Beds in the east

An­thony Burgess, author of A Clock­work Or­ange, The Malayan Tril­ogy and Earthly Pow­ers, was a whirl­wind of lit­er­ary, mu­si­cal and cin­e­matic en­ergy. Yet, in the cen­te­nary year of his birth, the jury still can’t make up its mind about ad­mit­ting him to the pan

Esquire (Malaysia) - - CONTENTS - Words by Mark Dis­ney

An­thony Burgess, author of A Clock­work Or­ange, The Malayan Tril­ogy and Earthly Pow­ers, was a whirl­wind of lit­er­ary, mu­si­cal and cin­e­matic en­ergy. Is the man one of the greats? Mark Dis­ney makes the case for in­clu­sion.

Cur­mud­geonly, ar­ro­gant and al­co­hol-fu­elled, John An­thony Burgess Wil­son is a hero of mine. I can’t say that he was a great writer (have faith in your opin­ions, man) but nor can most of our lit­er­ary ju­rists. Is he a first or sec­ond-di­vi­sion nov­el­ist? Or will he be re­mem­bered as an also-ran, a nearly man, a skilled prac­ti­tioner, but not a heavy­weight? Only time, that most piti­less of crit­ics, will tell.

What­ever the equiv­o­ca­tions, the sheer brag­gado­cious (Don­ald Trump™) en­ergy of the man makes him im­pos­si­ble to ig­nore. Two fleet­ing mo­ments of syn­chronic­ity kin­dled my in­ter­est, the sort that makes us imag­ine a con­nec­tion with fa­mous fig­ures that doesn’t ex­ist. Mine be­gan on Ox­ford High Street in the early ’80s—he ap­peared to be in con­ver­sa­tion, or rather mono­logue, with one of the dons—and then again in a pub in Soho in 1991. Even had I read The Malayan Tril­ogy (at the time I hadn’t heard of it), I would still have been too ner­vous, too po­lite, too English to come be­tween the mae­stro and his whisky. How was I to know that two years later he would have reached the end of his life­long mis­sion to smoke him­self to death? An­other op­por­tu­nity wasted.

why now?

Any­way, here we are, 25 years none the wiser, teach­ing Antony and Cleopa­tra (“for the Beds i’th East are soft”) to a small group of Malaysians, gaz­ing at a faux-ge­or­gian sight that would be very fa­mil­iar to Mr Wil­son, as he was known in his Malayan class­room. All of which brings me, in a rather solip­sis­tic and round­about fash­ion, to the ques­tion at hand: why Burgess, and why now?

Well, if 2016 was the year you couldn’t avoid Shake­speare, 2017 ought, by right, to have done some­thing sim­i­lar for An­thony Burgess. Per­haps, there are doc­u­men­taries and books on the Burgess phe­nom­e­non still in the pipe­line (Tash Aw gave a talk on BBC Ra­dio 3), but if so, my news­feed is mal­func­tion­ing. It is more sad than sur­pris­ing, given the ide­o­log­i­cal zeit­geist, that one of Eng­land’s great­est lit­er­ary ex­iles has been con­signed to the bin la­belled “dead, white, male au­thors” with such ap­par­ent in­dif­fer­ence.

He drew his first breath on a bit­ter Fe­bru­ary night 100 years ago in Manch­ester; but his real life, his lit­er­ary life, only took off dur­ing his five-year stint teach­ing in the trop­ics; “I came to Malaya as a teacher but left as a writer,” he said. He would have loved the propin­quity of his name to that of Shake­speare. If the critic Harold Bloom is right that all artists work un­der the “anx­i­ety of in­flu­ence”—an Oedi­pal pre­cur­sor to whom the writer pays homage but whom he yearns to eclipse—then Burgess, never one to un­der­es­ti­mate his own ge­nius, set his sights high.

