A Review of Anthony Burgess’ “Tremor of Intent”

In Literature on 11/06/2013 at 02:42


“Ah, what a bloody Manichaean mess life is.”

Tremor of Intent” is a book that might be dredged out of the back shelves of a used book store and attended to solely on the merits of Burgess’ canonical status. Water damaged, battered by innumerable pocketings and exuberant foldings back of the spine for attentive reading on a moving bus, this novel repays gourds of intellectual pleasure in return for a humble three dollars paid for this edition dating back nearly to the time the book was first published in 1966.

One very obvious 1966-quality of this novel is that the Cold War setting is critical for the book. What may be a fact is the way the Cold War functions as an analogy for the “Manichaean” human condition that characterizes the lives of the figures in this book. (viz. the dedication about “day and night” from Auden in the dedication) In a way this is one of the aspects of the book that makes it quaint, the way the inclusion of other historical elements, say the feudal life and quests or the involvement of the mythic beings, gives the literature of earlier epochs its unique flavoring.

At the center of “Tremor of Intent” is perhaps the most prototypical of all Cold War figures, the spy. The first section of the book is written as a report by the secret agent Hillier. The choice of this name was a strange one, though knowing Burgess’ delight in Joycean linguistic plays the name is doubtless laden with meaning. Indeed at one point Hillier interprets his dream of climbing a hill as relating to his own name. This seemed funny for some reason – again a quaint hearkening back to a now antiquated intellectual landscape when psychoanalysis was taken seriously.

The choice of the name “Hillier” is reminiscent of Hilaire Belloc one of the four Edwardian men-of-letters, a ghoulish frightener of children and disputant against the theory of evolution, a literary and intellectual bully in his period but now largely relegated to the pedantic dustbin knowledge of specialists, as well as ironically immortalized in the essays of Orwell, who detested the Anglo-Catholic apologist along with his collaborator G.K Chesterton – the latter still somewhat recognized for his over-rated “The Man Who Was Thursday”. (Chesterton is also being revivified in Zizek’s references and allusions. There is a sweet irony here.) And so mention of Hilaire Belloc raises the whole question right from the beginning about this book’s relation of Catholicism.

Tremor of Intent” ends with Hillier having become a Catholic Priest. Burgess and Greene are both considerable talents. And both their world is coloured considerably by their preoccupation with Catholicism. It may very well be that their period ends the influence of intellectual Catholicism that started at the end of the Victorian period and ends in the 90’s with the death of Burgess. Can we really care about this book (and books like “The Power and the Glory”) without accepting the cosmology and metaphysics Catholicism? The question is especially salient because the main character is a pedophile who at last finds salvation by becoming a Catholic priest. So if religion wasn’t already a preposterous charade for the reader in 2013, then this no doubt inadvertent bit of comedy by Burgess is in the very least likely to cause the reader to be appalled by the religious themes and motifs in the novel.

One of these religious themes is taken up in the first section of the book. It might be called the religious education scenario. “Books are made out of other books,” Cormac McCarthy famously said. The section treating the early education of the protagonist Hillier and his pathetic foil Roper is a pleasing one because it reminds the reader of the pleasures of other books that told similar stories: “The Red and Black”, “David Copperfield” and “The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” though the last one was likely the most influential on Burgess. This is because there are other elements of this novel that suggest a heavy Joycean influence. What it seems that the point of all this is, beyond rambunctious good reading, is that Burgess is saying the same sort of thing he does in “A Clockwork Orange”. Religious education, for all of its superstition and stupidity (there is a priest in “Tremor of Intent” who teaches anti-semiticism) is about the best we can hope for in our flawed world. While religious boarding schools produce mediocrity, scientific education (so it goes in Burgess universe) creates monsters like the boy Alan, an animate encyclopedia who has no compunction about skewering his elders over facts and figures. The analogy with “A Clockwork Orange” of course being that as bad as Alex was, it was better that he learn goodness naturally rather than be conditioned by the inhumanity of the penal system.

And then the theme of religious pedagogy in boarding school comes up again in a weird and distorted form after Hillier gets the better of the villain of the book Theordescu. More needs to be said about this villain.

