It was interesting reading this after the clarity, verve, and lightness of touch of Ondaatje’s The English Patient. Two blokes writing about the same war, sort of, but chalk and cheese in their storytelling.
Any Old Iron was published in 1989 and is somehow showing its age. Maybe that’s because it was a very late book by Burgess, published only four years before his death; maybe it’s the actual physical book itself: Arrow imprint, of Random Century Group (now there’s publishing history itself!). Or maybe it’s the content; the story.
There are a lot of editing things in this edition (the first imprint): confusing and twisted sentences, typos, a couple of times referrals to the wrong character. I wondered, as I read, if Burgess had become immortal by the time his publishers got this manuscript and no editor was allowed to clean it up.
‘Any old iron’ refers to the sword of King Arthur, or Attila the Hun, depending on how one interprets the letter A embossed on a very old sword that seems to defy age. So the story is a sort-of rewriting of that Arthurian legend. However there’s no nobility of battle here, but a tour through various aspects of war: so much seemingly-relished description of fighting and bloodshed, Hitler, Russia during both revolutions, after-effects of war, Welsh Nationalism, Israel/Palestine war and war and war. This book could only have been written by a bloke! So much aggression.
I rather enjoyed the trip through history, which hung off the strange journey of Excalibur (or Caledvwlch to the Welsh) through those above-mentioned conflicts and into a stone near a small pond somewhere in Wales. And I really enjoyed the quite sardonic voice of the narrator, who himself was a character in the story.
That said, after a while I jumped over long passages of war-things and over-descriptive sections. I don’t like to do that and would rather give honour to the writer, but it felt like a second draft that had yet to be polished.
I felt it was a poor-relation of his early work, particularly A Clockwork Orange which explored the darkness of society, and that scared the wits out of me in the film version. That book was not overcome by the brilliant film, but I have no intention of revisiting it.
Next old friend? Don’t know. I’m about to start editing my book ms when I get the report from the wonderful Elizabeth in a few days. I’ll be in touch.