IN HIS LATEST NOVEL the powers of Anthony Burgess seem to be stretched to their uttermost extent, but with this constantly astonishing writer we can never be quite sure. He has such great gifts, and writes with so much wit and energy, that a part of the public has mistaken him for a funny-man. But with Burgess, as with Samuel Johnson, it is often bitterness which we mistake for frolic. This trivality of judgement dogged his great success, A Clockwork Orange; foolish people thought the author must approve of vicious hooliganism, he wrote about it with such relish. They were wholly mistaken; Burgess is a stern moralist.

His morality is rooted in Roman Catholicism, and like Joyce he arms himself with Jesuit and Dominican weapons when he calls God to the bar of judgment. For that is what it seems to me he tries to do in Earthly Powers. God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform, and in the course of performing them He wreaks utter hell on all sorts of unoffending people. What does God imagine He is doing? Is He really frivolous, capricious and malign? Explain Yourself, Immensity, and You'd better make it good.

Of what nature are God's works which, in this novel, so mystify the narrator and us, his readers? First, God endows an Italian-American priest, Carlo Campanati, with saintly powers which enable him to reverse supposedly irreversible disease. But this Carlo is a gambler, a gormandizer and an unscrupulous fixer; when at least he becomes Pope Gregory XVII he sets to work to achieve what the narrator regards as the demolition of the Roman Church; because he has popular appeal, he goes quite a long way with it. The Church is coming to the people, says one character; the brothel is coming to the clients, says an old priest.

Second, God's inexplicable caprice reveals itself in that Carlo, when young, saved a child from death by meningitis, when the doctors had given it up. This child grows up to be one Godfrey Manning who, as 'God' Manning, heads a sect of religious fanatics; at his bidding they take cyanide pills as their last Communion, and 2,000 of them die. What sort of God is it who empowers a saint to save a mass-murderer who fattens on a parody of faith?

Third, what sort of God is He who makes the narrator of this novel, Kenneth Marchal Toomey, a homosexual and therefore one who, as a Catholic, can pursue his sexual bent only in sin? Toomey achieves great success as a writer; his career reminds us of Somerset Maugham's. But his homosexuality shuts him off from many of the satisfactions of life and pushes him into a word of exploiting third-raters. When he is silent about his twist he is open to blackmail and when, in a fit of unwise frankness, he admits it in court, he is exposed to moral bullying of another kind. Why does God pick on Toomey in this way, Toomey wants to know, and as he cannot escape God, he is driven to live in defiance of God, which is an uncomfortable position for anyone but an obstreperous atheist.

These problems are explored brilliantly, and the incidental discussions are deeply interesting. To what degree are homosexuality and artistic gifts allied? If it is true that God permits evil in order that man may have freedom of choice, why does He make evil so frequently attractive and good so dull?

To what degree of heat may religion attain before it is super-heated and becomes what theologians condemn as "enthusiasm"? Would American divorce be better described as serial pologamy? What is the source of the malice that pursues public figures? Which revenge is worse -- that of talent overextended or talent betrayed?

These and many other themes are pursued not only in discussion but in action, and although the plot abounds in improbabilities, we recognize after a moment's thought that each improbability has its counterpart in recent history.

Sometimes the remainders of history become intrusive. In Toomey's 81 years he meets many of the great ones of the literary life. But Havelock Ellis' trick of clawing at his crotch, Rudyard Kipling's uneasy social manner, and Ford Madox Ford's bad breath -- although they are introduced apparently to make us feel that we are moving in distinguished society, and may meet Peter Warlock in a restaurant, or encounter the unspeakable Norman Douglas, or find that our handsome young companion is being sodomitically leered at in the Cafe Royal by James Agate -- produce an effect other than what the author intended. When we come upon yet another real name, or read what Toomey said to James Joyce, it is as though we were eating cherry pie and had bitten on a store. There is too much historical realism to be absorbed by the romance.

For that is what Anthony Burgess' novels are -- romances. They are too large in scope and ornate in workmanship to fit the somewhat pallid definition of the novel. They are enlivened by the use of unusual words and wordplays. Burgess' splendid women do not sexily squint, they have a "venerean strabismus." Toomey does not toast somebody, he "brindizes." A stench, whether of Ford's breath or a dead carcass, is a "hogo." Burgess has a high old time with words, and perhaps he occasionally lets gusto obscure truth, as when he describes the See of Canterbury as the "morganatic legacy of an uxoricide." That is no way to talk of the spiritual legacy of Augustine and Dunstan and a thousand Celtic saints, and the Mediterranean branch of the Catholic Church should mind its manners. But quibbles aside, I much prefer romances to novels and am refreshed by this extravagant logodaedaly. The academic flawyers will certainly regard these things as flaws but this author has long outscored the shadow of their night.

Let it be repeated, this is a very serious book by a man disillusioned and disgusted by the despoiling of his Church. Henry VIII may have taken worldly goods, but the pope described as Gregory XVII debases spiritual things. Here is a fine, angry book for anyone who has ever given thought to the incalculability of God.