This unswerv­ing, unan­swer­able self-be­lief urged him to tackle the big guns—shake­speare, Keats, Joyce, Mozart, Beethoven—in po­etry, prose and mu­sic. Not for him the post-war parochial­ism of the kitchen-sink or the angst of the an­gry young men, although “the lone­li­ness of the long-dis­tance run­ner” might have made a suitable al­ter­na­tive ti­tle for his au­to­bi­ogra­phies. No, he sought the ex­otic, the bizarre, the tran­scen­dent. Noth­ing Like the Sun, for ex­am­ple, timed to cel­e­brate the quar­ter-cen­te­nary of the bard’s birth in 1964 was writ­ten in cod-shake­spear­ian prose where Burgess “reimag­ines” the “bawdy bard’s” love life long be­fore Joseph Fi­ennes and Gwyneth Pal­trow. It’s the vir­tu­oso pay­ing self-con­scious homage to the mas­ter.

clock­work man

Burgess’ first nov­els, the ones that brought him to public at­ten­tion, were pub­lished from 1956-58: Time for a Tiger, The En­emy in the Blan­ket, and Beds in the East. These semi-au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal ac­counts of his time at the Malay Col­lege Kuala Kangsar were sub­se­quently re­leased as a tril­ogy, The Long Day Wanes. But most peo­ple think of him as the author of A Clock­work Or­ange (“clock­work man” in Malay?).

Pub­lished in 1962 to mild in­dif­fer­ence and re­leased as a 1971 Stan­ley Kubrick film to ca­cophonous con­tro­versy, it’s dif­fi­cult now to be­lieve that the gen­eral public could be so hor­ri­fied by a piece of main­stream art. Yet, de­spite crit­i­cal ac­claim, the press and the public were scan­dalised and trau­ma­tised in equal mea­sure. The furore sur­round­ing scenes of vi­o­lence and rape were ex­ac­er­bated by sup­posed copy­cat crimes in Britain—a fore­run­ner to the con­tro­versy over Oliver Stone’s Nat- ural Born Killers. As a re­sult, Kubrick and his fam­ily re­ceived death threats and he with­drew the movie from Bri­tish screens in 1973. It wasn’t seen le­gally in the UK un­til af­ter his death in 1999.

Kubrick bought the film rights to the novel from The Rolling Stones, which left the fa­mously cash-con­scious Burgess kick­ing him­self when it grossed USD26 mil­lion in the US alone. Mick Jag­ger wanted the role of Alex, sub­se­quently made fa­mous by Mal­colm Mcdow­ell and his eye­shadow, with the Stones play­ing his Droogs. For­tu­nately, for cin­e­matic his­tory, sched­ul­ing con­flicts meant that it never quite came off.

Although Burgess made lit­tle from the movie, he did cash-in on the sub­se­quent no­to­ri­ety, which led to a huge de­mand for the book and in­vi­ta­tions to pon­tif­i­cate in his cul­tured Lan­cashire drawl on chat shows and panel dis­cus­sions on both sides of the At­lantic. In­ter­viewed on The Parkin­son Show, he claimed that “I be­came as­so­ci­ated with vi­o­lence be­cause of the film. So, if a cou­ple of nuns were raped in Ber­wick-on-tweed, I would al­ways get a tele­phone call from the lo­cal news­pa­pers. I had to deal with this all over the world.”

He al­ways claimed that the novel was “about man’s freewill, the ex­is­tence of good and evil, and the ne­cessi-

ty of choos­ing be­tween them,” themes that run through his nov­els and were han­govers from his English Catholi­cism, a con­di­tion he shared with 20th cen­tury novelists like Ch­ester­ton, Waugh and Greene. He ag­o­nised over leav­ing the faith, and be­cause of this, felt morally (and ar­tis­ti­cally) su­pe­rior to his con­tem­po­raries, who were mere Johnny-come-lately con­verts. All re­li­gious art, if it is any good, opines Burgess, must be in con­flict with the re­li­gious im­pulse. In­deed, the first vol­ume of his (un­re­li­able) au­to­bi­og­ra­phy is called Lit­tle Wil­son and Big God.

