Burgess Memories: Patrick Samway S.J.
I knew Anthony Burgess, in a passing sort of way, first, when he was the writer-in-residence at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill in 1969-70. I had just begun my doctoral studies in English and lived with a number of other Jesuits who were pursuing degrees at either Chapel Hill or nearby Duke University. On the English faculty at Chapel Hill was James Devereux, S.J., who taught Renaissance literature. Burgess (I do not believe I ever called him Tony or Anthony) was intrigued to find two Jesuits associated with a state university at that time. I remember attending a few of his readings/gatherings/receptions, and talking with him about Irish literature mostly.
He thoroughly enjoyed being at Chapel Hill and getting a sense of the southern way of life in the United States and the beauty of the region. Naturally, we were all amazed at the breadth and depth of his knowledge about everything, just everything, from classical philology to contemporary music.
I met Burgess a second time in 1987, I believe, when the University of Angers sponsored an international festival on the short story. He had been invited by Ben Forkner, a good friend of mine and co-editor with me of four anthologies of Southern literature. If memory serves me correctly, I was staying with Ben and Nadine, as I have done several times. Burgess and Liana were staying in a hotel on Angers’ main street. I recall that Burgess wrote each morning and we would meet up with him about noon and spend the rest of the day and evening together. Nadine and Ben, Liana and Burgess, and I had dinner a number of times; they were quiet, pleasant evenings, with a natural flow to the conversation. Unlike the times I was with him in Chapel Hill, Burgess conducted himself in a constrained way, never trying to dominate the conversation. No show of bravado at all.
Once, he talked to me about his religious beliefs, not that I asked him to do so, but because I don’t think he often met a Jesuit priest with a PhD in American literature. Somehow or other, we got to talking about the feast days of various saints – and he knew the dates of each of these feast days. I was totally impressed, especially as he brought up the topic.
During the symposium itself, I gave a talk on the short stories of Raymond Chandler, someone I had met and whose stories I admire. When it came the time for Burgess to speak, he talked about various Irish and British stories that had impressed him. Mavis Gallant, a Canadian who lived most of her life in Paris, and whose stories are absolute marvels, then read part on one of her stories. During the give-and-take session following the various talks, Mavis took the microphone and more or less lit into Burgess for not having read any Irish or British stories since his years as a teenager. Of course, everyone was astonished at her outburst. When she finished, she sat down next to me and said to me (I had just met her), ‘What did I just say?’ I replied, ‘Mavis, everyone one is looking at you now. We will have a drink later and talk about it. OK?’ She agreed. And, indeed, we had some Muscadet afterward, and she quieted down a bit.
That evening, I remember I joined a group having dinner with Burgess and Liana. Needless to say, Mavis did not join us. Eventually the tension dissipated, but I, as did others, witnessed two strong literary personalities having it out in public. Later, after Burgess had died, Liana would call me several times in New York and ask if Tony, as I believed she called him, was as popular as ever. I assured her that he was. I sensed that she felt very much alone, and needed to touch base with a person who enjoyed novels and poetry and was not connected to a publishing house or a publicity agency.
I continue to be amazed at all that Burgess had accomplished during his lifetime. The Burgess I met during our time together in Angers was a most admirable person. I was graced to have broken bread and to have talked with him.
Patrick Samway, S.J., today divides his time between Philadelphia, PA—where he is Professor of English at Saint Joseph’s University — and Port au Prince, Haiti, where, St. Joseph’s is in partnership with the Jesuit order in a system of grammar schools, established by the Jesuits after the devastating earthquake. He has published widely, including books on Walker Percy, William Faulkner and the literature of the Southern United States.