Book reviews

Anthony Burgess’ Nothing Like the Sun: A Story of Shakespeare’s Love-Life (W. W. Norton, 1992; originally published 1964)

Creative sex scenes, clever ejaculation imagery, and deep thoughts for godless societies.

Burgess offers wonderful sex scenes to illustrate that God’s favorite activity for married humans can be rendered into beautiful words.  That this novel was written over half a century ago testifies to his enduring literary power.

Of course, contemporary society may not appreciate how the author writes about sexuality since some misguided souls think that sex is just a pastime instead of a fulfilling part of married life.  Oh, well, that’s their problem.

The rest of us can enjoy this novel not so much as a philosophical treatise on the sanctity of marriage and how Shakespeare broke that sanctity, but as linguistic revelry equal to any Shakespearean drama or sonnet.  Therefore, if you can’t tolerate Shakespeare’s antiquated language just yet, read this novel instead.

What linguistic revelry?  Well!

For example, stating that he “loosed into her honey his milk” (33) is simply clever language for ejaculation, as is the imagery that “a thrust of opal drops in animal ecstasy unleashed a universe” (191).

Burgess uses such literary expression of sexuality to expose the inherent disruption of Shakespeare’s society, a time which “cracked order in State and Church” (267).  Beyond the snickering fun of the above examples of coitus, the author writes some serious condemnations of that milieu.

“That lust and filthy fornication and sodomy and buggery roam this realm, beating their lewd wings and raising a coughing and stinking and blinding dust to lead reason astray [….]  You may take one man’s sinfulness to be the type and pattern of all” ([184]) is not merely creative language.  The ideas apply to our time as much as it did to Shakespeare’s, and no amount of protestation from those who think they are “liberated” today can ignore that the sexual activity detonated by the terms “fornication” and “sodomy” (established for millennia) remain sinful and immoral.

The saddest sections of the novel are Burgess’ suggestions that Shakespeare was a man who utterly lost his faith, whether the “Old Faith” of Catholicism or Anglicanism, which the Tudor monarchs forced on the nation in the sixteenth century under threat of death.  Shakespeare is someone who “kept quiet about his own weak faith in anything” (53).  He may have been a master writer of drama and sonnets, but Shakespeare was a fornicator, an adulterer (with boys, men, and women), and a coward.

Now wonder, then, that a genuine hero in the novel is Shakespeare’s father, who says, “I see that there is more truth there [in the Old Faith of Catholicism] than I formerly thought, and that men have been cruelly burnt for nothing” (200).  Maybe Shakespeare himself found his father’s faith eventually.  After all, the novel ends with the capitalized words “My Lord” (271).

But that would be trying to force a happy ending on a fictionalized account of a life that had great literary merit yet is a piss-poor example of how one should live.

We must thank Burgess, then, for a fun read with didactic value.

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