The first interview with Anthony Burgess
To celebrate Anthony Burgess’s 98th birthday on 25 February 2015, the Burgess Foundation is pleased to publish, for the first time in full, an interview from 1959.
As far as we are aware, this is the earliest surviving interview with Burgess, originally broadcast on the BBC Third Programme on 9 May 1959. The interviewer was Patricia Brent, well known in the 1950s as an actress, journalist and radio presenter. Although the audio tape of this interview has not survived, a typewritten transcript has recently been donated to the Burgess Foundation’s archive.
The occasion for this interview was the publication in 1959 of Burgess’s third novel, Beds in the East, which is the concluding volume of The Malayan Trilogy.
PATRICIA BRENT: Mr Burgess, this trilogy, of which Beds in the East is the last volume, is of course all about Malaya. What made you go to the East in the first place?
ANTHONY BURGESS: Well, it was no single reason. I thought, getting middle-aged, and it might soon be too late to see the exotic East, so I went almost by accident. I’d tried for a job in the Channel Islands, and also, it seems, in a fit of aberration, possibly after a night out, I applied for a job in Malaya, was summoned to the Colonial Office, thought that I was perhaps going to be interviewed for a job in Guernsey or Alderney or Sark. But found I was being interviewed for a job in a Malayan college, which I denied ever having applied for. But gradually I became reconciled to the idea of going to this particular place, went to the East, fell in love with it, and have been there ever since.
BRENT: You are, of course, a teacher by profession …
BURGESS: I’m a teacher by profession, yes, I’ve taught in a Malay public school and also in a multi-racial training college in Malaya. Now I’m in Brunei, Borneo, in another college.
BRENT: What made you write a trilogy? That seems to me odd, for someone who hasn’t written very much, to be so ambitious as to set out to write a trilogy first of all.
BURGESS: Well, partly I thought that the whole picture of Malaya, as it was in 1954-55, was such a changing one that no single book could unify it. One needed to present the whole process of the changing from colonial status to self-government in various phases, and I had in mind Evelyn Waugh’s intention of producing a trilogy of war novels, which of course he didn’t fulfil. And I suppose the notion of the triptych, or trilogy, just stayed in my mind, and I fulfilled it.
BRENT: You seem to look on your characters with great affection, you laugh at them and you despair of them quite often, but on the whole you enjoy them. But didn’t you, when you were living among these people, find them absolutely maddening, I mean, as portrayed in the books, delightful as they are, they could be.
BURGESS: Yes, well, of course, remember that I did go out as a teacher, and a teacher must always be tolerant. And I found it was so necessary to be tolerant of my pupils, my students, that this tolerance, I suppose, carried over automatically into off-duty hours, off-duty life. But I must confess that I’ve had to hold back a great deal of irritation and a great deal of bad temper. I smoke very heavily, smoke through a holder, and I usually got through one cigarette-holder a day, having bitten through the mouthpiece by the end of the day.
BRENT: Perhaps you worked off your exasperation by writing affectionately about the people?
BURGESS: I think there’s something in that. I think D.H. Lawrence said something about working off one’s sickness in books – this wasn’t exactly sickness, but I did feel it was easier to tolerate the people of the East if one could see them in a comic light. And it’s possible that the writing of these books was in some measure a catharsis.
BRENT: You did write about them when you were actually in Malaya.
BURGESS: Yes, I wrote the first two novels while I was in Malaya, and started the third while I was still there, the one that’s recently been published, but that was continued on ships and in suburban houses and London hotels, aeroplanes, and finally was finished in Borneo.
BRENT: How and when do you write, actually?
BURGESS: Well, of course I have little time to write. I have a full-time job in Borneo, and had a full-time job in Malaya, but I have to dedicate about two hours of the ordinary siesta time in the afternoon to writing. Just have to get down to it, sweat over the typewriter, slither away over the keys and hope that words will pour themselves out with the sweat.
BRENT: You can write with a typewriter, can you?
BURGESS: It’s the only way I can write, unfortunately, I just can’t use a pen. Pens don’t like me – and that’s a legacy of writing music, because I always ruined my pens when I was writing music – and I can think, now, better with a typewriter, I find, than with a pen or pencil.
BRENT: Do you find it an awful effort in the heat, to write in this way, or do you have lots of cool drinks beside you, and fans, and so on?
