today?  I doubt it.


In the same entry I discussed the posthumous reputations of writers from the 1920s, 30s and 40s like Edgar Wallace, Hervey Allen, James Hilton and Dennis Wheatley – all massively popular in their day, but again, practically forgotten in the 21st century.  Indeed, names that were ubiquitous on the bestseller racks in bookshops and newsagents when I was a kid, like Harold Robbins, Morris West, Leon Uris and Alistair MacLean, seem to have disappeared into the mists too.  Everyone was reading their books in the 1970s but I can’t imagine many people reading them now.


To this list of forgotten writers we must add the British (later American) author Gerald Kersh, who was once prolific and popular – his Wikipedia entry credits him with 20 novels and 20 collections of short stories, plus ‘thousands of articles in different publications’, published between 1934 and his death in 1968 – but who seemed to drop off the radar the moment he died.  A few years ago I began to hear his name because a number of writers I admire, like Anthony Burgess, Angela Carter, Michael Moorcock, Ian Fleming and Harlan Ellison, thought highly of him.  But his work had apparently vanished without trace.  When I asked about him in bookshops, my inquiries would draw a blank.  Even in bookshops run by clearly knowledgeable people, like Whitie’s in my hometown of Peebles and Transreal Fiction in the Grassmarket area of Edinburgh, nobody had heard of him.


However, several of his works have now been republished by Valancourt Books, who’ve won praise from the Times Literary Supplement for their efforts to “resurrect some neglected works of literature… and make them available to a new readership”, and I was able to order copies of his 1958 novel Fowlers End and his 1968 collection Nightshade and Damnations while I was in the UK a few months ago.  I couldn’t find, though, a reasonably priced copy of his 1938 crime thriller Night and the City, the book that’s probably come closest to ensuring a legacy for Kersh – it was filmed in 1950 with Richard Widmark and again in 1992 with Robert De Niro.


It doesn’t surprise me that Anthony Burgess rated Fowlers End one of the great comic novels of the 20th century because it’s the sort of sprawling, baggy, rumbustious and verbose book that Burgess himself liked to write.  Set during the Great Depression and in the fictional and un-salubrious London district of the title – “Fowler’s End is a special kind of tundra that supports nothing gracious in the way of flora and fauna.  Plant a cabbage here in this soured, embitter, dyspeptic, ulcerated soil, and up comes a kind of bleached shillelagh with spikes on its knob.  Plant a family, a respectable working-class family, and in two generations it will turn out wolves” – it’s prefaced by a five-page glossary of Cockney slang to help readers decipher the dialogue.  Some of the terms I was familiar with, but others, like ‘flob your gob’ (vomit) and ‘north-and-south’ (mouth), were new to me.  The prominence given to the London vernacular was probably another reason why the language-loving Burgess enjoyed the book so much.


© Valancourt Books


It begins with a down-on-his-luck young man called Daniel Laverock being hired as the new manager of the Pantheon Cinema in Fowlers End.  Its owner is the alleged businessman and obvious fraudster Sam Yudenow.  Laverock then gets a tour of the premises from Yudenow, which hardly bodes well for his new career.  The Pantheon’s staff include a mutinous orchestra and an alcoholic pianist called Miss Noel (employed because the cinema persists in showing silent movies and has to treat its patrons to live music); a pair of Greek anarchists who run the adjoining café; a local juvenile delinquent called Tommy whom Yudenow employs to throw decaying animal carcasses into the properties of rival businesses; and the cinema’s handyman Copper Baldwin, who makes no effort to conceal his hatred for Yudenow.


What follows doesn’t involve much of a storyline.  Yudenow does something that proves he’s not a larger-than-life, loveable rogue but an out-and-out shit, and such is Laverock’s disgust that he joins forces with Baldwin to give Yudenow his comeuppance.  But that comeuppance doesn’t really materialise and by the book’s end Yudenow remains unbowed.  Instead, the plot takes an unexpected swerve and climaxes with Laverock having to defend Yudenow’s fleapit against a gang of thugs led by a villain who was only briefly mentioned in the book’s opening pages.  I have to say, though, that the climactic confrontation is hilariously written.


