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'Content matters less than shape': Anthony Burgess, Giuseppe Gioachino Belli, John Keats

Dr. Paul Howard, Senior Teaching Associate, School of Modern Languages, University of Bristol

In ABBA ABBA (1977), Anthony Burgess effectively uses the biographical novel as a way of presenting his own highly original verse translations of a nineteenth-century Italian poet. Set in papal Rome in the winter of 1820/21, Part One of the book charts a fictional meeting between the consumptive John Keats and his Roman contemporary, the sonneteer Giuseppe Gioachino Belli; Part Two showcases 71 inventive versions of Belli’s sonnets in what Burgess misleadingly calls English with a Manchester accent. Reflecting on his hybrid novel in an essay entitled ‘Is Translation Possible?’, Burgess remarked that ‘Translation is […] transformation’. My recent edition of the text for the collected Irwell series proves that a) Burgess was initially concerned merely with translating Belli; and b) that Burgess worked collaboratively on these translations. Why, then, go to such lengths to publish them in this creative format? Why juxtapose Italian and English literary cultures at all?

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