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Earthly Powers (Vintage Classics)
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54 of 54 people found the following review helpful
on 9 September 2005
A lot of mythologising surrounds this novel; when it was first published, the critics snarled and disdained it, and in large part didn't understand it, which is forgiveable, because it is a huge, complex monster of a book. The plot (which is far from being the central point of the book) follows the richly colourful and sympathetic inner life of an ancient, eccentric author against the backdrop of twentieth-century history: this is merely a stage against which to set his relationship with an Italian priest of great character and complexity, destined to become Pope. This relationship is in itself a mere frame for an analysis of the nature of good and evil, and faith and free will, in an astonishingly subtle and labyrinthine way. The whole thrust of the book is to propose an idea, only revealed near the end, which is so philosophically shocking that the reader has to have some way of rejecting it, should they so wish. Suddenly the rest of the book is thrown into crystal relief - the vast complexity of the narrative is a web of deliberate errors of fact, logic and conclusion to allow this escape: the nature of human memory and thought itself is thrown into question. Beyond that, I leave you to argue it out amongst yourselves. This is a truly great book by one of Britain's most important C20 writers.
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22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
I can't believe this isn't full of reviews, this book is one of the best books I've ever read. Anthony Burgess is one of the most inventive, original authors, making you believe everything because he entwines fiction with reality. This is a huge book, a review of the 20th century, deep, and extremly inteligent. By the end of the book Toomey (the main character) is a part of your life, I was so sad to let him go...
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on 12 May 2005
This book is a wonderful journey through the life and adventures of Kenneth Toomey, the world-wearing and endearing protagonist. I was gripped the whole way through, although I enjoyed the highly comic scenes in the first half of the novel best. As the story progresses, the tale becomes darker, but it's still a masterpiece. The ending is very strong indeed (and that after one of the best first lines to a novel I've ever read!), with the glorious last quarter twist taking your breath away.
Worth a thousand "The Line of Beauty" books in how to write an epic saga. I can definitely recommend it!
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 13 August 2010
Everyone has a 'comfort book' and this is mine. I've escaped to 'here' so many times I've had to buy three copies having read the first two to destruction. It genuinely is, for me, a place where I go to visit old friends; the characters are so real they don't just leap off the page, they take up residence in your consciousness. I first read it at 19 - and a couple (and a bit) decades later, it still calls to me every time I scan the bookshelf looking for a new read.

Earthly Powers has two main themes; catholicism and homosexuality, but they are just the vehicle Burgess uses to explore the human condition. From the misery of the First World War to the vacuity of the eighties, our hero Ken Toomey turns up at some of modern history's most fascinating moments; rubbing shoulders with with its leading figures and sketching for us their all too human foibles and failings. Fact and fiction merge beautifully to weave a wonderful yarn that is witty, warm and wonderful - as well as alternatingly dark and hilarious.

Why nobody has turned this into a film script is beyond me. But I'm kind of glad they haven't.
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25 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on 28 April 2004
Most writers scratch and fidget, gaze longingly at the telephone, developneurotic ticks, suffer fits of envy, fury, self-pity... and then get alittle writing done. Anthony Burgess, on the other hand, seems to havewritten a chapter before breakfast, knocked off a couple of book reviewsbefore lunch, written a symphony over crumpets and tea, and finallyrelaxed by reading THE ANATOMY OF MELANCHOLY in Mandarin translation. Hisenergy must have provoked suspicion among his peers, who failed to giveEARTHLY POWERS the Booker Prize it so richly deserved. The novel may behis greatest achievement: charting eighty years in the life of KennethToomey as he crosses continents, meets artists and Nazis, Americancultists and a devil-bashing Pope. It is a picaresque comedy that looksinto some of the darkest recesses of the 20th Century. It is huge,rambunctious, and encyclopedic. And don't let that put you off: this(slow) reader finished it in four days. So chuck out that wretchedthriller. Make EARTHLY POWERS your holiday read.
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24 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on 10 October 2002
My Amazon copy is my third, the previous editions having fallen apart from constant re-reading. Earthly Powers is simply my favourite novel (of the many I've read either in pursuit of my Masters in English or for less academic pleasure over the decades since). Maybe if I share just some of the reasons you'll give it a try? One thing to say early on is that this is actually a more authentically and intricately "demonic" book than the Exorcist. It has more than one climactic twist to out-gasp Falling Angel or The Sixth Sense. It's also funnier than anything written by Spike Milligan and even Clive James. Interested?
First thing for me, though, is that the book combines the intellectual rewards of "serious" lit' with the more popular joys of any "thumping good read"! Critical analysis can be (and probably has been) made in great depth, if you're so inclined, from the thematics of the plot to close exegesis of the imagery, the syntax, the sound, the intricacies and subtleties of the prose: polymath Burgess is certainly up to any level of detailed appreciation, being more than capable in that area himself. But this is so much more than just a "clever-clever" exercise. Burgess rejoices in language as the virtuoso rejoices in musicianship: that is, he makes brilliance and insight accessible, entertaining and enlightening with the same effortless, but technically expert and hard-won, ease as Mozart or Shakespeare.
So there's that erudite, piquant, moving, hilarious voice to recommend Earthly Powers, just for starters. Then consider the story: well, it's about Good and Evil in the Twentieth Century, right? OK, it's about the Devil and his possession, at some time or other, of just about anyone who ever tried to do right, let alone the weak and downright villainous. Satan is even shown to act - and occasionally speak, if you pay attention - through the "author" himself .
This narrator, Kenneth Toomey, is what Earthly Powers is "about" on the simplest level: his outrageous cultural, religious, literary and sexual adventures amongst the movers and shakers, fictitious and real, of the modern age. The Toomey persona is clearly close to Burgess in many ways - he's witty, self-deprecating, eloquent, tortured, magnanimous, irascible. Very "real," then; but also brilliantly imagined - witness more than one glib critic being fooled into writing of Burgess as "homosexual" (wrong) on the strength of this most convincing of personae.
Earthly Powers is exciting and entertaining in so many ways, from sheer quality of authorship through to scope of plot and impact of incident. Lovely characters, too. It has true and important things to say about human behaviour; profound messages about love, respect and inhumanity. Please read it.
PS. Ignore the Introduction in this edition, though - he gets it wrong!
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 18 January 2008
Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess

