Traveller's tales and verbal remedies

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For most of the year, Anthony Burgess locks himself away in Switzerland and writes. Once he has finished, he embarks on a punishing publicity campaign. Kevin Jackson joined the prolific novelist as he visited the Cheltenham Festival of Literature, saw a new production of A Clockwork Orange in Edinburgh and dealt with a grim prognosis from his doctors

BARELY five minutes into the great Anthony Burgess roadshow of 1992 and the scholarly pressure is already on. 'Now, tell me this,' demands the sage of Lugano of his quailing interviewer in a hotel room in Cheltenham. 'How many phonemes in the word 'pin'?' Hmmm. It seems obvious that the answer should be 'three', so this must be a trick question. Let's guess: 'Two?' Burgess is triumphant, vindicated. 'Wrong] It's four: there's an aspirate after the /p/] So tell me this: How many phonemes in the word 'spin'?' Ur. . . well, could it be five? 'Wrong again] It's also four - there's no aspirate when an /s/ prededes the /p/]' And to illustrate the point, Burgess holds his cigar tip up to his mouth, barks out the words in question. That sneaky aspirate in 'pin' sends sparks flying.

Phonemes, morphemes and allophones are not simply the building blocks of Burgess's speech this evening, but also make up a good deal of its semantic burden, since he is back in England to promote his new book A Mouthful of Air. Like his earlier study Language Made Plain (1964), a good deal of which has been incorporated into its first section, A Mouthful of Air is another of Burgess's valiant attempts to introduce his lazy countrymen to that area of study bounded on one side by 'Enry 'Iggins and on the other by Noam Chomsky - the science of language, and especially the fields of phonetics and phonology.

We are, Burgess maintains, shamefully ignorant of what goes on inside our mouths. His contention seems to be born out by the number of people encountered on this trip who are foxed by his question about the pin, or incapable of giving an elegant account of the ways in which 'She made him a good wife' differs from 'She made him a good dinner'. (They are not so very different in cannibal societies: see his novel The Wanting Seed.)

But the humiliation of such encounters is amply compensated by the pleasure to be had from Burgess's pungent, wide-ranging, richly anecdotal, startling candid and very funny discourse. If you did not know from his autobiographies that Burgess comes from show-business stock (father a pub pianist, mother a singer known - as her son points out, pleonastically - as 'Beautiful Belle Burgess'), then you would probably guess it from his way with a crowd. It's not just that he has the familiar showman's trick of winning his audience with local gags, twitting the good people of Cheltenham for their notorious gentility, and in Edinburgh thundering against the Sassenach impertinence of taxing Scotland's national drink so savagely. Burgess is a splendidly entertaining public speaker; it's no wonder that in America ('where they are more interested in writers than in writing') he used to be a staple of the rubber chicken circuit.

And he insists that, despite his 75 summers, he still enjoys the punishing round of interviews, broadcasts, interviews, signing sessions, interviews, lectures and interviews which are on the itinerary for this promotional tour, and which leave his younger companions (as the narrator of A Clockwork Orange has it) utterly 'fagged and fashed'. 'Writing's a solitary business, one simply sits at home all the time, so it's pleasant to get out and talk to people.' It would also be tempting to present the spectacle of Burgess expelling these millions of mouthfuls of air simply in a comic, rollicking manner, and concentrate on his quips and barbs, his exuberant garrulousness and his forebearing way with both the honest men and the fools he encounters en route.

Well, a Burgess roadshow always has its amusing side: for example, it will be hard to forget the sight of a diminutive and possibly demented young Scotsman tugging importunately at the novelist's sleeve, jumping up and down and begging 'Give me a quote] Anything] Just say something brilliant]' while Burgess growled and muttered like a mastiff being worried by a Jack Russell. On this particular trip, though, the humour had a whiff of the gallows and the erudite fun a distinct note of tragedy.

Last Thursday, just as the tour was about to begin, Burgess underwent a bronchoscopy. A heavy smoker since the war, he has recently been coughing up blood. An X-ray showed a dark patch on one of his lungs. Burgess is not yet sure whether he will undergo surgery, but he is sure of one thing: a death sentence has been pronounced.

