I am one of those fastidious individuals who, before travelling, has to draw up a reading list suited to the place he is to visit. For this reason, on a recent trip to Rome, I reread Abba Abba (one of Anthony Burgess’s slimmest books, it has the added virtue of fitting easily into a cramped suitcase). By the time he wrote the novel in the mid-seventies, Burgess had lived in Rome and married his second wife, Liana, an Italian contessa. Abba Abba is, amongst other things, a wary tribute to that capital of temporal power.
The novel is divided into two parts. The first, a formally conventional novella, imagines the last weeks of John Keats’s life, when he is attended to by his devoted companion Joseph Severn in their small apartment at 26 Piazza di Spagna. Burgess imagines a meeting between Keats and the poet Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli, the author of over a thousand sonnets in Roman dialect, many of them blasphemous, who was also, as a man of acute contradictions, an official Church censor. Thus the free spirit, fastened to a dying body, meets the believer at war with himself. The second part of Abba Abba consists of Belli’s sonnets on Biblical subjects, their glottal Roman translated into a caustic Mancunian. Burgess, hiding behind a fictional translator, acknowledges both his home town and his (then) adopted homeland. In so doing he engages with recurrent preoccupations: with language and poetry, with belief and unbelief, and with the conflict between our sensual and our spiritual selves. I have to confess that I value the first part of Abba Abba more than the second. Though as a versifying translator Burgess was never less than technically efficient (his Cyrano is now a classic, while his posthumous novel Byrne is written entirely in verse), he seems, in his gusto and erudition, very much a prose man. The Belli sonnets look back on the novella and its themes (abba abba is not only the cry of Our Saviour on the cross but also the rhyme scheme for the opening octet of a sonnet) yet they fail to engage me as the novel does.
There is, of course, inherent poignancy in any account of John Keats’s death at the age of 25. But Burgess does not indulge mawkish sensibilities, capturing inst
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