"It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me."

So begins "Earthly Powers", a novel by Anthony Burgess. It is partly a historical novel of the 20th century, but also a masterly examination of the nature of good and evil, and of human nature. It is also a critique of the ways in which formalised moralities, such as organised religion, tend to stumble against their own limitations.

Burgess speaks in the first person through the character of a homosexual novelist who was raised a Catholic in England in the years before World War One, but later ostracised from the church because of his sexuality. Now very old, and with a successful writing career behind him, he is asked by the visiting archbishop to write the biography of a recently departed Pope. This Pope was known to him as Carlo, and was a friend for most of his life. He accepts the task, and much of the book is his telling of Carlo's story.

This device allows Burgess to examine most of the 20th century, either directly, or by recounting anecdotes about Carlo. Along with the changing moods of the time, the picture that emerges is of a passionate, powerful and committed Christian, a strong man with a deep love of his church and of life itself. We hear tales of his battles with evil: exorcising demons in Malaya (where Burgess worked as a teacher for a while), or facing Nazi torturers in Italy during World War Two. The century progresses, as does Carlo's career and reputation.

Sex and sexuality serve as a kind of thematic backdrop to the novel. This is done partly through interludes where the novelist ruminates on his own life, and the effects of his sexuality on it. We get to know him as a lonely old man who lost his only true love many years ago, and who finds relief from loneliness in mutually exploitative relationships. Carlo is shown to have risen above his sexual needs, perhaps by using food and drink as a kind of love substitute. The needs of the flesh can never completely be denied.

In the last part of the book, Burgess deals with the post-war years, Carlo's rising popularity and ascent to Pope-hood, and a series of events that seems to be based on Waco. There are chilling moments, and a final denouement that leaves the book on an unsettling, inconclusive edge.

For me, it is Burgess's way with ideas that makes this work so well. I was unaware of his writing before it, and I have not read his other work. A quick search at a well-known online encyclopaedia site shows that he was a very accomplished man, a musician and linguist as well as a writer, and with something of a rebellious nature. I think I would have liked him.

In some ways this is quite a dark book, but that is balanced by its intellectual honesty. It is a thought provoking, insightful novel which is lightened by its engaging plot and Burgess's incredible creative imagination. I'm due a re-read.