Burgess Memories: Kevin Jackson
It is now 100 years since the birth, in Manchester, of a boy christened John Burgess Wilson, who at his confirmation into the Roman Catholic Church took the name of Anthony, patron saint of lost objects. About forty years later, he began to be modestly well known under the nom de plume of ‘Anthony Burgess’ — created, as he sometime said, by pulling the cracker of his full name at both ends. In the 1970s he became world famous, thanks to the notoriety of Stanley Kubrick’s slick and meretricious film of his short novel A Clockwork Orange — an ambiguous triumph for Burgess, since he regarded the book as no more than a squib, most of it dashed off in just three weeks.
Despite the hefty royalties it brought him for the rest of his life, he grew to hate being known as ‘author of A Clockwork Orange’, much as you or I might, in our mature years, resent being best known for the essay we composed at the age of nine, ‘What I Did On My Holidays’. Burgess was not wrong to be resentful. His career — and it is very hard to write about him without reaching for superlatives — is of quite astonishing range and diversity. He is more, much more, than a man of one novel.
Burgess published about sixty books, including novels, biography, autobiography (the two volumes Little Wilson and Big God and You’ve Had Your Time are among the most entertaining ever written, and the latter is an outstandingly painful and informative account of the life of writing), translations of opera libretti, original libretti for musicals, an epic poem, literary criticism, music criticism, plays, studies of linguistics, coffee table works, tales for children, polemics against censorship and a collection of sonnets.
That would be a respectable lifetime of work for a team of ten average authors, but it is only a fraction of his prodigious output. Burgess also wrote screenplays for television — Jesus of Nazareth was the most successful of these — and for film. He wrote and presented several documentaries; at least one of them, his short black and white tribute to his hero James Joyce, is a masterpiece of its kind.
He produced a mountain of journalism, written in at least three languages (he was an impressive polyglot, and was, for example, fluent in Malay) and crafted for various levels of brow, from sometimes ill-considered and hastily drafted political squibs for the tabloid press to his superbly professional and witty book reviews for the likes of the Spectator, the Independent and the Observer, which for the last five years has run the Anthony Burgess Prize for the best article on an artistic subject. From the 1970s onwards he was a regular and popular performer on chat shows, notably with Michael Parkinson in the UK and Dick Cavett in the USA. He created the pre-historic languages for Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Quest for Fire.
Enough? Apologies, there’s plenty more to come. From his teenage years on, Burgess regarded himself primarily as a composer, and though he was almost sixty before he heard a full orchestra playing one of his works (the Third Symphony), he composed music in every one of the few spare moments his career allowed him — in airports and hotel lobbies, in green rooms and recording studios, or at home in the evenings while his wife watched bad, noisy television.
Some of this music was unremarkable, and most of it was composed in the outdated idioms of Vaughan Williams, Delius and Holst. At its best — as, for instance, in his setting of Thomas Nashe’s poem ‘In Time of Plague’ — it is both ingenious and heart-piercing. Since Burgess’s death, the American conductor and composer Paul Phillips of Brown University has done more than anyone else to have Burgess’s compositions performed, recorded and published. Phillips has also published the first major study of Burgess’s music, A Clockwork Counterpoint, which is also the best critical study of the writings, since Burgess’s prose and poetry were shaped in profound ways by his expertise in music: Napoleon Symphony, constructed as a homage to Beethoven’s Third, and Mozart and the Wolf Gang are the most obvious instances. Burgess the composer was never too far from Burgess the writer.
The most sceptical of Burgess’s detractors would have to concede his industry, even if not in kindly fashion. ‘Incontinent’ was a word I recently heard a literary scholar use about his output, and even in his own lifetime he became used to jokes about the publication of ‘this week’s novel by Anthony Burgess’. His own suspicion, frequently expressed, was that he had violated a very English code of good form. Serious novelists, ‘real’ novelists — he was thinking above all of E.M. Forster — should produce no more than a handful of well-wrought tomes, preferably moderate in size.
