The fourth of November, 2010: the fever-bird and the long novel

From Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess (Vintage, 2004), p246, ch35:

‘How badly I wrote. I took the completed page out of my typewriter two hours later, read it with disgust, and then caught an image of all the badly written pages of the world since the burning of the library of Alexandria, all the bad and useless books cramming the shelves of the world, diseased books, books with yaws and suppurating pudenda being born to clutter and to trap, offering an unreal reality, lies. There was a better and simpler reality in the mere act of sitting here, cool under the ceiling fan in a bare swept room, the windows open to sun and green and birds without song, knowing that Philip would be home soon for tiffin and that home was the finest word in the world, no trap or confidence trick, the ultimate unanalysable, basic as the scent of an English flower.’

I’ll let that speak for itself, except to say that the allusion to “yaws and suppurating pudenda” is a reference to an earlier scene in a Malay hospital ward. Oh, and Toomey, the narrator, has previously observed that “the birds of Malaya have no song” (“There are Christmasday chirpings from tiny yellowbeaked sparrows, and the other calls are mere noises derived for the benefit of the Chinese, for the copperhammer bird reminds them of the virtues of hard work, and the fever bird gives them something to gamble with, for one can never predict whether its descending chromatics will add up to three notes or to four”).

Having just typed out that just quotation, and being of a birdy turn of mind, I thought I’d look up the fever bird. It’s generally known as the brain-fever bird. It turns up in Kipling –

“So man on man got talkin’
An’ not a Brother stirred
Till morning waked the parrots
An that damn brain-fever bird.”

– and in Mark Twain’s Following the Equator (1897):

“From the woods all about came the songs of birds,–among them the contributions of a couple of birds which I was not then acquainted with: the brain-fever bird and the coppersmith. The song of the brain-fever demon starts on a low but steadily rising key, and is a spiral twist which augments in intensity and severity with each added spiral, growing sharper and sharper, and more and more painful, more and more agonizing, more and more maddening, intolerable, unendurable, as it bores deeper and deeper and deeper into the listener’s brain, until at last the brain fever comes as a relief and the man dies. I am bringing some of these birds home to America. They will be a great curiosity there, and it is believed that in our climate they will multiply like rabbits.”

Ornithologists might give a fig that the brain-fever bird is technically known as the Common Hawk-cuckoo, Cuculus varius.

Back to Burgess.  I haven’t, in fact, finished Earthly Powers yet (but then it is 649 pages long, and I have to eat, sleep etc.) so I won’t try to critique it. Two things I had read about it before I started reading it (both of which contributed to my taking it on):

(a) Burgess: EARTHLY POWERS – An attempt to show that I could write a novel as long as one of those nineteenth-century blockbusters (although Dickens and Tolstoy were long because they wrote for serial publication – no longer, alas, an available outlet for the novelist) [letter to Wolfgang Krege, April 1986].

(b) Martin Amis: There are two kinds of long novel. Long novels of the first kind are short novels that go on for a long time … Long novels of the second kind, on the other hand, are long because they have to be, earning their amplitude by the complexity of the demands they make on writer and reader alike. Earthly Powers is a long novel of the second kind [New York Times Book Review, December 1980].

Amis, I should add, is the source of the decorative text at the top of this page – a clip of Lorne Guyland discoursing on the cultural proclivities of ‘Lord Garfield’ in Money (1984).


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