A Dead Man in Deptford – Anthony Burgess

Like most, I became acquainted with Anthony Burgess through A Clockwork Orangea dystopian novel concerning the consequences of crime & punishment through protagonist Alex Delarge. Since then, and after completing a handfull of of earlier novels, there has been a strange connection between the British author and myself. His works have never been outstanding, but rather interesting. So, on my way to London, I decided to (appropriately) crack open Burgess’ last novel, A Dead Man in Deptford. 

Published in 1993, A Dead Man in Deptford is a semi-fictionalized account about the life and death of Christopher Marlowe. Our narrator, (a small-town actor Burgess lifts from Shakespeare’s First Folio) follows “Kit” from his seminary days, to his infamous career as a playwright, a government operative, and finally, to his untimely death.

Infamous for his atheist beliefs, Marlowe is known for brawling in bars over questions of faith. Besides heretical rhetoric, Marlowe also engages a secular lifestyle in his relationship with Thomas Walsingham, a young aristocrat with ties to the government. A romance that would eventually lead to trouble.

As if his personal life wasn’t complicated enough, Marlowe was begrudgingly employed as a spy for the English government. Under the supervision of Thomas Walsingham, his lover’s uncle, the imminent playwright weeded out conspirators from the Spanish government. Burgess centers this portion of the novel around Marlowe’s participation in the Babington Plot — an attempt to kill Queen Elizabeth and put the Catholic, Mary Queen of Scots, on the throne. Kit is supposed to remain anonymous during his time as an informant, but it proves difficult for such a nefarious dramatist.

Christopher Marlowe is, of course, best associated with his work as a poet and playwright. Burgess manages to implement this talent through the playwright’s Tamburlainewith the utmost clarity. Not only are we treated with verse and countless events inspiring the poet, but also through criticism. Known for his quick quips, the author manages to sum up Marlowe through his evaluations of others:

“Kit read the sheet proffered:

‘Saul then smote hard all those of Hebrew bloode

That saw in Christ arisen their sole goode,

Enchaining them and striking with a rodde

Them that acknowledged not the hidden Godde

That never woulde affront His maiestie

By in raw flesh descending from the skie. 

-You want my help in what capacity, poetic of theological? 

-That is but a draft. I have worked long at it, I need a fresh eye and ear. 

-Saul did not smite the Christian Hebrews. He smote only the Greeks who had turned to Christ. Of these St. Stepanos was the first.

-I am no master of arts in divinity.

-And I am now lover of the turncoat Saul or Paul…Why not call your poem Fast and Loose? Fast-bound in devotion, loose in form. And he that was fast or speedy to persecute was loosed from his obligations by a fit of the falling sickness. The title could have manifold meanings.”

Burgess hilariously fills Deptford with the language of Elizabethan England. The world reads romantically scummy down to the rats on the pavement. “Plain English cannot encompass a life so various, tortured and contradictory”, our narrator states.  Readers of A Clockwork Orange know the author’s love of linguistics only too well. Burgess’ fascination, which appears more of an obsession, forces readers to literally speak his language. We notice this no better than in the opening to the novel:

“You must and will suppose (fair or foul reader, but what’s the difference?) that I suppose a heap of happenings that I had no eye to eye knowledge of or concerning. What though a man supposes is oft (often if you will) of the right and very substance of his seeing. There was a philosopher who spoke of the cat that mews to be let out and then mews to be let in again. In the interim, does it exist? There is in us all the solipsist tendency which is a simulacrum of the sustentive power of the Almighty, namely what we hold in the eye exists, remove the eye or let it be removed therefrom and there is disintegration total if temporary. But of the time of the cat’s absence a man may also rightly suppose that it is fully in the world down to the last whisker. And so let it be with my cat or Kit. I must suppose that what I suppose of his doings behind the back of my viewings is of the nature of a stout link in the chain of his being, lost to my seeing, not palpable but of necessity existent. I know little. I was but a small actor and smaller play-botcher who observed him intermittently though indeed knew him in a very palpable sense (the Holy Bible speaks of speaketh of such unlawful knowing), that is to say on the margent of his life, though time is proving that dim eyes and dimmer wits confounded the periphery of the centre.” 

As you can tell from above, Burgess openly admits to the common fault of historical novels:”The flatfooted affirmation of possibility as fact”, he mentions in the Afterword. Though unlike my uneasiness to E.L. Doctorow’s substantial cast of shallow characters in Ragtimethe cast of A Deadman in Deptford shows depth that rivals preference for fact over fiction. Marlowe is not the lone philosopher in the novel, but rather surrounded by minds comparable in measure:

“‘-And do you believe?’ Raleigh asked bluntly.

-‘Does belief or disbelief affect God’s substance? I would put it this way, that there may be an unmoved mover. Bt this is not of necessity of intelligible make, no primary model of ourselves. What is termed God may well be a force as inhuman as the sun and as indifferent whether to bless by warming or curse by burning. It may be a force progressing through change, whose faculty is built into essence, and coming through the transformation of matter into spirit to a final realisation of what it is. A the end of time, so to say, there may be a God realised, but God is till then no more than a conceptus hominis. We are in advance of God in possession of the concept. He or it must wait.

Well, said Warner, nodding, you are on the right side. You deny stasis.

Can you deny it wholly? the Wizard Earl asked Warner. You work in the chemistry that was called alchemy in search of solidities that by some miracle of sudden fusion turn into a new solidity. Things are not wholly continuous. And I would put it to Mr. Merlin here that in denying a God with characteristics that seem human merely because we are made in his image, we are like him, he not like us, he denies also divine sanction or its opposite for human acts. There may be no great Day of Judgement, but all that would seem to matter is whether a man follows good or evil. I put it so, I am not necessity one that subscribes to the belief that man is mere substance for moral adjudication, but must it be assigned solely to human government the business of defining the good, the evil, the right, the wrong?

Like all great writers, Burgess possesses a unique spirit. Born in Manchester, the working class population and “Rabelaisian” atmosphere produced a profound effect on the author. Diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor(later proved a misdiagnosis), he and his wife were rushed back to the UK from his post in Brunei. During this period-his ”pseudoterminal year“- Burgess wrote to provide for his family, and consequently, ignited a literary career.

“I’m unsatisfied. I’ve been writing now for a long time and published about 45 books, which is rather too much I’m told. But I’m not satisfied. I feel that I’m getting old and learning, though not fast enough. It is, I think, someday possible for me to write a good book. But I haven’t written one yet.” 

Said in 1982, if Burgess were still to believe these sentiments after the publication of A Dead Man in Deptford, he’d be mistaken.


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