Burgess… on himself
Burgess was often asked to contribute to reference books about the contemporary novel. Here are two examples from books in our collection, in which he talks about his work and his development as a writer.
‘I hesitate to say much about my own work, which I can lay less claim to understanding than a really perceptive professional critic. I was shocked to be told that the name of the hero of A Vision of Battlements (R. Ennis) spells “sinner” backwards – a fact it took me fifteen years to realise. Since then, I have become so used to my unconscious mind dictating not only the themes of my novels but also the names and symbols that I regard myself as a mere hen, non-ovivorous. But the novels are probably all about the same thing – man as a sinner, but not sufficiently a sinner to deserve the calamities that are heaped upon him. I suppose I try to make comic novels about man’s tragic lot.’
From World Authors: 1950-1970 (New York: Wilson, 1975), pp. 245-6:
‘My full name is John Anthony Burgess Wilson: Anthony is my confirmation name; Burgess my mother’s maiden name. When I began to write professionally, I was still an officer in Her Majesty’s Overseas Colonial Service, and it was thought better that I should use a name not generally known: there is a taboo on a colonial officer’s revealing too much of his true attitudes, especially to the country he serves and wants, at the same time, to write about. My first published novels make up what is known in England as the Malayan Trilogy and in American as The Long Day Wanes. I wrote them at a later age than most authors choose to publish their first work – in my late thirties. I had had artistic ambitions since my earliest days, but no one talent had managed to assert itself before Malaya acted as a midwife to a wordy gift that had had an inordinately long gestation. I had at first wished to be a pictorial artist, and I had, by the age of twelve, had drawings accepted by national newspapers. Then, at fourteen, I taught myself the piano and musical composition and, almost till the time of my first novel, I wrote full-length serious musical works – two symphonies, two concertos, sonatas, songs, incidental music for plays. I think that a triple apprenticeship of this kind (inevitably, I also wrote verse and short stories) is a good thing for a novelist.
‘Invalided out of the Colonial Service in 1959, I had to take to full-time writing in order to earn a living. In my first year I wrote five novels, several stories, a couple of plays, and various radio scripts. This over-fecundity was, perhaps rightly, frowned upon by critics, but I feel that, if one is going to write, one ought to write all the time, since re-priming a dormant engine is difficult. In recent years I have written one novel a year, though usually a non-fiction book – on philology or music or literature – acts as a whetstone or foil to the more creative activity. I also appear on television, which I like, and write television scripts, which I’m not sure whether I like or not. I review books for the Guardian, the Listener, the Spectator, Encounter, the Times Literary Supplement, and various American periodicals, and I have done a two-year stint as a television critic. But I get worried if anything prevents my writing a novel every year.
‘Of the quality, or even purpose, of these novels I am not really qualified to speak. They are usually intended primarily to entertain, but a fairly serious element creeps into them, often against my will. I doubt if the novels I have already written comprise a homogeneous corpus as do, say, the novels of William Golding or Muriel Spark. I have written about the future, about William Shakespeare, about contemporary Russia, about espionage, about the London underworld, about Gibraltar. I plan a mock-biography of a great composer, a comic Divina Commedia, a delirious diary of a tour of the English countryside, a political allegory set in France. If there is a common theme to both the written and projected, it is perhaps the failure of liberalism, or rather the need to expiate the sin of liberalism. I was brought up a Catholic and I have a cousin who is an archbishop, but I have long belonged to the wearisome fraternity of the renegades. Nevertheless, the older, pre-liberal philosophy which accepts the primacy of evil and the necessity of suffering permeates, I think, most of what I write.
‘The novel-form itself (whatever it is; it is undergoing so many changes) seems to me to be the only viable imaginative form. If I were capable of it, I should like to write a novel that has the surface of pure entertainment (capable of being taken as easily as an Ian Fleming thriller) but, underneath, essays all the new-wave devices imaginable, getting away with them because of the solidity of the surface structure. In other words, I want the novel to be Shakespearean. It is dangerous for it to close in, as is happening in France, on the intellectual level, and to open out into the mere sex-and-violence-glorifying best seller. We have two fictional extremes at present; I want the extremes to meet in a single work of universal appeal, compact of action, psychology, ideas, as well as symbolism and poetry.
‘In some ways, my own appreciation of the novel as an art-form is limited, even crippled, by a lifelong devotion to the work of James Joyce, who seems to me to have done more with the novel than anyone, with the possible exception of Laurence Sterne. To write in his shadow is humbling. In him I see the fusion of fragmentary talents which, along with renegade Catholicism, I exhibit in my own work. He may not be the best model to a novelist, but he is certainly the best example. To achieve that self-martyring devotion to art is what I would wish, but I know I’m not big enough.’