Nothing Like the Sun by Anthony Burgess
Naturally, in my Race in Shakespeare class, we read a lot of plays, but there is one novel on the syllabus–Anthony Burgess’ Nothing Like the Sun. When I came back from fall break and realized I hadn’t even started it yet (it was either that or my economics textbook, people!), I picked it up without much ceremony or knowing much about it–I knew Burgess wrote A Clockwork Orange, which I’ll probably never read, and that it, in some fashion, dealt with race and Shakespeare. I was in for a lovely surprise.
Nothing Like the Sun’s subtitle is A story of Shakespeare’s Love-life, and so it is–it follows Shakespeare, rendered here as WS, from a young man struck by the image of a dark goddess to an man wasting away from syphilis. Naturally, Burgess spends considerable time on Shakespeare’s relationships with the Dark Lady and Fair Youth of Shakespeare’s sonnets, rendered here as Fatimah, a woman of color from the East Indies, and Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton. But while the focus is on Shakespeare’s love life and how it relates to his plays, the novel also focuses on, by not mentioning the plays much, the ordinary life of an extraordinary genius.
From the first page, you realize that Nothing Like the Sun is one of those novels; a novel whose style takes a while to get used to. It’s brimming with imagery, brusque, and poetic, and, wonderfully, it works. While there’s definitely a learning curve, it’s not terribly steep, and once you settle into the style, you’re in for some absolutely beautiful language, especially concerning Shakespeare’s desire for a dark lady and how the abstract fantasy of it doesn’t quite match up with the reality of it–his dark goddess is always described as “golden”. It’s never flowery or ornate, but it’s often powerful. I usually don’t pick up stylized novels because they’re hard to execute (and when they fail, they come off as utterly pretentious), so this was an interesting and unexpected treat.
Because I was explicitly reading this with a focus on race, I was actively analyzing the text as opposed to reading for pleasure, a distinction as slight but significant as the difference between “kill” and “stun”. It’s a very rich novel, and I’m quite glad I’m reading it academically; there’s so much to cover, I need my classmates to help me parse it all out. While the language feels spontaneous and period, it’s very specific–we’re occasionally invited by Burgess to reflect back on Shakespeare’s early fantasy concerning a wealthy widow of color as he goes through life, failing an encounter with a black prostitute and his relationship with Henry, which play with the text of that fantasy interestingly. Burgess was a man who knew his Shakespeare, and there’s plenty of intertextuality here, but instead of the common method of having Shakespeare lift lines and concepts directly off those around him, it’s much subtler. For instance, while the writing of Antony and Cleopatra is never mentioned, it’s not hard to see it as inspired by Shakespeare’s fascination with his dark goddess (itself, perhaps, inspired by walking in on his parents while they were having sex). In fact, few plays are mentioned by name; Titus Andronicus rates a mention due to its bloodshed, which people tease Shakespeare about. It’s a very deep and thoughtful novel which, I think, rewards multiple readings and rates comparison against Shakespeare’s canon.
As a novel about Shakespeare’s love life, Nothing Like the Sun is, of course, focused on sexuality. As an asexual woman, I don’t seek such novels out; in high school, I opted out of going to see Spring Awakening on Broadway because I can’t exactly relate to the the titular “spring awakening”. (To be fair, David Hyde Pierce was in Curtains that night, so it wasn’t exactly a fair fight.) There’s a very thin line between sensuality and vulgarity in works dealing with sex, I find, and it too often errs on the side of vulgarity. Nothing Like the Sun is utterly sensuous. Shakespeare’s sexual relationships with both Fatimah and Henry are rendered beautifully, but these aren’t perfect relationships; these are, after all, real people (or, at the very least, very realized characters) relating to each other, which, I suppose, is part of that demarcating line between sensuality and vulgarity. These complex relationships evolve, decline, and fail. I was quite struck by the fact that Nothing Like the Sun is fairly blasé about the sexual relationship between Shakespeare and Henry, although it was published in 1964–you’d think I would have heard of it by now, but my education can be occasionally spotty. At least now I know!
Bottom line: Nothing Like the Sun is a rich and downright sensuous novel that focuses on Shakespeare’s love life, particularly his relationship with the Dark Lady and Fair Youth of the sonnets. While the style has a learning curve, it’s quite rewarding, being poetic, seemingly spontaneous, and period-appropriate. If you enjoy Shakespeare or just wonderfully written books, I highly recommend this.
I bought a used copy of this book off Amazon.