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From Hun to Holmes, a Writer's Romp Through History : THE DEVIL'S MODE by Anthony Burgess (Random House: $18.95; 288 pp.; 0-394-57670-5)

December 31, 1989|Patricia Highsmith | Highsmith's next published book will be an edition of 12 short stories, chosen from several volumes of her stories, for an internationally made TV series to be called "Chillers by Highsmith"; the book will be published by the Atlantic Monthly Press

Since Burgess knows his history and has an unbounded imagination, anything can happen. "A Meeting in Valladolid," a story in the book under review here, Shakespeare is in Spain on tour with his young male actors, and learns of Cervantes--creator of the skinny knight Don Quixote and the knight's fat squire Sancho Panza--and said to be a great writer. Is Cervantes really better, greater than Shakespeare? Yes, say the Spaniards, for Cervantes is able to write of flesh and spirit at the same time. Shakespeare ponders this, even as he presses one hand against his abdomen, so sickened is he by the fare provided in the dry and (to him) backward towns of Spain.

So Shakespeare re-writes his "Hamlet" and Falstaff now plays a Sancho type, while Hamlet is rechristened Hal--instead of Ham, a change of but one letter, as someone remarks. It is four in the morning when the audience staggers out of the theater, wilting with fatigue. Sir Philip Spender, one of the audience, has slept soundly throughout, so he can vigorously propose that the "Comedy of Hamlet," for such it has become, be played nightly so that its riches can be better understood. The Spanish and English are to forge a peace soon, or at least their respective rulers are. Shakespeare has tried to be obliging, but can't wait to get home.

Either a reader will like this kind of fun or will soon tire of it, after trying. The stories may be best enjoyed one at a reading, and a day or so between them.

The tales are, most of them, not flippant. They are rich fare. Burgess plays with history as he wishes, and the amusement therefrom often is similar to that derived from musical puns. Burgess knows his music too.

"The Devil's Mode" will send some people to their local libraries to check on Roman history, others to a bookshop to buy some Tacitus and Thucydides. That will add to the pleasure.

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