Clearly, Kersh isn’t that interested in constructing a balanced, joined-up plot.  He’s far more interested in, firstly, conveying the glorious grottiness and squalor of Fowler’s End and, secondly, conveying the riotous grotesqueness of Sam Yudenow, who’s presented as a Cockney-Jewish cross between Sir John Falstaff and one of those expansive, exuberant eccentrics Charles Dickens was so fond of.  Yudenow’s initial advice to Laverock ranges from how to follow the Pantheon’s fire regulations, which keep the number of customers allowed in at a very precise 629 – “Six hundred twenty-nine audience is okay.  Six hundred thirty is suicide.  Six hundred twenty-eight I die o’ starvation an’ you’re out of a job” – to how to handle the miscreant local schoolkids who frequent the place – “…they get a great big potato and stick it all over miv old razor blades; a bit of string they tie it onto, and right in the face they let you ’ave it.  Discourage ‘em.  Threaten to tell their teacher.  Lay one finger on ’em and the N.S.P.C.C. is after us for cruelty to children…”


I suppose Kersh’s depiction of Yudenow lays him open to accusations of anti-Semitism, for peddling a negative stereotype of a grasping and dishonest Jewish businessman.  But Kersh was Jewish himself, his very first book published was an autobiographical one called Jews without Jehovah (1934), and he lost a number of French relatives in the concentration camps during World War II.  Incidentally, readers from the UK of my age and older may find it hard to read Kersh’s descriptions of Yudenow without imagining the features, voice and mannerisms of the late, great Cockney-Jewish character actor Alfie Bass.  If Fowlers End had been filmed a few decades ago, Bass would surely have been first pick for the role.


For my part, while I found Yudenow an amusing character, I would have preferred smaller doses of him than the hefty doses that Kersh serves up.  Happily, the book features a host of other entertaining characters.  As the book’s hero, Daniel Laverock might have been a little dull, but Kersh gives him a funny if unfortunate backstory – in his childhood he tried and catastrophically failed to fly off his family’s roof in a homemade airplane (fashioned from planks, perambulator wheels and a biscuit-tin lid), with the result that he ended up with a face “not unlike that ancient pugilist Buckhorse who, in his old age, having no face left to spoil, let anyone knock him down for a shilling.”  His facial disfigurements giving him a villainous look, he has recently been adopted by a young woman called June Whistler, from a well-to-do and sheltered background and with aspirations to be a novelist, who believes he will show her the shady underbelly of society and give her writing some much-needed authenticity.  “The depths!  I want to explore the depths…!” she exclaims.  “Would you like to crush me in your arms and bite me?”  To which the fearsome-looking but gentlemanly Laverock replies: “Madam, you are good enough to eat but you look so much better in one piece.”


Incidentally, Kersh spent time working as a cinema manager – as a young man he had a colourful, Jack London-esque CV that also included stints as a debt collector, fish-and-chip-shop cook, bodyguard and professional wrestler – so Fowlers End obviously draws on his personal experiences.  And the book is a hell of a lot funnier than a more celebrated English comic novel from the 1950s that I read not so long ago, Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954).


© Valancourt Books


Nightshades and Damnations, which appeared in 1968 shortly before Kersh’s death, contains eleven of his short stories chosen and introduced by the American science fiction and fantasy writer Harlan Ellison.  Some of the items in this volume are brilliant – they show Kersh at his best as a storyteller, pushing his imagination to the limit and writing with both precision and style.  Among them are horror stories like Voices in the Dust of Annan and The Brighton Monster, which end with science-fictional twists – a tragic and chillingly contemporary (despite most of the story being set in the 18th century) twist in the case of The Brighton Monster.  Another horror story is Men Without Bones, wherein Kersh depicts the nightmarish creatures of the title with impressively icky gusto.


