Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Review: Honey for the Bears, by Anthony Burgess

There’s a wonderful story – probably not apocryphal – about the first edition of Anthony Burgess’ Honey for the Bears, published in 1963, which centres around the following line from Chapter 1: “And this man Opiskin can get you formicating little peasants into such a lather …”, “formicating” being a delightful play on the term formication, meaning the sensation of having insects crawling all over your skin. Of course, a thoughtless editor at the publisher didn’t realize this was an actual word and assumed that Burgess had made a typo, and thus changed the “m” to an “n” on the proofs. Lynne Burgess, Anthony’s violent, alcoholic, nymphomaniacal shrew of a wife, caught the embarrassing alteration only after the book came back from the printer, and reportedly flew into a gin-fueled rage that got the editor fired.

This wordplay (restored in subsequent editions of the book) is not atypical in Honey for the Bears, a novel that practically pulsates with Burgess’ trademark brand of linguistic creativity. The story revolves around Paul Hussey, a British antiques dealer who travels by ship to the Soviet Union with his wife Belinda, ostensibly for a vacation in Leningrad but really to sell high-end drilon dresses to the fashion-starved Russians on the black market. He’s doing this as a favour to Sandra, the widow of his dead friend Robert, who regularly made such smuggles into the Soviet Union.

But the plan goes comically awry in so many delightfully Burgessian ways: Belinda comes down with a painful rash that sees her carted off to a second-rate Russian hospital shortly after their arrival, and Paul is soon hounded by two members of the Soviet secret police looking to bust him in the midst of his scam. To complicate matters, it comes to light that Belinda had a lesbian love affair with Sandra behind Paul’s back, and is now planning to leave him for the female doctor who treats her at the hospital. Paul, meanwhile, has some rather strange experiences that challenge his own sexuality, and this culminates with him attempting to smuggle out the son of the aforementioned Opiskin (a talented composer, greatly admired by Paul, who was suppressed by the Soviets). This involves Paul dressing the lad up like a woman so he can pass as Paul’s wife on the Helsinki leg of the trip home.

There’s much to admire in this garlicky, rambunctious romp of a tale. Burgess, for the most part, doesn’t overplay his hand in pointing out the Cold War differences between the Soviet Union and the culture Paul would be accustomed to in Britain. There is the refrain – spoken by the Soviet agents – about how Paul is looking to damage the Soviet economy by bringing in foreign wares, as if the drilon dresses were an invasive species being introduced into a delicate ecosystem. But it’s fun to be reminded that this had once been a national mentality in Russia, before the collapse of Communism and the concomitant globalization of trade. As well, Burgess’ humour is spot on in these pages; you probably need to speak fluent Russian—plus about three other languages—to catch all the puns here.

Still, there are issues. Once you’ve read enough of the Burgess oeuvre, you start to notice what might be described as the careless repetition of tropes. In Honey for the Bears, this means violent youths (A Clockwork Orange), alcohol-fueled shenanigans aboard a ship (Tremor of Intent) and the need to save and protect a young man with a somewhat messianic relationship to music (Beds in the East). Also, the ending of Honey For the Bears gets bogged down by a rather trite conversation between Paul and his Soviet pursuers, about the nature of freedom, after the two catch up with him in Helsinki.

But overall, this is one of Burgess stronger, more comic performances. Some of the references and relationships in the novel will seem dated to a 21st-century reader, but this in no way makes Honey for the Bears any less sweet.

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