Burgess and Samuel Beckett
You might be forgiven for thinking that no two twentieth-century writers were less alike than Anthony Burgess and Samuel Beckett. On the one hand we have Beckett, with his forbidding canon of minimalist plays and other short texts, guided by a theory of inexpressive art, and struggling throughout his writing career with what he called ‘mess’, defined by his first biographer, Deirdre Bair, as ‘the confusion of existence’. As Beckett himself asked, ‘How could the mess be admitted, because it appears to be the very opposite of form and therefore destructive of the very thing that art holds itself to be?’ On the other hand we have the garrulous, splashy Burgess, writing with a speed and fluency that Beckett (who struggled to write more than a dozen lines per day) would have found alarming. It’s sometimes said that Burgess was too animated by the potentialities of language, race and culture to be tortured by the difficulty of literary expression. Burgess isn’t anxious enough about theoretical questions to be regarded as post-anything. If Beckett seems to be in some ways too preoccupied by the problems of ‘mess’ and form, Burgess often appears not to notice them at all.
Yet Burgess was a very attentive reader of Beckett’s published writing, and his essays on Beckett appeared in the Guardian (on 24 July 1964), the Spectator (on 21 July 1967) and in the two collections of his journalism, Urgent Copy (pp. 85-87) and Homage to Qwert Yuiop (pp. 427-28). He also wrote the programme notes for the National Theatre’s London production of Waiting for Godot in 1987. The critic John Fletcher has provided a full accounting of Burgess’s critical utterances about Beckett, which is available online via the Anthony Burgess Centre in Angers.
In his essay ‘Enduring Saturday’, reprinted in Urgent Copy, Burgess describes Waiting for Godot as a ‘terribly lucid charade’ which gives us a ‘mere restrained whiff’ of ‘la merde universelle’. The ‘real full rich rank Beckett’, he claims, is to be found in the novels and shorter prose works. ‘We’re all in it really, strapped to a porcupine sofa, waiting for God and water, becalmed in our filth […] His aesthetic is dedicated to the stripping off of illusion, showing what is left after the dissolution of shape, colour, habit, logic.’ Burgess was particularly impressed by Beckett’s statement that he was working with ‘impotence, ignorance […] that whole zone of being that has always been set aside by artists as something unusable – as something by definition incompatible with art.’ This emphasis on the ‘mess’ and detritus of modern life eventually found a place in some of Burgess’s later writing, especially in his apocalyptic vision of London in Byrne, where the dark November streets are paved with old wet tabloid newspapers, and the populace ingests an unwholesome diet of televisual pornography.
Burgess believed that Beckett’s example had compelled all artists to revise their views about art. And his critical excitement arrived at a time (the mid-1960s) when Beckett’s standing was by no means assured. (He would have to wait until 1969 for his Nobel Prize.) Other commentators of the 1960s, notably Philip Toynbee in the Observer, were loudly insisting that Beckett’s reputation was an inflated one, promoted by over-excitable Parisians, and that his work amounted to a fraudulent series of negations and nullities. By defending Beckett in public places when he did, Burgess played a small part in securing Beckett’s position within the international canon of modernist writing.