It's the fictional autobiography of a writer, who is not Anthony Burgess, but is sometimes Anthony Burgess. It put me strongly in mind of My Other Life by Paul Theroux, which I suspect it may have inspired. (Burgess even makes an appearance in Theroux's book.)
It begins as the gay octogenarian writer has been asked by a bishop in Malta, where he is living with his latest "secretary" (boy toy), to write up a piece on what might have been a miracle he long ago witnessed in a Chicago hospital with his brother-in-law, who later became Pope. It's hinted that this little gesture might ease his relations with the more conservative elements of local society, like for instance the police.
Fortunately for us, he can barely recall the incident and thus has to go back to the beginning, working his way through his memories, beginning well before WWI. The excavation gets out of control and becomes something of an autobiography, recounting his literary career, his love life, his family, the horrors of both wars, and his musings on religion. 607 pages' worth.
The book is so vast that it would be ridiculous to try to give a summary. I loved being inside the head of a rather prickly aesthete full of cutting observations on the 20th century, everything from the banality of America to the horrors of Nazism. Passages from books, some real, some not, are quoted at length. (I was all excited to read the works of a particular Austrian author he dwells heavily upon, until I googled him and found that he was entirely fictional.) The literary rivalries are piquant. There are lots of cameos by literary giants like Joyce, Ezra Pound, & Hemingway, but my favorite was the fictional (?) Val Wrigley, a minor poet who is his nemesis. Carlo, who later becomes Pope, is an unforgettable steamroller of a man, exorcising demons, gambling with sheiks in casinos, slapping fascists, and always always eating.
The voice of Kenneth Toomey is inside my head now. As I try to write about this book, I can see him rolling his eyes at my illiteracy. (The spell checker on my phone's voice to text function did not recognize "thus" and one of the words it offered me was
"Toys R Us." I can hear Kenneth saying, "Dear God.") Although much of it is his droll reaction to almost everyone and everything, a lot of interesting things happen. Carlo keeps a Nazi locked up in the basement of an Italian monastery towards the end of the war, interrogating him, trying to understand the vacuum that is his soul. Kenneth's niece joins a cult in California and he pretends to be a reporter in an effort to speak with her. He tries to get a Jewish writer out of Austria with a fake passport but everything goes wrong. He goes to see a film based on one of his works which is quite similar to A Clockwork Orange, but altered. And then afterwards, something else happens, that I don't want to give away, which further complexifies the funhouse mirror. And very much more.
It's an undertaking, no question about it; it ate up a good deal of my first week camping at the folk music festival. But time well spent.