This, admirers will recall, is the second time that doctors have warned him to prepare to meet his maker. In 1959, he was invalided out of his teaching job in Borneo, diagnosed as having a brain tumour and given a year to live. Wanting to leave his first wife some money, he sat down and wrote four and a bit novels during the 'pseudo-terminal year' of 1960, sold them and has been hard at the typewriter ever since.

Burgess has, therefore, more reason than most to doubt the prognostications of medics. Even so, other men in his circumstances would probably have cancelled the tour and withdrawn into the comfort of families and friends. Burgess not only chose to go ahead, but is throwing himself into the procedure with the same prodigious application which has enabled him to write more than 50 books, dozens of musical compositions and a body of journalism that will probably fill several shelves when it is reprinted in a Uniform Edition. He talks cheerfully of language and just about everything language compasses, and he brings the house down every time. You would never guess these to be his last days on earth were it not for the bleak sallies he repeatedly makes.

To the audience in Cheltenham, where he is giving the inaugural European Lecture on Translation, he announces that he is himself about to be 'translated' to a different plane of being. To his Italian spouse Liana, who not only 'makes him a good wife' but accompanies him throughout the tour, he points out that the purchase of a pair of warm winter boots will be an extravagance as 'I shan't be around to wear them'. To an old acquaintance from his college days in Manchester (born in 1917, Burgess was studying English there as the Second World War began), who asks politely after his health, he replies bluntly 'I'm dying.'

Should one laugh, wince, cry, remonstrate or simply hold one's peace at these brutal confessions? Most people choose to laugh, though not so much from heartlessness as from nerves. Fortunately, for the more squeamish, Burgess scarcely draws breath after these shafts of gloom before his indefatigable interest in the world he may soon be leaving drives him on to ever new topics.

His standard range is well indicated by the contents of the 'confused dissertation' he offered in Cheltenham, and which drew applause of a volume and duration more commonly encountered at rock concerts. Inter alia, the lecture touched on the obscene dialect verse of the Roman sonneteer Belli; Mrs Mary Whitehouse; the Earl of Surrey; the 'John Majorish' quality of recent English Bibles as opposed to the punning intricacy of the original Hebrew; the impossibility of rendering The Waste Land into Malay, which has no words of its own for 'April', 'cruellest' or 'snow'; the 'slight labial paralysis' of Humphrey Bogart; the Italian dubbing of My Fair Lady. . .

Enough for now, though one could compile a list just as long and quite different from, say, the interview he gives to BBC Radio Scotland, or to CBC radio, or to the lady from Best Seller magazine who asks him to pick her questions out of a hat, or to the audience at the Traverse Theatre before Saturday evening's production of A Clockwork Orange by Glasgow's TAG theatre company. He hates the way this 'folie de jeunesse', one of the novels which he wrote in three weeks in 1960, has hung itself around his neck like an albatross and distracted readers from his other books. But TAG's production of the play version proves to be excellent - balletic, semi-abstract and delivered in Glaswegian accents that fit the play's Russian- derived nadsat argot as if he had always planned it so. It pleases him tremendously. 'Brilliant]' he tells the young cast afterwards 'I wish I had half your energy.'

That sentiment can only have an ironic sound to anyone who has watched this supposed invalid out on the stump. The following morning, after an early breakfast and a mere three interviews, we catch the flight back to London where Burgess will be appearing at a bookshop with David Lodge. (As the plane touches down, the pilot expresses the conventional hope that he will be seeing us all again soon. 'Unlikely', Burgess rumbles.) In the next few days he will be going on to Manchester, to Bristol, back to London; more radio, more newspapers, more signings, more interviews. . .

What have they achieved, all these mouthfuls of air? Most of the usual things: some hours have been usefully beguiled, some copies of the new book have been shifted, and perhaps a few listeners have even been inspired to go off and study the sounds we all make every day. This particular trip, though, has made another and quite unforeseen impression. It has left thousands of radio listeners, hundreds of lecture-goers and one Independent journalist with the fervent hope that, just as he did in 1960, Mr Burgess will once again be leaving the doctors with egg on their faces.

A Mouthful of Air is published by Hutchinson; TAG's A Clockwork Orange continues on tour.

(Photograph omitted)