Anthony Burgess died in 1993, but ‘Anthony Burgess’ lives on in books. Who is he?
The first fictional Anthony Burgess is his own. He was born as John Burgess Wilson, and the name – and persona – of Anthony Burgess itself is a fiction, one which was inflated over the years as he fabulated events and aspects of his life which turned out, on examination by his biographers, Andrew Biswell and Roger Lewis, not always to be completely true.
Burgess often told contradictory stories about himself that did not tally with the recollections of others or with documentary evidence. Particular examples might be his apparent terminal diagnosis with a brain tumour in 1959 which inspired him to become a writer; the precise circumstances of an assault by American GIs on his first wife Lynne during the 1939-45 war; or indeed the circumstances of his meeting his second wife Liana, and the paternity of his son Andrew. This is perhaps the creation of a biography of Anthony Burgess separate from John Wilson. Oscar Wilde once suggested that one should be a work of art or wear a work of art. When John Wilson ‘pulled the cracker of my total name’ and became Anthony Burgess, he did both.
From his first written novel A Vision of Battlements onwards, where Ennis, a teacher whose miserable experiences in Gibraltar echo Burgess’s own wartime experiences, Burgess’s novels are full of protagonists who live aspects of his own life. In the Malayan Trilogy Victor Crabbe teaches and drinks heavily in Malaya just as Burgess did. F.X. Enderby (in the four Enderby novels) holidays in Morocco in the Sixties, teaches unruly American undergraduates in the early Seventies and is involved with the theatre in the United States some years later, just like his creator. Edwin Spindrift (in The Doctor Is Sick) has the same hospitalisation as Burgess had on returning from the tropics. The Husseys (in Honey For The Bears), like the Burgesses, visited Cold War Leningrad. This pattern is repeated throughout his writing.
Burgess’s fictional characters present aspects of the real Anthony Burgess; the real Anthony Burgess was himself a fictional character. Later posts in this series will explore how other writers, including A.S. Byatt, Paul Theroux and Erica Jong, have also seen the rich potential of ‘Anthony Burgess’ for their own work.