I’ve been reading a couple of old books of book reviews by Anthony Burgess. Lots of great stuff. He’s a sort of Chesterton with a conscience, for example in this appreciation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin:
As for Tom’s forgiving Christianity—‘O, Mas’r! don’t bring this great sin on your soul! It will hurt you more than ‘t will me! Do the worst you can, my troubles’ll be over soon’—it doesn’t deserve the sneers of the Negro intellectuals, or the white ones either. What palliative ought a progressive slavery novel to make available to the victims of Legree—a bundle of abolitionist pamphlets, gems from Tom Paine? The visions of secular reform have always been the real pie in the sky; a man entering the gas chamber needs heaven.
Kipling had much of the epic poet’s equipment, but he could not write an epic. I don’t, of course, mean a verse epic; I mean a great novel. The novels he did write are interesting, but they are structural failures: even Kim is pasted together. Kipling did not have the architectural gift. Looking at a collapsed empire, we feel that it ought, in its greatest days, to have been recorded in some huge Tolstoyan unity, and that Kipling ought to have been the man to do it. He was too small, however; the halo of greatness which his devotees make sit on him is really an emanation of that vast wasted subject-matter. Many of us want him so much to have sung that finished empire—Britain’s only epic theme in a thousand years—that we sometimes dream he actually did it.
This was interesting, in part because it seems that just about every time anyone writes about Kipling now, they take great pains to say how you appreciate his artistry and not get distracted by the jingoism—except for the those who say that we should celebrate the jingoism. It’s great that Orwell made the case, so many decades ago, about how to think about political art in general and Kipling in particular, but it’s time to move on. I think Burgess wrote the above passage in 1965, so we’ve moved on already, but I get the impression that modern critics aren’t comfortable enough taking Kipling as he is, and they can’t see past the politics. My point is not that Burgess’s judgments are the last word, just that he can offer his take on the literature in its social and political contexts without being tripped up by his (Burgess’s) own political views.
My favorite bit, though, was when he quoted Nabokov in Speak, Memory:
So I would heap on more coals and help revive the flames by spreading a sheet of the London Times over the smoking black jaws of the fireplace, thus screening completely its open recess. A humming noise would start behind the taut paper, which would acquire the smoothness of drumskin and the beauty of luminous parchment. Presently, as the hum turned into a roar, an orange-colored spot would appear in the middle of the sheet, and whatever patch of print happened to be there (for example, ‘The League does not command a guinea or a gun’ or ‘. . . the revenges that Nemesis has had upon Allied hesitation and indecision in Eastern and Central Europe . . .’) stood out with ominous clarity—until suddenly the orange spot burst. Then the flaming sheet, with the whirr of a liberated phoenix, would fly up the chimney to join the stars. It cost one a fine of twelve shillings if that firebird was observed.
That’s just soooo Nabokovian. “The smoking black jaws of the fireplace.” Also the liberated phoenix: at first this seems flashy and a distraction, but upon reflection it’s precise and just right.
Burgess was enough of a literary artist and enough of a critic that I think he’d appreciate that the best passage in his book was written by somebody else.