jack of all trades

Not con­tent with churn­ing out two or three nov­els a year, he was also a pro­lific poet, screen­writer, trans­la­tor, colum­nist, lit­er­ary re­viewer, in­ven­tor of lan­guages and com­poser. In terms of genre, he is im­pos­si­ble to pin down, with an al­most-manic out­put cov­er­ing so­cial satire, sci-fi, spy fic­tion and his­tor­i­cal epics, among others. What is more as­tound­ing is that he did it all in the sec­ond half of his life. This is un­think­able to­day. The na­ture of modern ex­is­tence, the dis­trac­tions, the op­tions, the sheer 24/7 of it all means that no­body has the time or the dis­ci­pline to sur­vey, let alone mas­ter, any­thing like his poly­mathic range. At his me­mo­rial ser­vice in the “ac­tors’ church” of St Paul’s, Covent Gar­den, Wil­liam Boyd praised his “prodi­gious fe­cun­dity and prodi­gious in­ven­tion. One was in awe of it.”

It’s puz­zling, there­fore, that Burgess never re­ceived the recog­ni­tion this fer­til­ity de­served, ei­ther in his own coun­try or in his adopted Malaysia. In Europe, where he spent much of his fi­nal 20 years “dodg­ing the tax­man”, he was re­garded as a Re­nais­sance man; in Eng­land, he was a man for all sea­sons, mas­ter of none. Too clever by half, too haughty, too north­ern, too cer­tain of his own bril­liance, sus­pi­ciously Catholic and non-oxbridge, the lit­er­ary es­tab­lish­ment never took him to its bo­som.

recog­ni­tion and re­sent­ment

Per­haps, there was re­sent­ment at his self-im­posed ex­ile—martin Amis re­ceived the same vit­riol from the es­tab­lish­ment when he upped sticks for Amer­ica—but there is no doubt that he al­ways felt him­self to be an out­sider. The roll call of lit­er­ary knights among his con­tem­po­raries—greene, Kings­ley Amis, Ch­ester­ton, Naipaul—let alone those who have been en­no­bled since— Rushdie and Pratch­ett, for in­stance—only high­lights Burgess’ con­spic­u­ous ab­sence from the hon­ours’ list.

His mag­num opus is the won­der­ful Earthly Pow­ers, with its won­der­fully provoca­tive open­ing sen­tence: “It was the af­ter­noon of my eighty-first birth­day, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali an­nounced that the arch­bishop had come to see me.” This man­aged to up­set Catholics, Mus­lims, ho­mo­phobes and the Mal­tese author­i­ties (with whom he had a run-in over tax), in equal mea­sure. Fifty-odd ter­ri­fy­ing pages of the novel take place in Malaysia, fea­tur­ing a would-be Pope bat­tling it out against the black magic of shamans and bo­mohs. Although tipped as a hot favourite for the 1980 Booker Prize, he lost out to Wil­liam Gold­ing’s Rites of Pas­sage.

The record was set slightly straighter in an Oc­to­ber 2006 poll in The Ob­server, where Earthly Pow­ers was named joint-third best work of Bri­tish and Com­mon­wealth fic­tion of the pre­vi­ous 25 years (along­side Ian Mce­wan’s Atone­ment, Pene­lope Fitzger­ald’s The Blue Flower, Kazuo Ishig­uro’s The Un­con­soled, and Sal­man Rushdie’s Mid­night’s Chil­dren). For those in­ter­ested, JM Coet­zee’s Dis­grace and Martin Amis’ Money took the top two spots re­spec­tively. The only home­grown lit­er­ary hon­our he re­ceived from his coun­try of birth was the “North East Book of the Year” for Any Old Iron, although his alma mater did un­veil a plaque in Oc­to­ber 2012 that reads: “The Univer­sity of Manch­ester com­mem­o­rates An­thony Burgess, 1917–1993, Writer and Com­poser, Grad­u­ate, BA English 1940.” Per­func­tory and func­tional, it is, none­the­less, the only mon­u­ment to Burgess in the UK.