Bone for Debunkers is a tale of forgery that’s worthy of Roald Dahl, while The Ape and the Mystery and The King Who Collected Clocks are elegant historical fantasies incorporating Leonardo Da Vinci and clockwork automata respectively.  And The Queen of Pig Island is a surreal and ultimately tragic tale of what happens to the human exhibits of a carnival sideshow when they survive a shipwreck and try to establish their own society on a desert island.


Perhaps best of all is Whatever Happened to Corporal Cuckoo, which is about immortality and its potential pitfalls.  It explores the unhappy and grisly consequences when the person who’s immortal doesn’t have the intelligence or imagination to make the most of his situation; and also has a body that doesn’t fully regenerate from all the physical damage it inevitably suffers during the centuries.  The same bleak approach to the subject was later used in Robert Zemeckis’s 1992 movie Death Becomes Her.


While many other writers have vanished from popular consciousness because their writing, frankly, wasn’t very good and wasn’t designed to stand the test of time, Kersh’s prose remains admirably sharp and his stories, though obviously of their time, don’t feel that dated.  He seems to have been forgotten for the sad and simple reason that his books fell out of print for a long period.  Let’s hope that the good work done by Valancourt Books helps bring Gerald Kersh’s artistry back into the limelight.


Burgess, Bond… and birds


(c) MGM / UA


As I’ve said in previous posts, I’m a fan both of the writer Anthony Burgess and of the James Bond novels and films, so my curiosity was naturally piqued by a recent article in the New Statesman entitled Anthony Burgess’s 007 Obsession (http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2013/03/anthony-burgesss-007-obsession).


The article’s author Andrew Biswell admits that Burgess and 007-creator Ian Fleming were as different as chalk and cheese.  There’s no evidence that Fleming, who died in 1964 – by which time Burgess had penned, among other things, his Malaysia-set The Long Day Wanes trilogy, The Wanting Seed, Honey for the Bears, the first volume in the Enderby series and in 1962 A Clockwork Orange – took any interest in Burgess’s work.  Indeed, it’s possible that the famously snobbish Fleming would’ve looked down upon the Manchester-born, working-class-Catholic Burgess as a bit of an oik.


That, however, didn’t stop Burgess from taking a strong interest in Fleming and the Bond novels.  He saw the opulent escapism of the books, written immediately after World War II, as a commentary on the drab, depressed Britain of that post-war period, when the economy was in ruins and Britons still struggled with rationing.


Later in his life, aware that the context of the Bond books was lost on a younger generation who only knew the character through the Broccoli / Salzman film series, Burgess wrote that “Bond belongs to history and these are historical novels.”


A while back I posted a review of Burgess’s 1966 spy novel Tremor of Intent, which at times comes across as a pastiche of the Bond novels.  At other times, though, it draws its influences from the less glamorous and more realistic espionage fiction of John le Carre, Len Deighton and Graham Greene, which means the result is uneven – Burgess’s show-off prose style doesn’t help, either.  Nonetheless, Tremor provides the clearest evidence of Burgess’s preoccupation with Commander Bond.


What I hadn’t known before I read Biswell’s article was that in 1975 Cubby Broccoli commissioned Burgess to write a film-script for The Spy Who Loved Me, which made it to cinema screens two years later.  (The Spy Who Loved Me was the shortest, most low-key and least typical of Fleming’s 007 novels – Bond himself only appears during its final third – and it was deemed unfilmable, so the filmmakers were free to make up a new story.  Mind you, admirers of Fleming’s books would argue that making the stories up was pretty much what the filmmakers had been doing all along.)


Burgess’s completed script features an organisation called CHAOS (Consortium for Hastening the Annihilation of Organised Society), which places miniature nuclear bombs inside the bodies of unsuspecting victims while they are anaesthetised at a private clinic.  It also involves a plot whereby one of these walking bombs will blow up the Queen while she’s visiting Sydney Opera House.  Bond, who’s lately trained as an acupuncturist, saves the day by using his acupuncture skills to defuse the human bomb.  However, Broccoli binned Burgess’s script, assuming that the author was taking the piss, and the script that was finally used for the film was procured from Richard Maibaum and Christopher Wood instead.


