Burgess Memories: Brian Swann
In April 1970, Lawrence Durrell came to Princeton to read. I talked with him at dinner and found him a midget with a monumental ego – his brother got him right in My Family and Other Animals. He thought the greatest benefit from a public-school education was the ability to stay calm and collected amid crises. “It’s amazing how it spreads to those around you,” he told me.
Which has nothing to do with Anthony Burgess except that Anthony also gave a reading that April and Andrea (‘my little bastard’) created chaos at the dinner, running about until Helen Gordon, wife of the Dean of Chapel, Ernest – both Scots, met in army (Ernest had been on River Kwai and wrote a book which Auden praised, they became friends. Ernest introduced me to Laphroaig. A great guy – I seem to recall Anthony liked him too) – grabbed him and told him off, which made Liana angry, Anthony also, as nobody had ever disciplined the child and the dinner was about to collapse…
Which reminds me of another Andrea episode. Anthony and Liana often took the bus to New York City, leaving Andrea. Once, midwinter, they took off and forgot to either give the boy the key or ensure somebody could take care of him after school. A policeman walking by the house they rented (the one the prof. sued them over for wrecking) saw a twitch in the deep snow, went over, and found a lightly-clad boy asleep. ‘What’s your name?’ he asked, after waking him up. ‘None of your fucking business,’ was the reply.
Anthony and I often talked in dialect to each other, he Lancashire, me Geordie. I think this was initially how we got on so well together. Although Anthony was not happy with England, he was (a bit like Joyce and Ireland) nostalgic for it. He once sent me a letter using Arabic script for the English and Italian.
I remember Anthony was still upset about going to Xaverian College and not Manchester Grammar School, where I had spent a year teaching, immediately after Cambridge – it was enough to make me leave England forever and head for the US.
In Princeton, he often badgered me to get the English Department (I was joint English/Creative Writing) to award him a PhD for his work. I tried. He desperately wanted that kind of recognition, but they refused. I would often go over to chat and consult about the translation of the poems of Lucio Piccolo (Lampedusa’s cousin, Montale’s protege) – Princeton University Press published the book and Anthony wrote a large blurb and then a review in, I think, Michigan Quarterly Review.
As I walked in – never rang or knocked – I heard his typewriter banging away upstairs. It stopped and he came downstairs, saying he was writing the Encyclopaedia Britannica entry on ‘The Novel’ and wanted to know about the Pastoral – e.g. who wrote Paul et Virginie –Liana supplied Abbé Prévost. We got talking about the Pastoral, which modulated to musicals. I told him jokingly I was planning one based on The Raw and The Cooked, whereupon Anthony turned and dashed back upstairs, calling out that he’d just got the galleys for a novel based on just that, returning with the galleys of MF which he handed to me.
He sat and complained that he’d written a script for a movie to be done in Italy on the Black Prince, but it hadn’t materialised, so he was planning to make a novel out of the script. Just then Andrea came down, semi-naked, carrying a letter covered with stamps to be sent to a friend in Malta, and addressed to ‘Andrea’. Burgess asked how he expected the postman to know where to deliver it, and to who. ‘I put the hairdress on’, said Andrea. And Anthony then remembered that this was how Joyce got his words, adding ‘dumplicated’ and ‘New Dross’. He said when he spells ‘love’ it comes out pure Anglo-Saxon, ‘lif’ and ‘lof’.
Back to Andrea’s letter: ‘It just isn’t good enough,’ said Anthony, but how do you explain that to a child, not enough information? He said this as Andrea went wild because Anthony had torn a page to write on from a new Xmas book-present. Andrea screamed that he had plenty of other books Anthony could have used. ‘That’s not the point,’ said Anthony. ‘Besides, it’s nice to share’.
Anthony kept running up and down the stairs back to the typewriter while Liana and I went over some Piccolo. He rushed down and kicked Andrea’s toy-box on the way down so it all spilled, joining dog food (more likely cat) over the floor. Liana complained about the size and coldness of the house. Anthony ignored her, his small mouth compressed by his heavy jaws – his teeth had recently been treated to a lot of dental work, which he complained about.
Liana said Andrea rarely sleeps and has too much energy. I said ‘tell him to play in the snow’ (why did I say that?!) but she said ‘there’s not enough.’ There was a huge ashtray on the table. Liana went off to hunt for another one, found it and placed them together. The other has a small hole she said, in the side. She said Anthony is doing the entire article from memory: ‘He hates the library and won’t use it because he’ll get too much material.’
Then Liana scolded Anthony for feeding the cat a carrot. ‘It was only a small carrot,’ Anthony said. ‘And spinach,’ he added. ‘I fed it spinach. And it was fresh.’ All the above was said in deadly serious tone.
Andrea rumpled Anthony’s hair and asked me what I wanted. He kept asking questions which his tiny skinny friend repeated, before running off to turn on the vacuum cleaner. Liana turned it off with her foot, then stepped on a toy, stumbled backwards, and turned it on again. She asked me what I’d like to drink, adding that she had ‘a half Campari’, which she retrieved with two large glasses. Anthony and I got a splash each. She returned to the kitchen and came back with a bottle of gin and a carton of orange juice which she added to our glasses. There are loud bangs from the kitchen.
Enter Andrea minus friend but with a wooden mallet which he banged on the wooden floor. From his pocket he produced things he put down, smashed, leaping up gleefully: exploding caps. Running back into the kitchen he returned with two bowls full of something, and his little friend in tow. He had given him one of the bowls. The child stuck a finger in and coughed. ‘Pepper,’ he said. ‘Fat fucker,’ said Andrea. A swap of insults ensues. ‘It tastes funny,’ said the child. ‘It’s gin,’ said Andrea. ‘No,’ said Liana, ‘it’s brandy.’ In fact, it turned out to be some sort of dessert she’d made. The cap explosions began again in the kitchen. Anthony was nowhere to be seen. The clatter of a typewriter begins upstairs. I forget what I came for.
The following poem, ‘Ghost Dance’ by Brian Swann, is about his meeting with Anthony Burgess in the New York apartment Burgess was renting from Adrienne Rich. It appears in Brian’s collection In Late Light (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013).
–in memoriam, Anthony Burgess
The times are delightful, but always fated
to be long ago, like a pitcher of roses, and
shadows are lovely, lovely in themselves as essence,
hence this perfect fragrance in the air today,
perhaps cherry blossom since in Japan, I’m told,
the character for heaven is Fuji reflected in a pool, calm and still,
quiet unchanging perfection, which makes me wonder
what the character for life is and how you get it
to stay still long enough to write down, and what
it means when you fix it, and I remember asking
my old friend Anthony Burgess, now shadow and
reflection himself, “What do you mean?” when he said,
“Don’t do that!” as I spun about stomping hundreds
of roaches that spilled from weeks of unwashed stuff
in the dishwasher I’d opened to get a clean cup
for the “mother-in-law tea” he’d just brewed,
black and bitter but fragrant with Bushmills
from a case an admirer sent. “That’s life!” he roared.
But I couldn’t stop hopping about to shake them off.
“D’you know,” I panted, not quite changing the subject,
“You have the same English name as Wovoka,
the Paiute Prophet, founder of the Ghost Dance?”
One hand holding his cup, the other in the air,
a shadow on the wall, beating contra punctum,
he slowly joined the dance.
Brian Swann is the author of numerous books of poetry, fiction, children’s books, and poetry in translation. He has also edited several anthologies of Native American literature. He teaches at Cooper Union in New York City. His new collection of poetry, Sunday Out of Nowhere: New and Selected Poems, is published by Sheep Meadow Press in October 2018.