not native enough

Per­haps, Malaysia would seize on its brush with lit­er­ary great­ness and adopt him as its own. Sadly not. The Malayan Tril­ogy, for rea­sons best known to the Home Min­istry, has been on the re­stricted list of pub­li­ca­tions (it’s not banned but is hard to come by in book­shops) and, when our pho­tog­ra­pher vis­ited Malay Col­lege Kuala Kangsar, where Burgess spent three years teach­ing Shake­speare to the sons of the Malay elite, no­body had even heard of him.1

Which is odd given that Burgess re­ally did im­merse him­self in the ways of his adopted home. He wrote Jawi, spoke de­cent Malay, un­der­stood other di­alects, was an en­thu­si­as­tic pa­tron of opium dens and broth­els (the for­mer sadly long gone), and gen­er­ally shunned the com­pany of other mat sallehs. He clearly made an ef­fort. Per­haps the rea­son for this is the per­cep­tion among aca­demics that The Malayan Tril­ogy smacks of ori­en­tal­ism at best and racism at worst.

He did him­self few favours by in­dulging a fond­ness for word play. Kuala Kangsar, the Royal Town of Perak, is re­named Kuala Hantu; and the school is on Jalan Gila in the state of Lan­chap through which runs Sun­gai Kenc­ing. He claimed these name changes were needed to pro­tect him from the threat of law­suits, but it is hard not to see him smirk­ing qui­etly through his Malay-english dic­tionary look­ing for naughty al­ter­na­tives.

Brunei, reti­tled Naraka in A Devil of a State, fares worse than Malaya. Burgess took his re­venge on the Sul­tanate be­cause it repa­tri­ated him to the UK, os­ten-

sibly on med­i­cal grounds but re­ally be­cause of his bel­liger­ent drink­ing and his wife’s loud, very public and, ul­ti­mately, tragic al­co­holism. In­deed, drink was a big fac­tor in his life—do your­self a favour and read Martin Amis’ hi­lar­i­ous ac­count of their en­counter in Monaco— and it be­came even more cen­tral dur­ing his time in the trop­ics. He re­counts one of­fi­cial gar­den party graced by Prince Philip dur­ing which his ine­bri­ated Welsh wife, Lynne, ha­rangued all and sundry about the heat, the lack of cul­ture, the ab­sence of in­tel­li­gent com­pany, and the gen­eral te­dium of life in Brunei. Im­pres­sively, this potty-mouthed out­burst caused a diplo­matic up­set and em­bar­rassed the Queen’s hus­band, a man not un­fa­mil­iar with salty lan­guage. It is per­haps no co­in­ci­dence that Brunei is now dry—mr and Mrs Wil­son drank all the booze.2

De­spite this, it was sur­pris­ing, even en­cour­ag­ing, to dis­cover that back in 2010, an early piece of Burgess dog­gerel was un­earthed in Kuala Kangsar. “Ode: Cel­e­bra­tion for a Malay Col­lege” was writ­ten in 1955 to cel­e­brate MCKK’S golden ju­bilee. It dis­ap­peared from the school reper­toire not long af­ter the author left to teach teach­ers how to teach in Kota Baru fol­low­ing a string of in­creas­ingly an­gry con­fronta­tions with the head­mas­ter. But Datuk Syed Da­nial, who helped res­ur­rect the ode by hav­ing it per­formed (with the cur­rent Sul­tan of Perak in at­ten­dance) at an MCKK Old Boys’ Din­ner, was de­ter­mined to have it re­in­stated as an al­ter­na­tive col­lege song: “No other school has an ode spe­cially writ­ten by the world-renowned writer, nov­el­ist, es­say­ist and mu­si­cian An­thony Burgess.”

