I remember both Anthony and Liana Burgess well and with affection. The first time I met Anthony Burgess was after the publication of his book A Shorter Finnegans Wake. I was then an undergraduate in Trinity College Dublin and presented a paper to the Philosophical Society about James Joyce circa 1964. Anthony Burgess was the Distinguished Visitor. I had the pleasure of taking him to dinner before the meeting.
He was very entertaining and particularly interesting on the subject of music. I got the impression that he saw himself more as a musician than as a writer and this was one of the things that attracted him to Finnegans Wake – the musicality of the text. He spoke after I presented my paper and was very flattering. He also very kindly inscribed a copy of A Shorter Finnegans Wake, dedicating it to what he described as ‘a most mind and ear opening presenter of the works of James Joyce’.
I next came across him when I was organising the 1982 Centenary Symposium on James Joyce. He was one of a number of internationally distinguished writers we had persuaded the Government to fund to come to Ireland. He made his presentation in the Round Room of the Mansion House which regrettably had very poor acoustics. One of the other speakers was the late Sir William Empson. I had just been told that he was a celebrated alcoholic and so before his speech had him incarcerated in his room in the Shelbourne Hotel. This apparently was a great mistake. Alcoholics can function quite well when they are on the drink but when they are deprived of such sustenance they literally dry up. I had the embarrassing experience of witnessing Sir William who was led to the microphone by a functionary doing his damnedest to escape and not really knowing where he was.
Anthony Burgess’s experience was slightly better. He climbed up to the stage energetically and started speaking about music. There was an upright piano and in defiance of the acoustics he hammered out thunderous chords from his various works. I think he thoroughly enjoyed himself. I met the Burgesses from time to time at international Joycean bashes on the continent but latterly lost touch with him. He was a most stimulating character.
David Norris is an Irish scholar, independent Senator, and gay and civil rights activist. He has lectured in the English Department at Trinity College Dublin, and is Chairman of the James Joyce Cultural Centre in Dublin.
Top picture, from left: David Norris, Anthony Cronin and Anthony Burgess at the James Joyce Centenary celebrations, 1982.