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Michael Byrne is an Irish Don Juan - a composer, a charmer, a bigamist and a thug. He moves from country to country, from bed to bed, selling his talents and leaving a trail of children in his wake. His journey takes him from post-Great War London to the centre of Hitler's Third Reich and then he vanishes. His twin sons travel across the troubled face of Europe to pursue their father for one final apocalyptic reckoning.
Burgess, who died in 1993, was one of the most multitalented writers of the century (his works ranging from A Clockwork Orange through A Dead Man in Deptford), a man who surprised us with each new book. And this, his final work, completed only months before his death and at last appearing here thanks to the ever-enterprising Carroll & Graf, is one of the biggest such surprises. It's a novel in epic verse, no less, exhibiting the full range of Burgess's formidable wit, learning, linguistic skills and familiarity with every corner of contemporary culture. His hero--or at least his subject, who has apparently paid the author to tell his tale in ottava rima--is an Irish artist born around the turn of the century who is at once a composer of some skill (like Burgess himself), an artist of scurrilously pornographic paintings and a notable lecher. In the course of his odd career, having fathered a number of children, Byrne disappears into Nazi Germany and later resurfaces (perhaps) in a corner of Africa. In the second half of the saga, several of Byrne's children, twins Tom and Tim (an academic lecturer and a failed priest, respectively) and faded, TV-gaping Dorothy, are invited by a mysterious message to hear Byrne's will; and, in an amazing purgatorial scene, they learn to move beyond him for the sake of their own lives. Burgess brings it all off with a stunning mixture of rhetorical and poetic fireworks, wide-ranging vernacular speech and some incredibly ingenious rhymes. He ruefully ruminates: "Why choose this agony of versifying/ Instead of tapping journalistic prose?/ Call it a tribute to a craft that's dying,/ Call it a harmless hobby. Art, God knows,/ Doesn't come into it." But it does, of course, and Byrne is an endlessly stimulating, cherishable memento from a writer whose soaring imagination, capacious mind and Voltairian skepticism adorned his age.