By a coincidence, at almost the same time that Biswell’s piece appeared in the New Statesman, the Independent published an interview with one of the The Spy Who Loved Me’s eventual scriptwriters, Christopher Wood: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/confessions-of-a-sexfarce-writer-timothy-leas-sexual-misadventures-to-be-published-as-ebooks-8558702.html.


Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film adaptation of A Clockwork Orange – starring Malcolm McDowell as Alex the Droog, the embodiment of every British adult’s fears about juvenile delinquency in the early 1970s – ensured that Anthony Burgess’s name appeared on plenty of film posters at the time.  Meanwhile, Christopher Wood’s name appeared on many film posters of the era too.  These were for films portraying another form of adolescent bad behaviour.  Not violence, but sex.


(c) Warner Brothers 


Christopher Wood, you see, scripted the tacky British sex-comedy film Confessions of a Window Cleaner in 1974.  (The adjective ‘tacky’ invariably comes to mind when you attempt to describe any British film that involves comedy and sex.)  This was based on Wood’s own novel, which he’d written under the pseudonym Timothy Lea, and it was the first in a series of Confessions movies that were made until 1978 — further entries included Confessions of a Pop Performer, Confessions of a Driving Instructor and Confessions from a Holiday Camp.  All starred Robin Askwith in the lead role, playing a gormless 1970s British young ‘bloke’, desperate to get his end away with a succession of busty, lovely ‘birds’.  Also appearing in those films was Liverpudlian actor Tony Booth, who is better known these days as the father of Cherie Booth / Blair and the father-in-law of the not-much-missed former Prime Minister Tony Blair.


British film connoisseurs may hate to admit it, but the shag-happy Askwith, with his wide lapels, flared trousers and hairy sideburns, is as much of an icon of British cinema as Malcolm McDowell’s psychotic, bowler-hatted and spider-lashed  Alex in A Clockwork Orange — or indeed James Bond.  After all, Confessions of a Window Cleaner was the biggest-grossing British film of 1974.  And even when the film series died a death in the late 1970s, Wood continued to write sex-comedy novels using the Timothy Lea pseudonym and using the Confessions of… prefix.  The books were popular enough to eventually run to a total of 27 volumes.


(c) Columbia Pictures 


The Independent interviewed Wood recently because the publisher HarperCollins has now decided to re-release his Confessions novels as ebooks.  Christ knows why, I have to say.  As the film critic David McGillivray once said about the British sex-comedy genre, the one thing that all those films, including the Confessions ones, had in common was that they weren’t at all sexy.


In Christopher Wood’s defence, though, I should add that The Spy Who Loved Me is easily the best of the James Bond movies with Roger Moore in the lead role.  (That’s despite the fact that Roger Moore is about as convincing playing a licenced-to-kill secret agent as Robin Askwith is playing a sex stud.)  Unfortunately, Wood maintained his association with Cubby Broccoli and contributed the script for the next Bond film, 1980’s Moonraker, which many aficionados would identify as the series’ all-time worst entry.


Featuring a plot to rain a deadly nerve gas down on earth from an orbiting space station, and containing a gondola that turns into a speedboat and then into a hovercraft, and using as comedy relief an indestructible henchman with steel teeth, Moonraker makes Anthony Burgess’s script about human nuclear bombs, the Sydney Opera House and acupuncture sound almost sensible.


Another Burgess defects: book review / Tremor of Intent by Anthony Burgess


This is the second time that I’ve posted this review of Anthony Burgess’s 1966 spy novel.  The first time, it was immediately bombarded with hundreds of spam messages, most of them emanating from – rather appropriately – Russia.  Such was the intensity of the spam that I took the post down after a couple of days.  I am now reposting it, under a slightly different title.  Let’s see what happens this time…


(c) Penguin Books


For someone considered a major figure in late-twentieth-century British letters, Anthony Burgess always seemed like an outsider to me.  Unlike many of his literary peers, who were from privileged backgrounds and were Oxbridge-educated, Burgess had a lower middle-class upbringing in Manchester – his dad was a bookkeeper and pub-pianist who later acquired a few tobacconist and off-licence shops – and he attended university in the same city.  By the time he’d become a full-time writer, which wasn’t until he was in his forties, he’d held a number of proper jobs, in the army, in teaching and in the colonial service.