The back cover of the 1969 Penguin edition claims, among other things too embarrassingly lurid to repeat, that “Tremor of Intent” has a villain that makes the devil look like a “vicar”. New world readers are unlikely to know or to know only vaguely what a vicar is so this statement is likely to not have the impact it should. And anyway, the point of the devil seeming like a vicar was always to emphasize just how evil he really would be once he got you into his power. The horror and fear was in the contrast. In any case, Theordescu, the lover of god, is probably exaggerated in this blurb. He is evil only in the sense that he has absolute power at nearly every step over Hillier (the stand-in for Burgess). Mostly he is humorous. The best part of the book takes place when Hillier and Theodorescu have an eating contest “The Trencherman Stakes” that gives Burgess opportunity to deploy a his brilliant ability with language in a hilarious and improbably catalog of foods, “roast lamb persillee and onion and gruyere casserole with green beans and celery julienne” or “Peach mouse with sirop framboise. Cream dessert ring Chantilly with zabaglione sauce. Poires Helene with cold chocolate sauce. Cold Grand Marnier pudding. Strawberry marlow. Marrons panache vicomte.”

This isn’t my line at all”, complains Hillier. Again, like in “A Clockwork Orange” high culture is being used as sort of water-board to torment the protagonist. Later on Theordorescu uses his somewhat preposterously exoticized assistant Miss Devi to seduce and drug Hillier into revealing valuable spy secrets. Theodorescu, it turns out, is not what he seems. He is an international spy working mercenarily for the highest bidder, East or West. For some reason his causes him later to be branded as a “neutral” and therefore considered even worse than the worst partisans for either good or evil. There is also a scene where Theodorescu extracts the information from the drugged Hillier and beats him a little with “a kind of stick known as a Penang lawyer” a phallic object that represents Theodorescu’s supremacy over him.


Getting seduced and drugged, out-eaten and having his cover blown by a young boy, Hillier is a parody of the “sneer and cool command” exhibited by James Bond. So that is why the next section of the novel is important.

Part One of the book was the background and Hillier and Roper as told in Hillier’s own words. Part One reveals their schooling, their military service in which they experienced cosmic evil of the Nazi death camps, and finally their lives after the war back in England. Part Two switches points of view from Hillier’s narration to the partially omniscient narrative voice of Burgess himself. The action is on the ship and is perhaps some of the best writing in the book, especially the eating contest and the fucking that goes on between Miss Devi and Hillier. This is in some ways an eye-rolling kama sutra scene, or more specifically a pokum scene, the erudite Burgess making Miss Devi a devotee of the South Indian arts of pleasure. One astute commentator found that this Orientalizing, inter-racial fucking was not just in bad taste, but marred the structure of the book, its Joycean labyrinthine language play and Wolfeian stream-of-consciousness being painfully out of place in this parody of a spy book. Here is one memorable line of the tableaux that takes up an impressive four pages of the book:

“The gallons of mani had swollen to a scalding ocean on which navies cheered, their masts cracking. The eighty-foot tower that crowed from his loins glowed white hot and then disintegrated into a million flying bricks. He pumped the massive burden out. Uriel, Raphael, Raguel, Michael, Sariel, Gabriel and Jerameel cried with sevenfold main voice, a common chord that was yet seven distinct and different notes. But, miracle, at once, from unknown reservoirs, the vessel began to fill again.” Pg.78

Out of place or not, in bad taste or not, there is some great writing here. A horny poem fusing imagery from the eclectic mind of a multi-talented genius. Writing like we see in this scene is of a quality that rarely happens in prose fiction and we should be grateful for it when we come across it. And it can be come across by ransacking the canon of literature past, not necessarily by keeping up with the latest prestigious authors. If there is anything bad to say about this novel, it is probaby about the final sections of the story. Another commentator may have overstated this fault by observing that the resolution of the novel had made it become somthing like a TV program in which so many various adventures had befallen the characters that their lives no longer seems believable, let along vital. This remark may have been overstating the case. However it was true that the resolution, which had Hillier wandering around a Russian town disguised as an officer was a clumsy way to resolve the action. Then the scene with which had the second surprise, of the novel, the revelation by that Wriste is an assassin, was also awkwardly inserted. Finally, Hillier’s evetual defeat of Theodescu was also slightly anti-climactic, suggesting a peculiar front cover for the edition of the novel featured above. Defects aside though, “Tremor of Intent” is a book that matters.

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