Book Review

A Dead Man In Deptford by Anthony Burgess

Photo on 31-03-2014 at 18.14 #8

I’ve been busy the last couple of weeks and will continue to be horrendously so for the next few. I’ve been working for money during the day a lot, that necessary sin, and it has aggressively decimated the time I have available for both reading and writing. Thus, Anthony Burgess’ under three hundred page historical novel about the life of Cristopher Marlowe took me almost a whole week to read. Which is shameful. For me.

A Dead Man In Deptford is written in a semi-approximation of British Renaissance prose, yet this is done in such a way as to offer historical colour and appropriate background to the dialogue of Kit and his fellow poets, rather than as a reminder of the drabness of prose before the eighteenth century.

Burgess uses as a narrative foil a bit player, an actor who performed in some of Marlowe’s plays and shagged him a few times. This narrator, writing an account of the dead playwright’s life from a distance of a few decades, is incredibly informed, offering conjecturally recreated scenes of all of the most significant events of Marlowe’s life. The connection between them is loose, and the detail included in scenes that this character was absent from is too great. I felt this narrator was little more than an unnecessary device to justify the use of the archaic (ish) English. The justification already exists in the content and the action and the setting. Maybe I’m more willing to go along with experimental devices than the readers Burgess was expecting to attract – maybe he felt he needed to ground this.

But the language isn’t difficult. It gives an impression, a sense, of Elizabethan England. The slang terms and the topics of conversation and the intellectual focuses of the times are reflected by the prose, which I felt worked. I felt transported without feeling distracted – it added more than it took away, by a long way. Meaning was rarely lost, and that’s the real risk with making a decision like that.

In terms of plot, it’s a violent gay romp about spying, writing, boozing, tobacco and boys and all the other things one would expect from a novelisation of Marlowe’s life. It’s fun when it wants to be and tragic in places too. The inevitable death scene was a little underwhelming, but the real highlights were the pub scenes and the theatre scenes and the interrogation scenes and the sex scenes and the travel scenes and the betrayal and the cruelty and the blood-soaked evocation of a dirty period of history that preceded it.

It reminded me, in its tone, far more of Tom Stoppard’s Shakespeare in Love than it did of the only other Burgess I’ve read. (Which I don’t need to name, do I?*) A Dead Man In Deptford plays with language and it sparkles with wit and humour and the kind of nasty gritty historical sexiness that I’m [trying to/also] [harness/harnessing] in my own writing at the moment.

If I ever get any more done. (Which I will. I used to work 9-5 and write at the same time… What’s to stop me doing it again? Age, probably. Age and fatigue.)


The Burgess was good. I apologise for the messiness of this review, but I’m exhausted and will only get more so.

A ha ha ha ha.

Here’s are some out of context pictures of me looking all business:

Photo on 31-03-2014 at 18.15 Photo on 31-03-2014 at 18.15 #2 Photo on 31-03-2014 at 18.14 #2 Photo on 31-03-2014 at 18.14 #3Photo on 31-03-2014 at 18.14 #7


* It was A Clockwork Orange.

1 comment on “A Dead Man In Deptford by Anthony Burgess

  1. Pingback: A Shorter Finnegans Wake by James Joyce, edited Anthony Burgess – The Triumph of the Now

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