The fact that it never took off might, in all fair­ness, be on the grounds of lit­er­ary merit rather than the re­sult of lin­ger­ing an­i­mus to­wards the “world-renowned author”. Any­way, judge for your­selves: “We offer our youth, to the world we build / With courage and truth, and love ful­filled / A city will rise that is bright and fair / Into cloud­less skies and fresh clean air / Proudly we’ll serve and with faith we’ll strain / Mus­cle and nerve and heart and brain / Till wis­dom de­scends like a sil­ver dove / Till evil ends and the law is love.”

the jury is out

Can you be a great writer and an in­dif­fer­ent nov­el­ist? Some see Amis fils, a Burgess ad­mirer, in the same light. Critic Roger Lewis, who plunges from un­abashed ado­ra­tion to undis­guised an­i­mos­ity, takes this to a whole new level, ar­gu­ing that Burgess is an aw­ful writer, a ter­ri­ble nov­el­ist, and a badly dam­aged in­di­vid­ual to boot. His “au­tho­rised” (then swiftly unau­tho­rised) bi­og­ra­phy of Burgess is bru­tal, bit­ter and bloody. Not con­tent with merely knif­ing his vic­tim in the back (he be­gan his 20year col­lab­o­ra­tion as fan, friend and “of­fi­cial” biog­ra­pher), Lewis, fu­elled by some in­ner rage, dons the hockey mask and fires up the chain­saw.

His crit­i­cisms of the nov­els are marginally less vi­cious than his full-throt­tle ad hominems against his sub­ject. He ac­cuses Burgess the writer (and, by ex­ten­sion, Burgess the man) of an emo­tional cold­ness that trans­lates into char­ac­ters with no in­ter­nal life, no sense of move­ment, no psy­cho­log­i­cal devel­op­ment; in short, the shiny sur­faces con­ceal a lack of depth. Lewis makes a con­vinc­ing case at times, but this judg­ment seems harsh, es­pe­cially when it comes to the Malayan nov­els. The bizarre con­sen­sus among modern crit­ics is that a white man with his white priv­i­lege should not be writ­ing about Malaya or Malayans at all. I know, cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion is bad, but re­ally?

Ed­ward Said, in his cri­tique of “Ori­en­tal­ism”, as­serts that for the west­erner, “his Ori­ent is not the Ori­ent as it is, but the Ori­ent as it has been Ori­en­talised.” That is ob­vi­ously true, but so what? Burgess was not just an out-

sider in the East, he was self-ex­iled from his own kind. In his Malayan nov­els and both au­to­bi­ogra­phies, this mis­an­thropy is largely tar­geted at the whites, although the lo­cals, as one would hope, are not im­mune from crit­i­cism. The nov­els are hu­mor­ous and satir­i­cal, yet they con­tain a core of sad­ness mixed with dis­gust at the pass­ing of Em­pire, along with a ner­vous (and frankly per­cip­i­ent) con­cern for what would hap­pen as the shadow of Merdeka loomed.

Given the time­frame, it might seem ap­pro­pri­ate to think of him in lit­er­ary terms as the last of the colo­nials and the first of the post-colo­nial­ists. Burgess jus­ti­fies him­self in his es­say, Some­thing About Malaysia: “you can read the lives of the ex­pa­tri­ate Bri­tish in Wil­liam Som­er­set Maugham’s Malayan sto­ries… In Maugham, only the rather dull, white peo­ple are real, while the brown and yel­low Ori­en­tals are mere pad­ding bare feet on the veranda. When I wrote my own Malayan sto­ries, I tried to re­store the bal­ance… I found the Malays and the Chi­nese and the In­di­ans much more re­ward­ing, and I put them at the cen­tre of my book.”