A tour de force by an erudite and fluent author; he has structured a framework of individual lives and relationships within which he has opened to examination some of the fundamental contradictions of Catholicism and Christian religion. If God is all seeing and knowing how can he permit such horrors? If he gave all his creation free will then how is it no-one feels free? But these comments just touch the surface of a momentous work. Then I also found it self indulgent and exclusive. Exclusive? because I think he wrote this as much for himself and a small coterie of scholars as any ordinary reader such as myself. I believe I am well read and reasonably literate, but I often stopped at words that I had never come across before, so I wrote them down in a little note book to check their meaning later. This disturbed the rhythm of the text for me and I think such boasting of vocabulary unnecessary. Also his passages on a continent -Africa - I think he has never visited (apart from North Africa - the Muslim Territories) - were wholly unreal and naïve, and for me an uncalled for diversion. Finally; I tried to imagine the effort it must take to create such a work, and can only respond with awe and respect at the energy, talent, scholarship and breadth of knowledge Mr Burgess was able to bring to paper. This is a work that will last in my memory and demand I revisit.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Your narrator an English octogenarian writer forced into religious isolation by his homosexuality, this story is told over 81 chapters and takes you through both world wars, several continents, and introduces you to many vividly realised characters. It deals with many BIG subjects; the world wars and their associated atrocities, Religion, Good & Evil, Sexuality, the Nature of Mankind in general, the 20th Century in general.Despite its gravity, This is a very, very funny book, as well as a very, very scary one. It's peppered throughout with Burgess' neologisms, bits of Latin, French, Italian (lots of Googling and dictionary searching - sometimes in vain - for me) , and is coloured by his extensive and arcane vocabulary. It must be one of the 20th century's most overlooked & underrated literary works. Indeed, it was nominated for , but failed to win, a Booker in 1980. Burgess' comments on the Booker: "It was evident for me, anyway, that my novel was no Booker material. It was hard reading for the jurors".
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 22 November 1999
Not all of Mr. Burgess' work touches me. 'A Clockwork Orange', apparently his best-known book, for instance, leaves me cold. 'Earthly Powers' however, together with his autobiographies 'Little Wilson and Big God' and 'You've Had Your Time', belongs in my view to the best writing in English literature since WWII. The best of parts concern Mr. Burgess' views on religion, a difficult subject for any writer, but handled here in a sure, yet light-footed manner, without loosing sight of the seriousness of many issues hotly contested in the media and politics (abortion, euthanasia). Very moving and humane. Mr. Burgess combines a beautiful style with great erudition, with the latter never becoming pompous or overbearing. Magnificent.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on 18 July 2001
I can't believe I'm the first person to write a review of this book! It stands as one of England's great 20th Century novels, burning with inventiveness, wit and enthusiasm for, well just about everything. The aim is brazenly ambitious - an eschatology of sex and faith - and Burgess carries it off with typically exuberant panache. It begins with an opening line straight from heaven and ends with a plot conclusion only someone with the impish arrogance of Burgess would be cheeky ebough to attempt. Buy it or steal it, but read it.
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