ANTHONY BURGESS' latest novel is the modern literary equivalent of a grotesque medieval woodcut by Hans Holbein the Younger. In Holbein's macabre artistic world, people blithely conduct their lives as usual, while unseen the Grim Reaper, lurking in the shadows, waits to carry them off. Death is also the main character in Burgess' markedly disappointing effort: never mind that he presents Ronald Beard, an aging British screen writer, as his hero; it becomes quickly apparent Burgess' is more concerned with Death than with Beard.
Beard's Roman Women is openly autobiographical--doctors once gave Burgess only months to live, his wife unexpectedly died instead--and perhaps that explains the grim tone. But the novel never surmounts a cloying obsession with slow death and supernatural reincarnation; in the end, Burgess offers only black humor and muddled despair as Death wins out. The result is a novel long on bizarre plot twists and short on ideas: pointless death makes for a pointless novel.
Burgess begins simply enough, but we are rapidly sidetracked on a series of unconnected and nightmarish tangents. Beard, shaken by his wife Leonora's grisly and easily forestalled death, enters into an affair with Paola, a young, trendy Italian photographer who astonishingly remembers Beard's name after having seen it in movie credits. (The dust jacket informs us that Paola's photographs "adorn the book," quite a feat for a fictional character and no doubt a surprise to photographer David Robinson.) All is fine and dandy between the two, as uncovered in some badly written bedroom scenes, until Paola must leave Rome, where most of the novel is set, for the Mideast. There, she is to photograph the latest Arab-Israeli conflict (more Death, you see.)
Complications arise in Paola's absence he wants to employ: he careens between badly Beard's deceased wife Leonora starts telephoning him from England. She complains that he has forsaken her, that he has been duped by the doctors and that she, very much alive, is now coming to Rome. Beard is forced to cope with his guilt; he wonders if, like many widowers he is secretly happy to exchange an old wife for a young lover. After all, he asks, how much great literature has been created by widowers bemoaning the loss of their wife? (Burgess is in no danger of reversing that trend.)
While waiting for Leonora, Beard encounters Paola's jealous husband and quarrels over aesthetic theory and race relations, is raped by a group of feminist women (hence the title?) and in the midst of all this chaos, manages to complete a screenplay for a Hollywood musical on Lord Byron, the Shelleys and Frankenstein.
Burgess manages to tie all the sprawling strands together in the last few chapters of the novel; by then, however, the aimless nature of the book has defeated the reader. Burgess' merry-go-round theory--keep the plot moving, change the characters--leaves Beard's Roman Women without much in the way of continuity except the grinning Grim Reaper.
Still worse, Burgess cannot decide what style handled black humor and lyric descriptions of Rome in the fading twilight. The dialogue is virtually indefensible on any level, except perhaps that it befits Burgess' protagonist the hack screen writer (who talks like his scripts), but that defense falters, for it can't encompass all the other characters.
Beard's Roman Women is a rarity in that very few novels are illustrated (John Gardner's Sunlight Dialogues springs to mind as another exception). Interspersed throughout the book are clusters of photographs of Rome: rain beading on a window, sepia-colored church steeples; Roman street life, a few statues. While pleasant enough to look at, David Robinson's prints are sacrificed to a lost cause. Beard's Roman Women will not be saved by a handful of prints, whether Robinson's or Holbein's, for it is a shallow and poorly written exercise by a novelist who can do much better.