editor's choice



ANTHONY BURGESS ONCE COMMENTED THAT ‘ALL NOVELS ARE EXPERIMENTAL’, and while that appears true of such work as A Clockwork Orange and Napoleon Symphony, I think he would be delighted with Adam Roberts’ The Black Prince, based on a 90-page screenplay that Burgess wrote, which was never filmed.

Roberts, an academic, great Burgess fan and acclaimed author in his own right, seemed the ideal person to take on the task of bringing Burgess’ vision to life. He first came across the project referenced in an interview published in the Paris Review, in 1972, in which Burgess said he was working on a historical novel and thought it might be amusing to ‘steal the Camera Eye and the Newsreel devices from Dos Passos just to see how they might work, especially with the Black Death and Crécy and the Spanish campaign’, musing that the effect might be of the ‘fourteenth century going on in another galaxy where language and literature had somehow got themselves into the twentieth century’.

Thinking that there might be an incomplete work that he could possibly finish, Roberts got in touch with Andrew Biswell at the Burgess Foundation, quickly discovering that if he wanted to proceed, he would have to write the whole book himself. And he did, basing it on Burgess’ initial brief and screenplay.

The Black Prince is Roberts’ book, but one that unapologetically channels and pays homage to Burgess. That’s probably no surprise given that Roberts has often stated that he loves Burgess. He also reread all of the author’s work to try to recreate his tone authentically and adopted techniques from Dos Passos, as Burgess wanted.

The result is a brutal, very visceral and extremely filmic depiction of Edward’s campaigns in fourteenth-century France, written in such a way that we, the reader, feel that we’re experiencing everything first-hand from different POVs. And that’s something that gives the story colour and brings the brutality of that war – any war really – to life.

Dysentery: the word is the same in English and French and derived from the Greek, dys, bad, and entéra, bowels. Very bad the bowels of the English as they move through the summer. Very wretched their retching, or some of them … the meat is maggotthreaded and the water is bad, and this poor man-at-arms, Geoffrey of Henley, is on his back and heelkicking the ground in is badbowel agonies.’

Fans of Roberts’ own books might find it strange that he has written a historical novel as he is primarily associated with the science-fiction genre, but several of the techniques of and approaches to writing historical fiction are similar. This is also Roberts pasticheing Burgess pasticheing Dos Passos – and it works.

That said, if you prefer sanitised versions of history – and Edward, the Black Prince, is a compelling, often romanticised figure in literature – well, this book is not for you. Burgess’ and Roberts’ evocation of Edward and medieval Europe is much darker, multilayered and far more real than other books set in this period, and, in my opinion, all the better for it.

Interviewed about the book, Roberts was asked if he were the best person to write this book; he responded that he wanted to produce something of which Burgess, if alive, would be proud, or at least not ashamed. He has.


The Black Prince | Adam Roberts, adapted from an original script by Anthony Burgess | Unbound | 4 October 2018 | hardback | £16.99

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Also of interest: Anthony Burgess on writing

Acknowledgements: Quoted text: Burgess quotes from interview with John Cullinan, ‘The Art of Fiction‘, no. 48, 1972, Paris Review; page 8 The Black Prince © Adam Roberts 2018. Image ‘& The Black Prince‘ © The Literary Shed 2018. Many thanks also to the publisher, Unbound, for supplying a review copy. This piece is published as part of the virtual book tour, organised by Anne Cater (thank you!). All thoughts and opinions are our own. It’s always a pleasure reviewing books and appreciating beautiful words, but this was particularly so and not just because we love Burgess’ writing: many years ago, the author was very kind to an extremely young, very inexperienced, rabbit-in-headlights editor for no reason other than he could be.


See also:RO Kwon’s The Incendiaries‘; Another one bites the dust: Symon’s Overkill‘; ‘Beautiful words – The Language of Secrets‘; ‘Chris Whitaker’s mad, mad world – Tall Oaks’; ‘Beauty in translation – Roxanne Bouchard’s French Canadian noir’; ‘We should all be feminists’; ‘Jane Harper’s stylish debut – The Dry’; ‘Mallory an old-style hero – It Happens in the Dark by Carol O’Connell’; ‘Gunnar Staalesen: The Literary Lounge Q&A’; Some like it hot – the joy of Carole Mortimer, award-winning novelist.’

Film: Night Mail (1936), changing the face of British film; A Colour Box by Len Lye (1935); Hitchcock (2012); The Splendour of George Stevens’ Giant (1956). Hitchcock (2012); The Splendour of George Stevens’ Giant (1956).


This review is © 2018 by The Literary Shed. All rights reserved. All opinions are our own. We welcome your feedback and comments. If you wish to reproduce this piece, please do contact us to request permission. Thank you so much.


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