Anthony Burgess met his first wife Lynne at University and they married in 1942. They lived in England and Malaysia and Brunei, and a great deal of their leisure time was devoted to drinking and partying. Lynne became known for her outrageous and flirtatious behaviour. She is said to have insulted the Duke of Edinburgh at an official function. Burgess liked women and had discreet affairs (Lynne had indiscreet affairs) and five years before she died in 1968, he had met the Italian woman who became his second wife. It is said he would not divorce Lynne because he did not wish to offend his cousin George Dwyer the Roman Catholic Bishop of Leeds.
He published Beard’s Roman Women in 1976. By his time, he had published twenty-three books and had become famous for A Clockwork Orange, although a great deal of the popularity of this came from Stanley Kubrick’s film version (much to Burgess’ chagrin.) He was churning out the books, his new wife Liana was very capably managing his affairs. But something led him to write about the death of his first wife and his meeting with Liana.
Ronald Beard, like Burgess, had spent time in Brunei, and like Burgess had a great deal of gin delivered to his bouse every week.
To the house in Hammersmith they had had, true, one dozen bottles of Gordon’s delivered weekly…but they drank only wine with dinner and did not invariably take a liqueur after; they spent no more than two hours a day in pubs. He had emerged undamaged from this; why not then she also?
But Leonora, Ronald Beard’s first wife cannot keep up. She develops cirrhosis of the liver and her doctor tells her if she has another drink she will die. She inevitable does have that drink.
Three days later the final portal haemorrhage began. The doctor was slow in arriving. Saucepans and jugs could scarcely keep pace with the tides of black blood.
After Leonora is disposed of our hero is summoned to Hollywood to discuss a screen writing project; The Lovers of the Lake with Byron, Lady Caroline Lamb, Mary Shelley, and Shelley starring Paul Newman ‘or someone similar’. While there he meets Paola Belli, an Italian photographer and falls madly in love with her.
They go back to Rome where he discovers she has a fearsome ex (or almost ex-husband, divorce is not recognised in Italy at this time) a West Indian writer called P R Pathan. Paola dashes off to the 6 Day War to take photographs, leaving Beard in charge of a folio of her work and of her apartment. Everything that can go wrong does so.
The ex-husband clears out the flat, two scippatori, grab and run youths, seize the folder of Paola’s work, but by this time Beard has met up with an old acquaintance from Brunei days. Greg Greg drives his car into them, smashes their Vespa and gives them a good telling off
Feed them to the lions in the Hippodrome or Colosseum or whatever it is. Make them do an honest day’s work, sell the bastards into slavery. Know their type. Wogs, wops. No good even for coolie labour. And shut that dirty language up, I know it’s dirty…
They take their revenge on Beard by sending four women to assault him. Highly unbelievable.
There is a great deal more drinking with Greg Greg, and very soon Paola comes back from Israel and tells Beard she is bringing seven refugee children to live with them.
The other factor is that Beard keeps getting phone calls from a woman purporting to be Leonora, his dead wife.
Burgess may have had something to work through, but this confused and self-indulgent work is not his finest hour. The edition I have has blurred photographs of Rome by David Robinson which add very little to the story.
When Burgess had finished the work, he called it Rome in the Rain, but his American publishers McGraw Hill changed it to Beard’s Roman Women. Rome in the Rain seems more suitable for this limp effort.
This is my first read for Kaggsy and Simon’s #1976 Club