The fictional afterlives of Anthony Burgess: part five
Burgess’s first posthumous fictional appearance was a cause celebre. The travel writer and novelist Paul Theroux wrote a piece for the New Yorker magazine in August 1995, titled A. Burgess, Slightly Foxed. The story appears to relate a dinner party that Theroux hosted for Burgess and an American lawyer who was one of Burgess’s biggest fans.
In the piece the lawyer, Sam Lettfish, a collector of Burgessiana, plagues Paul Theroux to introduce him to his hero. However, due largely to the sheer rudeness of Burgess himself and in part to his then wife Anne Theroux’s lack of hospitality, Lettfish is left heartbroken by the encounter. Over dinner, a drunken Burgess calls Sam Lettfish Max repeatedly, sneers at his Burgessian vocabulary and the legal profession, sickens him with cigar smoke and tells him that he can’t read. When Lettfish leaves, downhearted, Burgess says ‘That went well.’
A tiny post-script notes that ‘My dinner with Anthony Burgess took place on November 14, 1981. Or perhaps it didn’t.’ This casts some doubt on the reality of the events in the narrative, but equally could simply be read as Theroux being unsure of the date of the dinner. The story was surtitled ‘Fact And Fiction’, again implying that the encounter had at least some factual basis. Lettfish has never been identified, if indeed he ever existed, and Burgess was dead by 1995. However, one alleged attendee at the dinner did exist and was alive, and she soon complained.
Anne Theroux’s letter to the New Yorker six weeks later stated bluntly that she was dismayed to read the story ‘in which a very unpleasant character with my name said and did things that I have never said or done.’ Anne Theroux had interviewed Burgess a year prior to the date of the story while working for the BBC World Service and found him charming. ‘I would have been delighted to have Burgess to dinner at my house, but, alas, it didn’t happen,’ she wrote.
Paul Theroux did not withdraw the story or clarify publicly whether it was intended solely as fiction. However, when it was reprinted in his book My Other Life, Anne’s name morphed into Alison and the entire book was prefaced with a disclaimer that it was ‘the story of a life I could have lived had things been different – an imaginary memoir’. He noted that within were ‘some names you know – Anthony Burgess, Nathan Leopold, Queen Elizabeth II, and more – but they too are alter egos, other hes and shes. As for the other I, the Paul Theroux who looks like me, he is just a fellow wearing a mask.’
Theroux’s portrait of Burgess is cruel and malignant, and one that would potentially have been open to libel action had it been published during his lifetime. Theroux’s postmodernish blending of fact and fiction has not always been a victimless pursuit.