An enthusiastic composer and an accomplished linguist as well as an author, Burgess saw himself as a renaissance man and didn’t shrink from showing off his multifarious talents.  I suspect this led to him being frowned upon in some corners of the literary establishment for committing that most British of crimes, of ‘being too clever for his own good’.  He was also an incorrigible self-publicist in an era when it was still considered good form for British writers to be read and not heard.  Rarely did he seem to be absent from the newspapers and television.  A disdainful Graham Greene was known to have marvelled of him: “He talks about his books.”  Of course, were he alive today, when writers are encouraged to be visible and vocal and to miss no opportunity to sell themselves, Burgess would be in his element.  He’d be blogging, tweeting and Facebook-posting like mad.


One thing that Burgess was not, however, was a book snob.  Unlike the Gore Vidals, Howard Jacobsons and James Kelmans of this world, he didn’t regard genre writing as being unworthy of literary consideration.  Indeed, in Ninety-Nine Novels, his round-up of the best English-language novels written between 1939 and 1984, he championed works by several writers usually associated with the crime, espionage, science fiction and fantasy genres, including Brian Aldiss, J.G. Ballard, Raymond Chandler, Len Deighton, Mervyn Peake, Keith Roberts, T.H. White and (pertinently for this review) Ian Fleming.  And he tried his hand at a number of genres himself.  Though his Dickensian love for eccentric characters meant that all his books contained humour, a few were out-and-out comedies, most notably the Enderby novels.  Meanwhile, his best-remembered work, A Clockwork Orange, could be classed as science fiction, as could the lesser-known The Wanting Seed and 1985.  And then there’s his 1966 novel Tremor of Intent, where he tackled a genre enjoying immense popularity at the time: the spy thriller.


Though Tremor of Intent, if it’s remembered at all these days, is probably thought of as ‘the one where the Clockwork Orange man did a Bond pastiche’, Burgess actually drew on two sources for his inspiration.  One source was indeed Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, which had less to do with the genuine espionage world of the 1950s and 1960s and had more to do with the adventure stories of earlier decades — real-life adventure stories from World War II (when Fleming had worked in naval intelligence and known various military types who’d done heroic things behind enemy lines) and fictional adventure stories from the 1920s and 1930s, like John Buchan’s books about Richard Hannay and Herman Cyril McNeile’s ones about Bulldog Drummond.


Accordingly, Tremor of Intent, like the Bond novels and their predecessors, abounds with exotic locations, beautiful ladies, and larger-than-life villains.  Villains don’t come much larger than the book’s Mr Theodorescu, a man “of a noble fatness; the fat of his face was part of its essential structure, not a mean gross accretion, and the vast shapely nose needed those cheek-pads and firm jowls for a proper balance.”


The other inspiration for Tremor of Intent was the less sensational, more ‘realistic’ spy novel dealing with moles and double-agents, with betrayal and defection – themes that inform such classics of the genre as John le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Len Deighton’s Berlin Game and Graham Greene’s The Human Factor.  These works take their cue from real events – the defections to Moscow of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean in 1951 and of Kim Philby in 1963.  Educated at expensive boarding schools and at Cambridge University, Philby, Burgess and Maclean belonged to the upper strata of the class system that was supposed to give Britain its continuity and stability.  Yet, once they’d strolled into jobs in British Intelligence and the British Foreign Office, they started feeding secret information to the Soviets.  The people who were selling Britain out to the communist enemy weren’t working-class militants and revolutionaries at the bottom of the pile – the real traitors were snobs and elitists at the top.


(It must’ve been galling for Anthony Burgess in the early 1980s when a survey was conducted to find out how familiar the British public were with their major authors.  When they heard his name, most people identified him as the guy, or Guy, who’d fled across the Iron Curtain in the 1950s.)


