Burgess Memories: Samuel Coale
Monaco, 6 July 1978: He opened the door of the apartment at the top of the stairs on the top floor in the old sandstone-coloured building, shops on the ground floor, black-iron grilled balconies, 44 Rue Grimaldi. There he was, immediately friendly and easy-going, a swirl of bushy long grayish-brown hair like some mad painter, his features blurred in a pink pale, puffy face as if he’d been asleep, heavy-lidded eyes, dressed in black loafers with no socks, slacks and some kind of reddish checked shirt … into his workshop, one long open room, the length of the balcony in front, complete with a musical score he was writing at the old upright piano, table with typewriter and strewn papers, bookcases crammed and books piled at random on the floor, a carpet-less wooden expanse. In the hall a Xerox machine. Everywhere bookcases and odd piles, his complete works on the way to the kitchen where we lunched on cold chicken and red wine.
Liliana burst in, in a ruffled, green-flowering, low-cut ‘peasant’ dress, jet black hair, also completely at ease. She Xeroxed for me the missing last chapter of A Clockwork Orange and gave me a new Burgess book on Jesus, The Man from Nazareth, translated into French, to carry to Warsaw (I was off to teach for a month in Poznan) and to get translated into Polish as requested by a Polish publisher. Something about Knopf offering only $45,000 for it in New York! Much chatter about ‘stupid’ publishers [was it ever thus?], things out of print, taxes and contracts: isolated in Monaco to write, more or less friendless here, an outpost from their house outside Rome.
Later he showed me 150 typescript pages of the new novel on Somerset Maugham and Pope John XXIII, The Instruments of Darkness, two or three pages a day, each perfected before moving on to the next. We listened to his ‘Iowa Symphony’ on tape in his study, a small cluttered room off the main hall with an autographed picture of Sophia Loren above his desk and a picture of Stonehenge. He closed his eyes, caught every beat. Amid the disarray, the apparent careless appearance, the mind never faltered, quickly articulate, the eyes opened and riveting as he nearly chain-smoked little cigars. His son Andrew, born in 1964, but he didn’t/couldn’t wed Liliana until 1968 when his first wife died; a crusty Catholic certainty, if not the faith; homosexuality as the great modern ‘sin,’ symbol of a narcissistic age; puffing his small cigars, eager to talk, seemed to thrive on it, instructing and entertaining, Malaya and music and Joyce. The eyes never darted, but dark, bright, fixed as he’d warm to a subject, on exile or modernism, Pound or Hopkins, British reviewers who found his language ‘clumsy’: a life of reviews to pay the bills, outrageously prolific, fascinated by film and myths and structures and patterns, the cycles of myth able to break out of the linear dissolutions of history. From 10:00 until 5:00 we talked.
Monaco, 11 July 1978: he greeted us (my wife joined us; it was her 27th birthday) warmly with the two-page ‘tune’ he’d written as promised and later signed and called ‘Master Coale’s Maggotte’ … more on myth and surface realism in the novels, he full of relaxed chatter … he castigated the new Mass … When we returned at 5:30, Burgess was on the phone dictating a long review of a new dictionary to the Observer. A California producer spent the weekend for Burgess to work on a TV mini-series on Marco Polo, the first two hours due in ten days, then on to the last days of Pompeii.
Samuel Coale is Professor of English at Wheaton College in Massachusetts. He wrote the book Anthony Burgess (New York: Frederick Unger, 1981).