Thursday 27 October 2016

War in Heaven

Reflections on Tremor of Intent by Anthony Burgess

At primary school, in the early 1980s, I became involved in what, for want of a more glamourous phrase, we called 'spy clubs'. There were two clubs, each with just one member - let's call the individuals Alfred and Guthrum - with an extra member joining one or the other occasionally. That was myself. The double agent. The 'third man'.

'We know all your secrets,' I recall Guthrum and I informing Alfred sententiously, violating the sanctuary of the cloakroom, where he sat tying his laces, his mouth a perfect 'o' of surprise and shame. I looked away guiltily. The hats, coats and scarves on their wooden pegs reminded me of Narnia and the wardrobe. It must have been winter. After school. Some extra-curricular activity. Certainly the playground was dark and frosty when Alfred fled, a broken reed. But we knew he'd already be scheming revenge, which was, of course, exactly what we wanted. It meant the game would go on.

Because that's all it was. A game. There were no secrets. Nothing either the British or Soviet authorities needed to be notified of. Why did we play it then?

I doubled up as an altar boy in those days. Perhaps that's why I empathise with the religious perspective offered by Denis Hillier, Burgess's protagonist in this 1965 spy novel:

'But what's it all for?' asked Clara. 'Agents and spies and counter-spies and secret weapons and being brainwashed. What are you all trying to do?'
'Have you ever wondered,' said Hillier, 'about the nature of ultimate reality? What lies beyond this shifting mass of phenomena? What lies beyond even God?
'Nothing's beyond God,' said Alan. 'That stands to reason.'
'Beyond God,' said Hillier, 'lies the concept of God. In the concept of God lies the concept of anti-God. Ultimate reality is a dualism or a game for two players. We - people like me and my counterparts on the other side - we reflect that game. It's a pale reflection. There used to be a much brighter one, in the days when the two sides represented what we know as good and evil. That was a tougher and more interesting game ... '


Tremor of Intent is a short book. In terms of story, it is a magnificent romp. Depending on your view, the novel sees Burgess (my fellow-Mancunian) either at his swashbuckling best or his most preeningly pretentious: 'I had waited in every evening, listening to Die Meistersinger. When Roper rang, Hans Sachs was opening Act III with his monologue about the whole world being mad: 'Wahn, warn.'

Returning to school days briefly, I recall the frequency throughout that time with which we were exhorted to 'stand on your own two feet.' 
'But what am I supposed to do,' I remember asking, 'once I'm on my two feet? Just stand here?' 
These are the questions, behind the literary pyrotechnics, that this novel plays with. Who am I? Why am I here? Now that I am here, what do I do? 
It is an existential novel, with a premium placed on commitment and engagement, the type of story one could imagine a mid-1960s Colin Wilson having written. It certainly bears the hallmarks of his worldview - his questing, religiously-orientated existentialism that stands at the antipodes of the despair-inducing 'absurdity' of Sartre and Camus. The book, at bottom, is a study in vocation - in the slow, mysterious unveiling of a vocation. It is, as Wilson himself might have said, a 'voyage to a beginning'.

What matters for Burgess here is the quest for meaning and value, especially relevant, surely, to an age like our own, which militates so stridently against such concepts. The alternative, after all, is nothing less than spiritual death - to disengage, to opt out, to spout empty words about the 'end of history', to become a a bland, benign and lukewarm neutral:

'The neutrals' said Alan.' If we could get down to the real struggle we wouldn't need spies and cold wars and spheres of influence and the rest of the horrible nonsense. But the people who are engaged in these things are better than the filthy neutrals.'
'And yet everything's an imposture,' replied Hillier. 'The real war goes on in heaven.'

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this! I read (past tense) a fair bit of Burgess with delight, and recognize the title, but never caught up with this one (despite enjoying all sorts of spy stuff)!

He seems to me (vexingly, sadly) to evade conviction (nursing his 'lapsedness'). And so I ended up having more to do with Inklings, lately met (no boyhood Narnia or Hobbit), even - especially - the in other ways vexing author of War in Heaven.

David Llewellyn Dodds

P.S.: I just got his big illustrated Shakespeare at a jumble sale, and so shall probably be trying that new thing (to me), soon.