Tremor of Intent deals with a British traitor, a scientist called Roper, who in the manner of Philby, Burgess and Maclean has defected to the Soviet Union; and a British agent called Hilliard who is assigned the task of abducting Roper back home again while he attends a conference in the Balkans. The twist is that Roper and Hilliard are old friends.  Their relationship dates back to a boyhood spent in a strict Catholic school, staffed by fanatical priests with a predilection for ranting and raving about the sins of the flesh: “This damnable sex, boys – ah, you do well to writhe in your beds at the very mention of the word.  All the evil of our modern times springs from unholy lust, the act of the dog and the bitch on the bouncing bed, limbs going like traction engines, the divine gift of articulate speech diminished to squeals and groans and pantings.”


If Burgess’s evocation of Hilliard and Roper’s schooldays brings to mind James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and its passages describing the terrors of Stephen Dedalus’s Catholic education, it’s unsurprising.  Burgess was a big Joyce fan.  He once wrote an introduction to the language-bending Irishman called Here Comes Everybody and Joyce was obviously an influence on his writing style.


The young Roper stands up to the priests by bamboozling them with his scientific knowledge, but that’s about the last noble thing he does in the book.  Thereafter, he becomes increasingly wretched.  By the end of World War II he’s spouting pro-Nazi sympathies and soon his loyalties shift further eastwards.  He finally falls into a communist honey-trap involving an attractive but duplicitous East German woman, which seals his fate as a traitor and defector.


Hilliard, whom we first meet on a cruise ship heading towards the site of the now-defected Roper’s conference, is a more admirable character.  However, he’s noticeably inept as an undercover spy.  For his mission, he’s assumed the identity of a typewriter technician – a typical flourish from Burgess, who once published a book of essays called Homage to QWERTYUIOP – but he’s soon rumbled by a precocious schoolboy on board the ship called Alan Walters, who knows more about typewriters than Hilliard does.  Alan, in fact, knows a great deal about many subjects and I suspect he resembles the know-all brat that Burgess probably was himself at the same age.  At least, as the novel develops, Alan’s allowed some character development and he ends up as a definite good guy.


Inevitably, considering the fact that it uses elements from both the unpretentious Bond stories and from the more cerebral spy novels of le Carre and company, and considering all the additional baggage that Burgess brings along, such as Catholicism, humour and Joycean prose, Tremor of Intent is erratic.  Parts of it work well but other parts of it misfire.  The most effective scenes are those set on board the cruise ship, which is populated in the best Agatha Christie tradition by passengers with dishonourable motives and by crew-members who know more than they’re letting on.  Foremost among the passengers are Theodorescu, a man who makes his money by trading secrets between East and West, and his beautiful but lethal sidekick, Miss Devi.  Among his many bad points, Theodorescu happens to be a paedophile, which is a telling sign of the book’s vintage.  In the 1960s, paedophilia was just another character-trait that added colour to the bad guy in a spy story.  In our ultra-sensitive world today, it would be the defining, be-all-and-end-all trait that damns the character to evilness.


Possibly the novel’s best scene is the one where Hilliard and Theodorescu square up to each other for the first time, eager to test one another’s mettle but before hostilities have been openly declared.  In a Bond book or movie, this would usually happen in a casino, over a game of poker.  In Tremor of Intent, it takes place in the ship’s restaurant, when Theodorescu declares, “I will make a bargain with you.  Whoever eats the less shall pay for the wine.  Are you agreeable?”  There follows an epic contest of gluttony, as Hilliard and Theodorescu eat their way through the menu, verbally sparring whilst subjecting their digestive systems to increasing strain and pain.


