Anthony Burgess: My wife's trauma - which version do you want?

The novelist and polymath Anthony Burgess was a man of unearthly powers and prodigious output. He was also, it seems, a bit of a fabulist. Has his latest biographer managed to get a grip on this slippery subject? D J Taylor gives his verdict

Serious work. Burgess's long and clamorous career, beginning in the early 1950s and extending almost to the day of his death in November 1993, was full of this desirable commodity, crammed with it, a monstrous literary freight-train tugging innumerable trucks piled high with books (67 are listed in Andrew Biswell's groaning bibliography), newspaper articles, screenplays and (as our man doubled up as an amateur composer) assorted musical scores. Visitors to the Sussex hideaway that Burgess shared with his first wife Lynne in the early 1960s testify to professional routines that fell only a yard or so short of Amis's burlesque: the eight-hour stake-outs at the desk; the tide of review copies rolling down the staircase; the Herculean feats of reading and talking and smoking (Burgess was an 80-a-day man) and drinking. The weekly gin order at Etchingham ran to a dozen bottles, Biswell relates, and among the "life-threatening" cocktails devised by Burgess was a concoction known as "Hangman's Blood", later pressed upon readers of the Guardian: "Into a pint glass, doubles of the following are poured: gin, whisky, rum, port and brandy. A small bottle of stout is added and the whole topped up with champagne... It tastes very smooth, induces a somewhat metaphysical elation, and rarely leaves a hangover."

The chaos that was Burgess's life - a productive and startlingly disciplined chaos, but chaos nonetheless - was always going to prove resistant to standard biographical approaches. One can envisage an "in the footsteps of" merchant of the Richard Holmes school or a Michael Holroyd-style completist simply throwing up his hands in horror at the gaps, the silences, the evasions, the false trails and the stacks of straightforward misinformation that attend practically every landmark in the Burgess chronology. As Biswell amusingly demonstrates, much of the aniseed flung in the path of the biographical bloodhounds has a habit of sticking to the work. Ever keen to characterise himself as a trail-blazer and a trend-setter, Burgess suggested to a 1960s radio interviewer that his first novel, A Vision of Battlements, anticipates the mood of the Kingsley Amis-era Angry Young Men. Alas, Biswell has done his research, and can conclude that: "It's certain Burgess carried out substantial revisions to his book after its first rejection by Heinemann, and equally certain that Amis had become a prominent figure on the English literary scene before he did so."

Quite as much mystery and obfuscation adheres to the sad and perplexing figure of Lynne, an alcoholic of such frightening tenacity that after her final haemorrhage there were, as Burgess put it, "not enough pots and pans in the kitchen to hold the tides of blood". In 1944, two years into their marriage, with Burgess away on war-service, the pregnant Lynne was assaulted by a group of American men (presumably deserting GIs) on her way home from work through the London black-out. Lynne miscarried and one of her attackers tried to break her finger as she lay on the ground to remove her golden wedding ring. From this trauma undoubtedly sprang the 20-year catalogue of pub-bannings and impromptu stripteases in public places. And yet the truth of what really happened - not least its physical consequences - is lost in the three contending versions of the event subsequently offered by Burgess to his literary agent. In a much later interview, Burgess maintained that Lynne's consequent ill-health meant that she could never have children. One of her early 1950s letters to a friend, on the other hand, talks about starting a family. Is Lynne deluding herself, or is Burgess deliberately misleading his pursuers? Or did he genuinely not know? To borrow Biswell's delicate phrasing, these are hard questions and the only people qualified to answer them are dead.

The Real Life of Anthony Burgess fairly thrums with this kind of baffled enquiry. Time and again, in scanning the accounts of Burgess's (fairly grim) child- and young-manhood in Manchester, quasi-military life in the educational corps or post-war teaching days in Oxfordshire - inspired but bolshie is the general verdict - the Burgess-fancier is pulled up sharp by the lack of documentation, the absence of reliable witnesses, the dismaying thought that everything, in the end, comes back to the deeply unreliable testimony of Burgess himself. Roger Lewis, Burgess's previous anatomist (Anthony Burgess, 2002, which rates a single mention in this authorised version), clearly found the task beyond him (he was not helped, you imagine, by his "unofficial" status) and lapsed into a rambling account of his own, soured, 20-year Burgess obsession. Biswell, alternatively, tends to advance by way of theme: Burgess and Malaya, where he spent a mid-1950s sojourn in the fading Imperial twilight; Burgess and A Clockwork Orange, controversially filmed by Stanley Kubrick; a tremendous mid-1960s upping of the work rate when, in the intervals of grander commitments, he managed to review 350 books in two years. (A friend of mine used to commission Burgess for the Times Literary Supplement - his appraisal of those abstruse tomes on grammatical theory or fat biographies would come back by return of post.)

Biswell's account of Burgess teaching in Malaya may be taken as representative of this vast, stuttering progress on half-a-dozen simultaneous fronts. Repeating the pattern of his army and early post-war days, Burgess is sniffily regarded by the colonial hierarchy while having a whale of a time among the natives. So fluent in the language that he leaves the examiner of his degree-level certificate trailing in his wake, he sets down to translate The Wasteland into Malay. Sadly the project founders on linguistic incompatibility; "April is the cruellest month" means nothing in the tropics, where all months are the same, while the word "Spring" fails to show in the dictionaries. Then come the string of novels set in Malaya, whose incidental baggage is stuffed with private jokes and settled scores. Was the publisher aware, a correspondent demanded of Heinemann when The Enemy in the Blanket appeared in 1958, that the fictitious locale of "Kenching" was Malay for urine, while "Mahalingam", here used as someone's surname, meant "large penis"? Finally there is the mystery of Burgess's sudden departure, supposedly invalided home with a suspected brain tumour, from which he very soon recovered to the bewilderment of hospital-visiting friends who remarked on his apparent good health.

And so, exhaustingly but entertainingly, it goes on. Like the life, the work almost makes a virtue out of its endless reimaginings and recreations: the argument with his American publisher over who ordained the pulling of A Clockwork Orange's upbeat 21st chapter burned on for decades. Beneath the bluster, the podium-haunting and the cultural omnipresence lay something denser and bleaker. It was D J Enright, quoting T S Eliot, who noted that "he could not escape suffering and could not transcend it, so he attracted pain to himself." Ominously, Julian Mitchell reckoned that the typical early Burgess hero was a teacher (check) with a propensity towards infidelity (check), an impossible wife (check) and a capacity for suffering endless humiliations. Lynne died in 1968, allowing the genuinely remorseful widower to marry the Italian-born Lilana Johnson, with whom he had already begun to consort, and on whom he had already fathered a four-year-old son. Biswell rather skates through the quarter century that remains - the years of fame and wealth, the millions made out of best-sellers and screen-treatments - which may (and this is the merest speculation) be a consequence of the second Mrs Burgess's benediction. As for what remains, a dozen years after Burgess's death, and the prospects for his reputation, I kept thinking of some momentous, long-ago explosion, far out to sea, whose debris, even now, continues to wash fitfully up upon the lone, lorn 21st-century sands.

To buy a copy of 'The Real Life of Anthony Burgess' by Andrew Biswell (Picador £20) for £18 (free p&p), contact Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897

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