Entrances and Exits: Burgess on Birthdays
Today, 25th February 2013, would have been Anthony Burgess’s 96th birthday, a day to celebrate with ‘stepmother’s tea’ and readings from selected works by the great man. Perhaps a good place to start is with one of his own literary tributes, written to celebrate important anniversaries.
Nothing Like the Sun, Burgess’s bawdy rewriting of Shakespeare’s love life, was written in 1964 for the 400th anniversary of the bard’s birth. He believed that ‘there was a duty that only the novelist could fulfil – that of qualifying the quasi-religious attitudes of the impending festival and showing what the man, not the bard, may have been like’. Irrespective of factual accuracy, the novel feels suitably celebratory, with plenty of drinking, merry-making and amorous exercise. In one scene, Shakespeare’s company drink to the opening of The Globe:
‘Before going in they downed a dedicatory cup of harsh ferrous wine, sun-warm. It was like drinking blood […] They tested the strength of the boards with thudding high la voltas, they performed a mincing but stork-legged pavane. Watermen and beggars looked in, mouths open at the free show, drawn by song, laughter, shouting. Overhead the clouds lumbered over the July blue and there was a brief afternoon shower, but, under their canopy, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men did not feel it. When the sun came out again the flagons were empty and the playhouse had been well-anointed with bloody iron-smelling wine, either straight from the flagon or, in more intimate libations, from the body’s wine vessels’.
The Shakespeare novel is narrated by a university lecturer who is becoming progressively more drunk (‘Another little drop. Delicious. Well, then’), adding to the playful tone of the text, but, for Burgess, the composition was anything but fun. He struggled over the thick prose, often redrafting many times to perfect his pseudo-Elizabethan English. The finished book, Burgess supposed, ‘must have consumed yards of paper and thousands of cigarettes’.
In 1985, Burgess celebrated the centenary of the birth of another literary great. Flame into Being, his book about D.H. Lawrence, is an eccentric work, blending literary criticism, biographical fact and autobiographical digression. By Burgess’s admission, Lawrence’s work was not much of an inspiration and had different cultural influences from his own writing, but there were other things to celebrate:
‘I admire him as the sort of Englishman I can never myself be, I admire his intransigence, and I sympathise with his sufferings on behalf of free expression. A hundred years after his birth, I consider that he has triumphed over his enemies (though, in the English-speaking world, one can never be sure), and that he stands for that fighting element in the practice of literature without which books are mere décor or a confirmation of the beliefs and prejudices of the ruling class’.
It was not merely literary figures and birthdays that Burgess celebrated in print. Mozart and the Wolf Gang celebrates the bicentenary of the eponymous composer’s death. Written in 1991, the book is a patchwork of different elements, from a libretto, a script, a dialogue between two characters called ‘Anthony’ and ‘Burgess’ and a short story structured to imitate the 40th Symphony. Burgess was never a fan of Mozart in his younger years, preferring the likes of Schoenberg and Stravinsky to ‘Mozartian blandness’, but his book can be seen as reassessment and correction to his earlier opinions. Mozart, Burgess concludes, ‘nevertheless presents the whole compass of life and intimates that noble visions only exist because they can be realised’.
Burgess was inspired by important anniversaries of artists whom he admired, and wrote throughout his career on the subject of centenaries, celebrations and birthdays. In 1982, he celebrated the centenary of James Joyce with Blooms of Dublin, a musical based on Ulysses. His anniversary writing, on deaths as well as births, also stretched to artists such as T.S. Eliot, J.R.R Tolkien, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Rudyard Kipling and even Laurence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe.
There is increasing opportunity to celebrate Burgess’s writing, just as he celebrated others’ work. In March 2013, Serpent’s Tail will be reprinting 1985, One Hand Clapping and Tremor of Intent with new covers and introductions. The Foundation will be organising public events to celebrate these publications throughout 2013.
For the benefit of readers in the United States, Norton will be reprinting Nothing Like the Sun, Honey for the Bears and Tremor of Intent. New content about all of these titles will also appear on the blog.
By Graham Foster.