Thursday 6 August 2009

A DEAD MAN IN DEPTFORD by Anthony Burgess

This was, I think, Burgess' last published novel, and a fine one it is, too. Years after his Shakespeare novel, NOTHING LIKE THE SUN, he goes back to the same era to tackle Christopher Marlowe, the wild, wayward brawler and Master of Arts who went one step further than Thomas Kyd in expanding the scope of English drama with his rollercoaster tales of doomed overreachers and his sonorous lines, like bells tolling in a tottering cathedral to a god or gods unknown. Burgess' immersion in the tone, ethos and language of the times is immense; the picture that builds of Marlowe is garnished with portraits of contemporaries famous and obscure, but at no point is Marlowe himself sidelined.

This is a historical novel that builds from the facts; we know that Marlowe was granted his MA only after intervention by the Privy Council. We don't know why exactly they intervened on his behalf. We know that he was on bail after being arrested for blasphemy and forgery at the end of his life; again we know little of the real circumstances leading to the accusation or his conditional release. That he spend a few days in Deptford allegedly carousing with three men, all of whom were connected with Walsingham's secret service is also a matter of public record. It's the hidden whys and wherefores behind these facts that Burgess invents.

And even if the speculation is debatable, the picture he plays of the foul-mouthed, boozing, buggering, tobacco-smoking Kit Marley, or Merlin or Marlowe is convincing. We come to know the author of Tamburlane and Doctor Faustus as a man whose clear-eyed quest for truth and knowledge were out of sync with sectarian politics of his time and whose penchant for free, profane speech and homosexuality didn't help either. A free spirit, in an age where wisdom lay in discretion. Not necessarily an over-reacher himself but one whose age perhaps was too constrained for his spirit.

An excellent novel, then, and a nuanced, satisfying portrait of its subject.

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