BURGESS: Naturally a fan must be going, but a fan is a great nuisance when you’re typing: it blows the paper out of position, you can’t see what you’re writing. I make periodic excursions to the refrigerator and gulp down coconut water or plain water, but of course there’s nobody there, there’s nobody waiting on me. At that time of day everybody’s asleep, the whole of nature, the servants’ quarters are resounding with snores. One’s just on one’s own.
BRENT: I do get the impression, in spite of all this, that you enjoy writing. There’s an enormous zest in the books which must come from you at the typewriter. Do you enjoy it?
BURGESS: I do enjoy it, yes. It’s terribly hard work, of course, and the actual shaping of the sentence, in a climate like Borneo, or the Malayan one, is just agony – it’s physical work but I do enjoy doing it. And of course, the element of catharsis, the ability to sweat oneself out onto paper, is a tremendous relief. It’s enjoyable to have written, I think.
BRENT: The books are comparatively short. Do you think that’s, perhaps, because you’re working under these conditions?
BURGESS: Well, I have a theory about that. It seems that most works of art – I’m not willing to call these novels works of art, but let’s for the sake of argument – produced in the East do tend to be shorter than those produced in the Western hemisphere or the Northern hemisphere specifically. Look at the size of Russian books, for instance, produced in the cold, and the brevity of Chinese poems or Malay pantuns. The miniaturist’s art, which is practiced all over the East. I think one is short of breath, literally and metaphorically, in the East, and one seems to write shorter works in consequence.
BRENT: It’s a nice theory. Are you going to go on writing about the East, or do you think eventually you’ll write about England?
BURGESS: I’ve completed a novel about Borneo [Devil of a State], a longish novel, and I think this represents my last attempt to record what’s happening in the changing East. I’m working at the moment on a novel about England, but it’s meant to bridge the gap between the novels about the East and the novels about England I intend to write, because it has as its main character a man who’s lived in the East, and who sees what’s happening in England, post-war England, through the eyes of a man who’s really an exile.
BRENT: Changing the subject slightly, I know you’re married. I hope your wife isn’t as unhappy in the East as Fenella Crabbe is in your books.
BURGESS: Well, I must confess that some of the unhappiness of that character is drawn from my wife’s own, shall I say, boredom. Most women become terribly bored in the East, chiefly because there’s so little to do. There are few other women to meet, and the climate does seem to have a very bad effect on the health of women. Men seem to tolerate great heat fairly well, but most white women, I think, become languid, thin, can’t eat, lose interest in life. I’m afraid my own wife has suffered a little from that.
BRENT: One always has a picture of wives in the East sitting about while a great many servants do all the work, but perhaps that rather palls.
BURGESS: The whole picture is changing. The Somerset Maugham picture of many soft-footed servants bringing iced drinks on the verandah is of course very outdated now. In Malaya people just manage with a couple of servants, but in Borneo it’s very hard to get them. One either imports them from Hong Kong, or picks up what one can from the kampongs and streets, and where we are now my wife has to do all her own cooking, and I suppose that gives her occupation. That isn’t a strain.
BRENT: Do you think ultimately that you will give up living in the East?
BURGESS: I think so. I think after my present tour, which means after another two years, my wife and I must come home to England. And I shall try to write about England because there’s a great deal going on here which has to be recorded, and I should like to record it.
BRENT: Do you think you’ll record it differently because you see it with eyes that come from abroad?
BURGESS: I think one is bound to. I don’t know whether one will actually attempt to judge one’s English characters or their standards of behaviour in Eastern terms, but I think one will have a wider outlook. An outlook perhaps – or so one hopes – wider than that of the red-brick boys we hear a lot about these days, who seem to see everything from so narrow, so provincial, so suburban a viewpoint. Travel of this kind is very useful to the writer, whatever he’s writing about.
BRENT: As a writer coming back to England now on leave, what sort of things strike you about this country?
BURGESS: Well, I think partly the ingratitude of the people, the ingratitude of people grumbling at the quality of the meat in the butchers, for instance. I could spend my entire leave, I think, just looking at the shops, just looking at the enormous cauliflowers, which one doesn’t have to pay ten shillings for, as I do in Borneo. The marvellous quality of the meat, the entertainment, the spring flowers. I know I’m going back to incessant heat, no variety, no change of season, and all these things are laid on here like a free show, in England. And yet all people can do, it seems, is to watch the television.
BRENT: And long to go to Borneo …
BURGESS: And long to go to Borneo.
BRENT: I look forward to reading your books about England, Mr Burgess. Thank you very much
BURGESS: Thank you very much.
Copyright (c) International Anthony Burgess Foundation, 2015. All rights reserved.