Dead but not buried

An­thony Burgess may no longer be with us but, as the cen­te­nary of his birth ap­proaches, the lit­er­ary world is un­likely to stop ex­am­in­ing his life and work

The Herald - Arts - - BOOKS - SEAN BELL

TRY­ING to ex­plain An­thony Burgess, even 23 years after his death, is an anx­ious ex­er­cise; there are too many books, so many leg­ends, and no mat­ter how much one analy­ses his ca­reer, it will al­ways seem in­com­plete and in­con­clu­sive. Still, at the cen­te­nary of his birth, Burgess de­serves re­con­sid­er­a­tion, even if Grub Street didn’t de­serve him. This mata­dor’s suit of lights, now dusty and some­what un­fash­ion­able, was the im­prob­a­ble ar­ray of tal­ents that il­lu­mi­nated English let­ters so wildly and promis­cu­ously in the post­war decades, each re­flected in the facets of the oth­ers.

Yet as daz­zling as Burgess could be – and as the fear­some, chimeri­cal bulk of his bi­b­li­og­ra­phy still is – much of his legacy awaits re­dis­cov­ery in an age that, at best, re­mem­bers his dystopian Bil­dungsro­man A Clock­work Orange, his cen­tury-span­ning tragi­comic block­buster Earthly Pow­ers (as Burgess de­scribed it, a novel “about a ho­mo­sex­ual nov­el­ist and his brother-in­law, the Pope”), and only a few of his 33 nov­els. To make things harder, these lesser-known works never set­tle on a style beyond end­less rein­ven­tion, and cover ev­ery­thing from the dens­est of avant garde ex­per­i­ments to whim­si­cal satires of the hu­man con­di­tion. Be­sides this, there was the work that poured out of him as a mat­ter of pro­fes­sional dis­ci­pline and his own per­pet­ual rest­less­ness: mem­oirs, es­says, re­views, plays, trans­la­tions, bi­ogra­phies, crit­i­cal stud­ies, film and TV scripts. “The whole of English Lit. at the mo­ment is be­ing writ­ten by An­thony Burgess. He re­views all new books ex­cept those by him­self,” wrote Philip Larkin in a 1966 cor­re­spon­dence with poet An­thony Th­waite, ev­i­dently un­aware of a mi­nor scan­dal a few years be­fore over a pseudony­mous re­view Burgess had writ­ten for one of his own nov­els. “He must be a kind of Bat­man of con­tem­po­rary let­ters. I hope he doesn’t take to po­etry.”

In Manchester, where Burgess was born un­der the name John Wil­son on Fe­bru­ary 25, 1917, the In­ter­na­tional An­thony Burgess Foun­da­tion is over­see­ing a range of events which may bring some much-de­served at­ten­tion to one of the 20th cen­tury’s most sig­nif­i­cant if in­de­fin­able au­thors. BBC Ra­dio 3 will present a sea­son of Burgess­themed pro­grammes, crowned by a new ra­dio pro­duc­tion of his play Oedi­pus the King, star­ring Christo­pher Ecclestone. In July, the foun­da­tion will hold a cen­te­nary con­fer­ence, at which dis­cus­sions will ad­dress his life (tricky), his work (over­whelm­ing) and his rep­u­ta­tion (mad­den­ingly var­ied). Fur­ther­more, the An­thony Burgess Mem­o­ries Project has been pro­posed to gather new or ob­scure bi­o­graph­i­cal ma­te­rial on its sub­ject, an en­deav­our not un­like dig­ging for trea­sure in an aban­doned mine­field.

In life, Burgess left be­hind al­most as many sto­ries as he did on the page, most of them as re­li­able as fic­tion. Teach­ing in Malaya dur­ing the twi­light of Bri­tish colo­nial­ism, Burgess was ap­par­ently di­ag­nosed with a brain tu­mour – the most in­tractable dead­line a writer could face. He was meant to be dead in a year. In that year, de­ter­mined to turn writ­ing into a means of sup­port­ing his soon-tobe-widow, he pro­duced, by his es­ti­ma­tion, “five and a half nov­els of very mod­er­ate size.” Or to put it an­other way: “very nearly E.M. Forster’s en­tire life’s work”.

Whether by means of mis­di­ag­no­sis or his own in­cor­ri­gi­ble mytho­ma­nia, Burgess sur­vived his death sen­tence by 33 years. Hav­ing started writ­ing, he never stopped. “Wedged as we are be­tween two eter­ni­ties of idle­ness,” he later wrote, “there is no ex­cuse for be­ing idle now.”

Amidst the end­less work and the creative en­er­gies that fu­elled it, other sto­ries en­dure. This was a man who claimed to have eaten hu­man flesh in the com­pany of a Malaysian tribal leader, and sold il­licit ny­lons to Soviet black mar­ke­teers dur­ing a re­search trip to Len­ingrad. When his wife sick­ened from the al­co­holism they shared, which would even­tu­ally kill her, Wil­liams Bur­roughs – who also knew a thing or two about dif­fi­cult mar­riages – read Jane Austen to her at her bed­side. Con­fronted by a gang of po­ten­tial mug­gers in 1970s New York, Burgess drew a sword from his cane and yelled, “Fuck off, I’ve got can­cer!”

All this may il­lu­mi­nate Burgess the hu­man be­ing. Some of it might even be true. Un­like other lit­er­ary self­mythol­o­gis­ers such as Mark Twain or Arthur Rim­baud, Burgess’s own life, a lily he could never stop gild­ing with mi­nor fab­u­lisms, was not his most en­dur­ing cre­ation, nor was it his most fas­ci­nat­ing as­pect. That was, and re­mains, his writ­ten legacy.

His­to­rian Owen Dud­ley Ed­wards has his own, ar­guably more re­li­able rec­ol­lec­tions of Burgess, whom he met in the early 1980s. “We walked around Ed­in­burgh for about three hours. He talked about what it was like to meet James Joyce. He said, ‘It was aw­ful. He kept try­ing to get me to take him to the pub.’”

As a noted scholar of Joyce, in talk­ing about him, Burgess “made him live,” say Ed­wards. “It’s one of the ways Burgess showed him­self to be ex­traor­di­nar­ily Ir­ish – the fas­ci­na­tion with lan­guage. It arises from the fact those of us from an Ir­ish Catholic back­ground were usu­ally not too far away from a time when we were speak­ing a dif­fer­ent lan­guage. The aware­ness of Gaelic be­hind you meant that you could play with it. Burgess, I think, knew how Joyce went about his crafts­man­ship.”

The na­ture of Burgess’s Catholi­cism, his pe­ri­ods of doubt and apos­tasy, and his in­vari­able re­turn to the Church, is much de­bated, not least by Burgess him­self. In Ed­wards’ opin­ion, how­ever, he was “a very close Bi­b­li­cal scholar. If I had ever seen An­thony Burgess in a Fran­cis­can habit, I wouldn’t have been at all sur­prised.”

When his wife sick­ened from the al­co­holism they shared, Wil­liams Bur­roughs read Jane Austen to her

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