30 years on: the legacy of Anthony Burgess
Anthony Burgess died in London on 22 November 1993. He was 76 years old and had been diagnosed with lung cancer just over a year previously.
The final phase of his life was characterised by intense creative production, in a variety of forms. The publication of a long novel about the rediscovery of the sword Excalibur, Any Old Iron (1989) was followed by You’ve Had Your Time (1990), the second volume of his lively autobiography, which chronicled the events of his life from 1959 until the James Joyce centenary in 1982.
Mozart and the Wolf Gang, an unclassifiable work composed to mark the bicentenary of the composer’s death, appeared in 1991. The following year brought forth A Mouthful of Air, the second of Burgess’s books on language and linguistics. The book ends with a bold proposal to reform the English curriculum taught in schools, with a focus on understanding linguistics and learning foreign languages. A Mouthful of Air remains a useful introductory guide to the study of language, much loved by several generations of university students who have consulted it.
A Dead Man in Deptford, a bawdy sixteenth-century thriller about the life and assassination of Christopher Marlowe, was the last novel that Burgess saw published. His deep immersion in Elizabethan English shines through, and the book is a valuable companion-piece to his earlier Shakespeare novel, Nothing Like the Sun. A Dead Man in Deptford is also notable for its refreshing and unapologetic approach to sexuality: the character of Marlowe acquires heroic status through his vigorous pursuit of male partners.
Burgess’s last novel, Byrne, a verse narrative in ottava rima, was published posthumously in 1995. The protagonist, Michael Byrne, is a composer and painter who resembles Lord Byron in his private and artistic life, crossing borders and fathering children with wild abandon in the early years of the 20th century. As the novel nears its conclusion in an imagined future of climate catastrophe, the 100-year-old figure of Byrne confronts his offspring with murderous intent.
The manuscript of Byrne gives the date of completion as 24 February 1993, the day before Burgess’s 76th birthday. The book is dedicated ‘To you and you and you. Also you’ — in other words, to the community of readers who would live to read the book, which was finished when the author knew he was terminally ill.
News of his passing was reported on television, radio, and on the front pages of newspapers around the world. There were generous obituaries in (for example) the New York Times, the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, the Independent, The Times, Le Figaro and Le Monde. Interviewed on Channel 4 News, the novelist and critic Malcolm Bradbury said: ‘I think his work will continue to be read for as long as people are still reading novels.’
Inevitably, there were a few dissenting voices. La Nouvelle République Centre-Ouest described Burgess, rather ungenerously, as ‘le dernier dinosaur de la littérature.’
According to a report in Variety magazine, he ‘was so prolific that neither his agent, his publisher, nor his entry in Who’s Who could provide the exact number of books he wrote.’
At the time of Burgess’s death, his reputation as one of the great writers of the post-war era was already secure. Although there had been a few performances of his music, it was not yet widely available in the form of commercial recordings. Most people in 1993 had not yet had the opportunity to hear it.
Thirty years on, the full scale of his achievement as a writer-composer is coming more clearly into focus. The musicologist Christine Lee Gengaro has overseen a new annotated edition of Burgess’s musical autobiography, This Man and Music, published as part of the Irwell Edition of the Works of Anthony Burgess.
And Naxos have issued a series of recordings which illustrate the range of Burgess’s musical writing for orchestra, piano, and guitar quartet.
We now know that Burgess was composing music until the final few days of his life. When he was in the Hospital of St John and St Elizabeth in London, he composed two sonatas for piano and recorder. These were intended as gifts for his son, Andrew Burgess-Wilson, a keen player of woodwind instruments.
Thirty years on, there are more Burgess books available now than at any other time since 1993, including ebooks and audio books. New translations continue to appear in languages such as German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Bulgarian, Turkish, Chinese, Arabic and Azerbaijani. His readership is truly global.
At the time of writing, Arte TV have just launched a new documentary about Burgess, available to stream in French and German; and there are forthcoming productions of his stage plays in Europe, Asia and North America.
A further six books are expected to appear in 2024, including The Devil Prefers Mozart, a collection of Burgess’s essays on music, to be published in January by Carcanet.
We have not heard the last of him yet.