Tuesday, July 12, 2022

A Clockwork Messiah? - Anthony Burgess' Man Of Nazareth reviewed

What’s it going to be then, eh?

There was me, that is Jesus, and my three meshuggeners, that is Pete, James and Johnny-Boy, Pete being rock-hard, and we sat in the Capernaum fish-shop . . .

 No, that’s not how Man of Nazareth begins, but I was struck by how Anthony Burgess’ Jesus and his disciples have something about them of Alex & the Droogs, as they set out on their mission to bring ultra-peace to Israel and all mankind.  And I was thrilled to be told by Burgess’ biographer that an early draft of the novel had indeed included disciples speaking a sort of 1st Century AD Nadsat.  More about that below. First, some context.

Burgess wrote Man Of Nazareth in the late 1970s just as archaeology was beginning to shed light on the mechanics of crucifixion (traditional iconography is almost completely physically and anatomically wrong); when deference towards organised religion was still default (the UK Christian right could prosecute Gay News for blasphemous libel over a poem); around the time of Python’s Life Of Brian (which Burgess loved); and long before a group of American biblical scholars calling themselves ‘The Jesus Seminar’ gathered to work their way through the gospels verse by verse and cast votes to determine which statements could be regarded as having historical reality (spoiler – more than you may fear, fewer than you may hope) in a sort of professorial democratic theology. 

So, how do you create space and time for a compelling fictional narrative when your sources are part polemical theology, part fabulist, and your readership’s ideas about history and truth are changing with the age?  Forty years and huge cultural change later, how does Man Of Nazareth strike a contemporary? 

Burgess announced at the time that he would approach the subject ‘seriously and reverently’ and he invents a narrator of his fiction, one Azor a professional storyteller writing some time after the events who is careful to begin by disclaiming authority and belief – he’s simply telling stories that he’s heard.  What Azor has heard, of course, is Burgess’ curation of gospel stories, with a very clear opening out of the political / historical background – much of the first half focuses on Herod, John The Baptist and Salome, and the extended family.  We also get three very Burgessian tropes -  musical disciples composing songs about their master’s teaching (one can only hope that the author’s own settings survive in the Burgess Archive), Roman soldiers swearing like droogs in multilingual barracks-room argot and, just as in A Clockwork Orange, Burgess’ profoundly serious grappling with free will and original sin. This last includes a brilliant passage on how the stain of original sin compels the Christian god to sacrifice himself.  I know far too little about St Augustine and Catholic apologetics to hazard a guess at Burgess’ source for this, but as internal polemic it makes brilliantly elegant sense without once diverting the narrative into creaking post-hoc rationalisation. 

The other marvellous thing about Burgess’ selection is how he develops Azor’s viewpoint and our understanding of its meaning.  The two great top-and-tail Johannine miracles serve to illustrate.  The water-into-wine at Cana is told as a straightforward magician’s confidence trick and Azor makes sure that we see through it. By the time we get to Bethany, Lazarus’ return from the dead is presented as unadorned, verified fact.

And Burgess (or rather Azor) saves the best twist to the very end, and I confess that I did not see it coming at all.  If you’re going to read one other historical Jesus novel (besides, of course, The Judas Case), I urge you to make it Man Of Nazareth – and don’t fast forward to the end.


Two curious asides:  has anyone ever contemplated writing either of these? 

An internal monologue-based fiction of Jesus’ thoughts and awareness from scourging to death - a sort of companion to Hermann Broch’s Death Of Virgil. 

The siege of Hippo, St Augustine surrounded by Vandals but hard at work on Civitas Dei and the end of classical culture in late antiquity.

Just a thought . . .

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