Beard’s Roman Women by Anthony Burgess

In the Anthony Burgess novel Beard’s Roman Women, when writer Beard’s wife of twenty-six years dies of cirrhosis of the liver, he’s at a loss to know quite what to do with the rest of life. But a summons to Hollywood distracts him from the slight confusion he feels due to his wife, Leonora’s permanent absence. Once in Hollywood, it becomes the goal of American film mogul, Ed Schaumwein to ensure that Beard “start[s] to live again meaning work a little and get laid a lot.” This translates to the usual tourist trips and a few showy parties. Beard meets glamorous photographer Paola Lucrezia Belli. “Out of the habit of sex,” Beard falls hard and fast for Paola, and follows her back to Rome.

Beard, who’s being paid fifty thousand dollars for a film script, has a series of misadventures in Rome which include an irate ex-husband, Roman thieves, an old friend who’s a perpetual boozer, and a gang of violent, vengeful Italian women. Throughout these misadventures, Beard continues to work on his atrocious screenplay–a big screen production that tells the story of Byron, Shelley and the writing of Frankenstein. But Beard’s work is interrupted when he begins to receive phone calls from the dead Leonora.

The novel begins very strongly with a solid description of Beard’s marriage and his wife’s long illness:

“She died in an English March. He should have known, those quiet years in London when he was earning their living as a writer of scripts for radio, television and cinema, what her trouble was. He had even written a television play in which one of the characters, a writer of scripts for radio, television and cinema, died of cirrhosis. From these years in Brunei on, when he worked for Radio Brunei, it never seemed to him that either of them drank excessively. In the tropics, surely, you sweated all the gin out before it got anywhere near the liver. To the house in Hammersmith they had had, true, one dozen bottles of Gordon’s delivered weekly, but they dispensed tropical hospitality even to the delivery man; they drank wine only with dinner and did not invariably take a liqueur after; they spent no more than two hours a day in pubs. He had emerged undamaged from this; why not then she also?”

Leonora’s illness leads to a death that is predicted but still stunning in its swiftness. From that moment, Beard flounders–chasing love and sex while encountering jealousy and delayed grief. Naturally all of this trauma contributes to the difficulties of trying to write his ridiculous script.

The greatest character in the novel has to be Greg Gregson, Beard’s doppelganger who brings tales of encounters with Leonora and heralds in a series of phone calls apparently from ‘beyond.’ Greg’s notions of lunch (“blotting paper”) are peppered with his inappropriate ideas of empire and imperialism. Greg Gregson, however has the opportunity to save the day at the risk of pissing off the locals.

Some time ago I read One Hand Clapping also by Burgess, and I thought it was a marvellous novel. Beard’s Roman Women, on the other hand, was not as good. Published in 1977, Burgess based the tale partly on his experiences as a widower, and interestingly, the passages about Leonora are the most stunning in the novel. Excellent in parts but dated in others, the novel is in some ways a literary version of Fellini’s 8 1/2. Fellini’s film also examines the struggles of the creative process, and his main character Guido Anselmi is plagued with marriage problems and memories of the past that blend with fantasy. After reading Beard’s Roman Women, I have images of Albert Finney playing Beard on the loose in Rome, and these imagined reels collide into segments of Anita Ekberg dancing half-dressed in the Trevi fountain.

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