Back to Burgess99

The Mighty and Their Fall

The Mighty and Their Fall is one of the most peculiar books I have ever read. I found it extremely difficult to get a grip on, and I never really understood what actually happened. According to Burgess you /.../ cannot read just a couple of the novels and think one knows them all: one needs the whole corpus /.../. This, however, am I not prepared to do.

The story as I understood it is as follows. Ninian Middleton is a widower, and living with his five children: Egbert (22), Lavinia (20), Agnes (14), Hengist (11), and Leah (10). Ninian's mother Selina and adopted brother Hugo are also living with them. The book is almost completely dialogue, so you really have to read between the lines. Anyway, since some time Ninian has had an incestuous relationship with his daughter Lavinia. Suddenly, he declares that he will get married with a Teresa Chilton, which everyone is more or less opposed to. Before they get married Teresa and Hugo have an affair, and Lavinia tries to sabotage the marriage by hiding a letter.

Phew, this was much harder than I thought! I finished reading the book yesterday, but I seem to have forgotten what happened next, or rather in which order thing happened. Ninian's long lost brother Ransom comes home to die, the mother Selina actually dies, Lavinia moves to Ransom's place, and Lavinia and Hugo want to get married (that's Lavinia and her uncle Hugo). It all goes on and on . . .

But the story is really secondary to the way it's told. Burgess writes: The technique is deliberately formal, even stilted. That's is, to me, an understatement. When I started reading I had the feeling I was reading formal logic, like Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. The famous proposition seven: What we cannot speak of we must pass over in silence. could be something someone would say in The Mighty and Their Fall. Also, the Icelandic sagas, and the Bible comes to mind as stylistic comparisons.

After a while I found the formal language quite attractive. You get very conscious of what you're reading — one moment of inattention and you have to start over from the beginning of the paragraph. I don't know if you're meant to make a mental picture of people actually talking the way they do in the book, or if you should add a certain amount of humanness to the dialogue. I mean, written language is always just a poor approximation of real language, so why not emphasise this? I don't know, but I think it would make good theatre.

Peter Andrén, 2009-02-07.

Copyright © 2009 Peter Andrén