I grew up reading Anthony Burgess, and have been a long-term fan: I consider him one of the few actual geniuses of the twentieth-century novel. So when I chanced upon the following exchange, from a 1972 interview Burgess gave to the Paris Review, I was intrigued:
Do you expect to write any more historical novels?
I’m working on a novel intended to express the feel of England in Edward III’s time, using Dos Passos’ devices. I believe there’s great scope in the historical novel . . . The fourteenth century of my novel will be mainly evoked in terms of smell and visceral feelings, and it will carry an undertone of general disgust rather than hey-nonny nostalgia.
Which of Dos Passos’ techniques will you use?
The novel I have in mind, and for which I’ve done a ninety-page plan, is about the Black Prince. I thought it might be amusing blatantly to steal the Camera Eye and the Newsreel devices from Dos Passos just to see how they might work, especially with the Black Death and Crécy and the Spanish campaign. The effect might be of the fourteenth century going on in another galaxy where language and literature had somehow got themselves into the twentieth century. The technique might make the historical characters look remote and rather comic—which is what I want.
The idea of an unfinished Anthony Burgess novel, based on such a fascinating premise, took hold of me. I talked about it with Andrew Biswell (director of the Burgess Foundation in Manchester the world’s leading expert on Burgess’s writing) and we agreed it would be worth seeing if the work could be completed. I have always felt that a science fiction writer is working in the same sort of territory as the writer of historical fiction (and several of my SF novels have been historical, or included historical elements): the creation of a world, the estrangement of the familiar. Dos Passos is a giant of experimental Modernist writing, and his techniques were adopted by John Brunner in his SF masterpiece Stand of Zanzibar; but nobody has applied them to a medieval topic. It was a challenge I couldn’t resist.
The Foundation sent me copies of the relevant material from their Burgess archives, most usefully a complete screenplay Burgess wrote in the mid-1970s called ‘The Black Prince’, drawing all his notes and ideas together. The film was never made, but the screenplay gave me a sense of how to bring the whole thing together.
I sat down to re-read the entire run of Burgess’s novels, to get myself into a proper Burgess frame of mind, and to saturate myself with a sense of his style—actually a variety of different styles. Above all I wanted there to be no visible ‘seam’ where Burgess’s stuff ended and mine began. At the same time I read as widely as I could on the history of fourteenth-century Europe. It is important to the novel that, though the form and style are vigorously modern, the subject matter itself should be scrupulously accurate and historical—it helped that I work for the University of London, and that several of my medievalist colleagues allowed me to pick their brains.
The novel came together over a period of about a year. The biggest technical challenge was in keeping Burgess’s own voice alive throughout, and in those sections which were just me I worked hard to produce something of which, were he alive, he would not be ashamed. Speaking for myself I’m immensely proud of the novel that has resulted. It is both an original historical novel unlike any other, and also an addition to the canon of Burgess’s own novels.
I’m especially delighted that we’ve been able to bring this project to the world in 2017, the centenary of Burgess’s birth. Were he here I suspect he might eye me warily, puff on one of his cigars, and perhaps have some whisky; but I’d like to think he’d be secretly pleased.
- Adam Roberts
There are many kinds of flood, not all of them water. Here: France, green and grey beneath a swift blue sky, and wholly submerged. The flood here is war. The House Valois is a tall house, but only its rooftop tiles and the pennant flying from its flagpole remain visible, so high has the flood risen. Those who walk on the earth are drowned, the common folk, the men and women. Those who sail in ships live, like this castellated English ship, made of wood as a coffin is made of wood.
When he is on land this Black Prince rides a prancing horse; and when he is at sea this Black Prince rides a prancing ship, lively over the waves. Clouds drag bridal trails of rain behind them as they sweep from sea to land. The Prince is on deck, unmindful of the drizzle that tickles his face. In between the folds of cloth-like rain he can glimpse fresh beaches, green fields. The French coast.
The rainbow sign was a promise that there would be no more waterfloods. But there are other kinds of flood that can inundate a countryside, and some are more like unto fire than water. Today’s Noah has a care only for the English. No Noah can save the French.
King Edward, third of that name, rides an even grander boat, a wooden castle, a barracks; below decks was coughing and demons, swearing and shitting and drinking, and tied-up horses skittering unhappily on the angling and tipping wooden floor. Hooves tattoo. Rat-tats that make the rats scatter. Too exhausted to whinny. Boys try to calm them. Wipe flanks with tattered cloths. The cabins at the rear of the boat are where the quality hunker, holding in the contents of their sloshy stomachs. A life on hard land has not prepared them for this. Now they are not on hard land, but over it: suspended some hundreds of feet over the mud and rocks of the channel bed, where strange sealife creeps and pulses, and immemorial weeds grow in sodden forests, and bodies lie thousands upon thousands, grasping at one another or at empty brine or phlebasing their way into an oblivion as currents tug their bones apart and crustacea nibble at their flesh.
The king is helped through the slushy sand and foaming waves, up onto the beach. The drizzle is thinning and the sun is coming out.
Noah rides a high-stepping horse, draped and harnessed in finery. He is returning to the high ground where he first berthed his big boat. When I was last here, he says, and the wind sends his beard sideways, like a comet’s tail, when I was last here this was the only land.
He has attendants, bannermen, servants, lords and high born warriors, all cluster about him.
—Your highness! Your highness!
Under the sunlight, the view has the brightness and perfection of an illustrated manuscript: greens soaked in blue-light, silver shining armour, red and golden standards, all the colours new washed and gorgeous. The party rides, keeping the sea on their left hand. Light leaps as a gorgeous ribbon of prisming colour from cloud to horizon.
Think thou of all the bloating drowned
Who died before they ever saw
It seems to me true cruelty from
That fierce judge who
Would take their all from them, and life,
And then this beauty too.
These people are helping to fund The Black Prince.