Burgess once said: “I wish peo­ple would think of me as a mu­si­cian who writes nov­els, in­stead of a nov­el­ist who writes mu­sic on the side,” claim­ing that the great­est thrill of his life was at the pre­mier of his sym­phony, The Blooms of Dublin, per­formed by the Iowa Univer­sity Sym­phony Orches­tra in 1975. He be­came some­thing of a one-man Joyce in­dus­try—churn­ing out books and mu­si­cal treat­ments such as the one above with its paean to pro­phy­laxis—“cop­u­la­tion without pop­u­la­tion”. Burgess de­scribed his Sin­foni Me­layu as an at­tempt to “com­bine the mu­si­cal el­e­ments of the coun­try into a syn­thetic lan­guage which called on native drums and xy­lo­phones.” Roger Lewis scathingly calls it sub-par clas­si­cal “with bongo bongo drums”. How­ever, The Burgess Foun­da­tion says that records in its archive show that “Burgess com­pleted this work in De­cem­ber 1956 and sent it to Ra­dio Malaya, who de­clined to per­form it and lost the or­ches­tral score. As the only copy of this work has been miss­ing since 1956 and no per­for­mance has ever taken place, the ba­sis of the judge­ment quoted is not clear.” Ge­of­frey Grig­son, the crit­i­cal coun­ter­point to Lewis ac­cepts that Burgess “re­mains lit­tle known as a com­poser but is widely recog­nised as one of the most ex­tra­or­di­nary writ­ers of the 20th cen­tury.”

un­re­li­able nar­ra­tor

Part of the Burgess mys­tique is fanned by his au­to­bi­ogra­phies, Lit­tle Wil­son and Big God and You’ve Had Your Time, both of which con­tain claims that Lewis as­serts were ei­ther pre­pos­ter­ous or patently un­true. Very few pho­tos or doc­u­men­ta­tion ex­ist be­fore the mid-’60s (Burgess said ev­ery­thing had been eaten by ter­mites in Malaya), which meant that he could shape his mem­o­ries in nov­el­is­tic ways. For ex­am­ple, they give an over­whelm­ing im­pres­sion of bor­der­line penury, des­per­ate dead­lines to pay his bar bills or put petrol in the Bed­ford Dor­mo­bile he was driv­ing around Europe. Yet, when he died in Novem­ber 1993, his es­tate was sup­pos­edly val­ued at USD3 mil­lion, in­clud­ing a prop­erty port­fo­lio of sev­eral houses scat­tered around the nicer bits of Europe.

In the end, “ex­tra­or­di­nary” is fair com­ment—it sus­pends crit­i­cal judg­ment but ac­knowl­edges the splen­did unique­ness of Burgess’ out­put. Of course, the ex­trav­a­gant vo­cab­u­lary is showy, but I, for one, am happy to know that words like om­ni­fu­tu­ant, pro­lep­tic, apotropaic, stra­bis­mus, lamb­dacism or en­clitic ex­ist; in­deed, there’s a se­ries of Youtube videos prov­ing that his vo­cab­u­lary was much big­ger than ours will ever be. The last two in­ci­den­tally are from his time here: the Chi­nese ten­dency to con­fuse the let­ters “l” and “r” in speech; and the gram­mat­i­cal term for the Malay “lah”, as vi­tal a com­ple­ment to the lan­guage as cili padi is to the food.

What­ever the fi­nal judg­ment, we can all learn some­thing from Burgess. I’m glad he came to Malaysia, and you should be too.

Burgess with his stu­dents, Malaya, 1950s.

While at Malay Col­lege, Burgess was housed in King’s Pavil­ion, where he is pic­tured be­low. This build­ing was de­signed by the Bri­tish ar­chi­tect AB Hub­back, who was also com­mis­sioned by the 28th Sul­tan of Perak in 1913 to build the grand Ubu­diah Mosque in Kuala Kangsar. King’s Pavil­ion has a grue­some his­tory, and prior to Burgess’s ten­ancy, it was used by the Ja­panese mil­i­tary to tor­ture their pris­on­ers dur­ing WWII. Burgess re­mem­bers that “dried blood, ir­re­mov­able with any amount of Vim, stained the floor in the main bath­room, through whose open chan­nels much blood had flowed.”

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