Burgess has a field day describing the gastronomic duel and the dishes are served up relentlessly: “red mullet and artichoke hearts… fillets of sole Queen Elizabeth, with sauce blonde… soufflé au foie gras… avocado halves with caviar and a cold chiffon sauce… some lamb persillee and onions and gruyere casserole with green beans and celery julienne… pheasant with pecan stuffing… broccoli blossoms… some spinach and minced mushrooms… harlequin sherbert… peach mousse with sirop framboise… poires Helene with cold chocolate sauce… nectarine flan… frothing Blanquette… chocolate rum dessert, garnished with whipped cream and Kahlua… orange marmalade crème bavaroise, loud with Cointreau…”  The first Bond novels appeared immediately after World War II, when Britain’s economy had been wrecked and food-rationing was a fact of life, and it’s likely that the books’ initial readers lapped them up for their opulent escapism.  A few hours in the company of Commander Bond would transport you to a world of hedonistic consumerism, a world where the food, liquor, cigars, clothes and cars were lavishly expensive and never-ending.  Hilliard’s gluttonous and costly joust with Theodorescu in the restaurant seems to be Burgess’s sly acknowledgement of this.


In other places, however, Tremor of Intent goes astray.  Often this is because of Burgess’s writing style, with its Joycean pretensions, which just seems inappropriate for this particular genre.  Never one to shirk the charge of showing off, he pens flamboyant passages of fragmented sentences and disappearing punctuation, of word-puns and alliteration — when, for example, describing the effects of the drug, ‘B-type vellocet’, that Theodorescu uses to winkle information out of his victims.


There is also some torturous writing when Hilliard, inevitably, gets to do the dirty with Miss Devi: “With athletic swiftness he turned her to the primal position and then, whinnying like a whole herd of wild horses, shivering as if transformed to protoplasm save for that plunging sword, he released lava like a mountain in a single thrust of destruction, so that she screamed like a burning city.”  Yes, Burgess is taking the piss here, but that sentence would still make a worthy winner of the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Writing Award.


Graham Greene once remarked that, in an adventure story, the action scenes can only be described in the plainest and most economical of prose – because violence happens simply and it happens fast.  Burgess, whose prose obviously isn’t plain or economical, or simple or fast, deals with this potential problem in Tremor of Intent by not having any traditional adventure-story action scenes.  Even the final showdown between Hilliard and Theodorescu, which involves an elevator, a syringe of B-type vellocet and a chase along a waterfront, is imbued with an unexpectedly slow, languid and ruminative quality.  And to be fair to Burgess, the sequence is actually disturbing because of that.


There are issues with the overall tone of the book too.  At times – for example, when he’s describing the hapless Roper’s ethical and psychological decline – Burgess seems close to believing that he’s writing a serious book.  At other times, though, he knows that he’s writing a pastiche, an exercise in a genre that has well-defined rules and limits, and he’s keen to transmit this knowingness to his readers, who are presumably in on the joke too.  Thus, when Hilliard starts blabbing secrets to Theodorescu, we get the jargon of hackneyed spy movies and cliched spy fiction: “Operation Aegir…  A pocket television transmitter called, for some reason, Nur-al-Hihar…  The Nero Caesar cryptogram…  The air exercise known as Britomart…  An atomiser-gun provisionally named Cacodemon…  The Thermidorian tumbrils…  Miniature nuclear submarines called Fomors…”


The book’s ending deserves mention, for it sees an unexpected switch-of-location to Dublin – not a city one normally associates with espionage stories – and it sees Hilliard, remorseful for all the bad things he’s done in life, abandon the Secret Service and take on a rather different vocation.  It’s an interesting twist, though not one I found convincing, judging by what I’d already read of Hilliard’s character and motivations.  I suspect this ending, set in the landscape of Burgess’s literary hero, James Joyce, is as much for Burgess’s benefit as it is for his main character.  I know I’d defected for a time into writing spy thrillers, he seems to be signalling, perhaps unconsciously; but don’t worry, now I’ve defected back – back to the land of proper literature!


Tremor of Intent, then, is a book with some serious problems.  It’s uneven, its prose-style is often inappropriate, and it doesn’t seem to know if it’s to be taken seriously or to be taken as a joke – sometimes it tries to be taken both ways.  However, if you like Anthony Burgess and if you like Ian Fleming’s Bond novels, you should get some enjoyment out of it.  I can happily tick both those boxes but I doubt if many other readers can.  And I suppose that’s why this odd, one-off novel, from a flawed but exuberantly talented writer, is almost forgotten today.