Reading group: Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess is our book for March

This novel of a writer’s life in the 20th century was the runaway favourite to look at this month. It’s a big book, with much to think about and much to enjoy

Earthly Powers has won the popular vote and is this month’s reading group choice. It was the runaway winner, with 20 more votes than its closest rival – although it should also be noted that there were more than 20 other books also in the running. That’s some testament to the variety and scope of Burgess’s talents – as is Earthly Powers itself, being the novel Burgess said he wrote to “really show what I could do”.

Shortlisted for the 1981 Booker prize, Earthly Powers was deemed by Malcolm Bradbury to be the book that “summed up the literary, social and moral history of the century with comic richness as well as encyclopedic knowingness”. The Times thundered that it was a “hellfire tract thrown down by a novelist at the peak of his powers”. And its reputation has only grown in the years since its publication. In 2006, for instance, it was the runner-up in a 2006 Observer poll to find the best novel of the last 25 years (unfortunately missing out to Disgrace by JM Coetzee).

In Earthly Powers, Burgess tricksily presents a novelist within a novel: the 81-year-old writer Kenneth Toomey, who was rumoured to be loosely based on Somerset Maugham. He tells of his long life over the course of the 20th century – and plays all sorts of verbal and literary games along the way. Early on, he tells us he has already written crucial parts of his story up as fiction; his lover Geoffrey suggests that he has likewise foreseen other possibilities for his future: “You set it all down in that stupid bloody sentimental shitbag of a novel, called The Affairs of Men,” says Geoffrey. “Fucking silly pretentious title.”

It’s one long hall of mirrors, where truth and fact are never quite substantial, where religious and romantic faith are forever in question, and where fiction and metafiction are forever intruding. There are 82 chapters: Burgess claimed there were supposed to be 81 to mirror Toomey’s age and that he only noticed the error at the proofing stage. But are we to believe that Burgess himself is any more reliable than his authorial narrator?

I’m sure we’ll have fun tying ourselves in knots about similar questions over the course of the next month. But I don’t want to give the impression that this is an unduly challenging read. It’s also funny, fantastically entertaining and a real page-turner if the opening chapters are anything to go by. In fact, you can get a good idea of what lies ahead from the famous opening lines:

“It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.”

Who couldn’t read on after that? Just in case you need more inducement we have five copies to give away to the first five people from the UK to post “I want a copy please”, along with a nice, constructive question in the comments section below.

If you’re lucky enough to be one of the first to comment, email Lucy Poulden with your address ( – we can’t track you down ourselves. Be nice to her, too.


Sam Jordison

The GuardianTramp

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