In some ways he agreed with this prejudice; James Joyce, in other respects his ideal of what a modern novelist might be, only wrote a handful of books in a hard-working lifetime. But from his late thirties on, Joyce had patrons, rich men and women who indulged the cult of his genius. Burgess was quietly proud to be a latter-day Samuel Johnson, a professional writer — defining ‘professional’ as making enough money to pay your rent and bills and have enough left over to buy gin. As anyone who has read his memoirs will know, Burgess began writing in earnest at the age of 43, in 1960, when he was incorrectly diagnosed as having a terminal illness. His initial ambition was simply to make some money to leave to his (first) wife, and he wrote or rewrote the better part of five novels in that pseudo-final year. He did not die, he could not find a job, so he kept writing.
But Burgess’s talent was not merely a matter of unremitting slog; he was also a prodigy of imagination and dizzy inventiveness. There are, to be sure, a few of his novels that are either much too heavy (The Kingdom of the Wicked, Man of Nazareth and all of the other books he wrote in his later years, more from his research for screenplays than from his obsessions) or much too light (The Pianoplayers reads as if he scribbled it down in a weekend; he probably did).
On top form, though, he was incomparable. There are at least ten thrillingly high peaks of the Burgess mountain range, and they all have one thing in common — the quality that Ezra Pound called ‘the dance of the intellect among words’. From his student days onwards, Burgess/Wilson was fascinated by the study of linguistics — his primer Language Made Plain is still well worth reading — and he probably knew more about the material reality of language than any major Anglophone writer since Shaw. Most decent novelists create their own worlds of people, places, emotions and events, but not so many create worlds of words.
Burgess achieved this again and again. Nothing Like The Sun, his novel about the love life of the young Shakespeare, is composed in a delicious synthesis of precise Elizabeth idiom and blatant anachronism (he speaks of the River Avon ‘spurgeoning’, a sly joke about the Shakespearean scholar Caroline Spurgeon). His minor satire One Hand Clapping is composed in a sociolect of scrupulous meanness, derived from nightly viewings of ITV in its early years. And A Clockwork Orange, the literary albatross about his neck, is narrated in ‘Nadsat’, a futuristic teenage argot derived mainly from Russian, with jiggers of Roma and Cockney. Orang is the Malay word for ‘man’.
True, there is probably not a single book that could be called his masterpiece, though his attempt at an airport blockbuster, Earthly Powers — short-listed for the Booker Prize, but pipped that year by William Golding — might have been conceived as his grand-slam. It’s a comic, but also imposing and gripping account of the twentieth century as narrated by a minor novelist (loosely inspired by Somerset Maugham) who may have witnessed a miracle. As A.S. Byatt shrewdly observed, it is at once a parody of the brick-thick epic and an outstanding achievement in that disreputable genre.
Burgess’s favourite of his own novels, the now little-read M/F (it stands for, among other things, the Male/Female opposition, the musical notation for Very Loud, the initials of its narrator, Miles Faber, and a harsh African-American expression denoting a son who is too fond of his mother) is a fast-moving, funny and sexy romp about a young man’s adventures around the globe. It is also based on a book by Claude Lévi-Strauss about incest taboos and riddles among the Algonquin nation, which Burgess happened upon as a reviewer. (He used the same ideas when translating Sophocles’s Oedipus for an American theatre company.) This is typical of Burgess: using the most recondite materials to create fun for the mass audience.
Burgess’s talent was superabundant, enthralling, glorious. So why — suspicions about chronic over-production aside — were many critics scornful, many readers unwilling to give him a chance? Burgess himself thought that the answer was snobbery, of assorted kinds. No doubt he was unduly touchy on this point, even a trifle paranoid, and yet he was not always making moan about nothing. Throughout his life, Burgess felt that he was an outsider. As a Mancunian born and raised, he believed that he was looked down on as a loutish, upstart provincial by the literary establishment of London and Oxbridge.
As a Catholic (lapsed, but he never forgot his days of faith, nor the agony of losing God in adolescence) he looked on Britain as a land forcibly occupied by treacherous Protestants; he was more at home in Malta or Italy, hearing the sound of the Angelus, seeing robed priests strolling in the streets. Many of his novels are, like Graham Greene’s, oblique dramatisations of theological quandries: Burgess even toyed with his theo-historical hobby-idea that civilizations oscillate between the ‘Gusphase’ (stern authoritarian regimes akin to St Augustine) and the ‘Pelphase’ (tolerant, liberal states sympathetic to Pelagius’s heresy that we are born free of Original Sin).
As a son of what he described as ‘the lower-middle class’ — savagely bullied by poor, rough boys, ignored or sneered at by the slightly more posh — he chafed against the British class swindle; hence his sympathy for another Northern novelist of humble origins, D.H. Lawrence, who was in almost every other respect entirely unlike him. Like Lawrence, he escaped to other countries; like Lawrence, his reputation has suffered its ups and downs, especially downs.
Most writers suffer a period of decline in reputation for a period of a few years after their demise, and in quite a few instances this leads to oblivion. After Burgess’s death in 1993, those of his fellow writers who admired him — including Martin Amis, William Boyd, A.S. Byatt and Gilbert Adair — remained loyal, but among sceptics it became something of a received idea that Burgess had been a gimmicky, flashy, show-off talent. He was not a real novelist. He was an entertainer.
These were insults to which Burgess had become thoroughly accustomed, and for the most part he took them on the chin. Popular entertainment was, he shyly bragged, in his blood. His mother, who had died of influenza when he was an infant, had been a music-hall singer, ‘The Beautiful Belle Burgess’, while his father had earned pocket money accompanying silent films as well as tinkling the ivories in pubs. The novelist, he declared, had to be first and foremost someone who gave pleasure to a lot of people.
Burgess compounded the sin of writing books that were aimed at making an honest profit by also dealing mainly in comedy. No matter that some of the greatest writers in English have been slyly or howlingly funny — Chaucer, Jonson, Pope, Byron, Austen, Dickens, Joyce, Waugh, Beckett; first-class honours tend mostly to be awarded to the tragedians, the solemn and those who suffer for their art so that others too may suffer. Burgess could manage darker tones as well as any of his contemporaries — the passages about supernatural evil in Earthly Powers are chilling — but most of his enduring work is heavily spiced with ingenious humour.
But the whirligig of time can bring in vindications. After a decade or so of comparative neglect, Burgess’s reputation began to grow again. In fact, in certain respects it is now higher than it was in his lifetime.
At roughly the same time that Paul Phillips launched his project to establish Burgess as a serious composer, the establishment of the International Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester began firmly to re-assert his status as a major author. Mainstream publishing houses have brought quite a few of his works back into print, both as paperbacks and hardbacks.
The Vintage imprint alone has recently published new editions of Earthly Powers, the Malayan Trilogy (Time for a Tiger, Enemy in the Blanket, Beds in the East), the novel about Christopher Marlowe A Dead Man in Deptford, the complete Enderby novels (Inside Mr Enderby, Enderby Outside, The Clockwork Testament, Enderby’s Dark Lady and the sprightly critical biography Shakespeare. Penguin Modern Classics keep A Clockwork Orange and other novels in print, while various independent publishers including Serpent’s Tail, Alison & Busby and Carcanet have published some lesser-known titles.
Some of his books will always be caviar to the general. But, in his centenary year, he is a stubbornly enduring presence, and new generations are waking up to what they have been missing. The greatest British novelist of the twentieth century? Let posterity judge. But certainly one of the most ingenious, learned, fecund, moving, original and — yes — sheerly entertaining writers of his time. A vast lode of delight is out there, hidden in plain sight, waiting to be mined. Happy 100th birthday, Mr Burgess.
Kevin Jackson is a writer and broadcaster. He is a regular contributor on BBC Radio and is one of the founding members of the London Institute of ‘Pataphysics. In 2016, he judged the Observer/Burgess Prizes for Arts Journalism. An edited version of this piece appeared in the March 2017 issue of Prospect.