Anthony Burgess: a passion for words

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The Independent Online
BORN John Wilson, he performed as Anthony Burgess, Joseph Kell, and John Burgess Wilson. Then, beyond that, he was F X Enderby, Kenneth M Toomey, Mr Burgess-Shakespeare (in Nothing Like the Sun) and many more heroes, villains, pseudonyms and narrative voices. He claimed that fiction began to pour from him at the end of the Fifties, when a brain tumour was diagnosed, he was given a year to live, and he wanted to leave his wife a decent income.

Whatever happened (he had, after all, already written the fine Malayan Trilogy), six novels did flow from his pen in a year or so. Thereafter he wrote and wrote, as if in a race to bring out words against the clock of a human life. The clock was reasonably kind; Burgess kept writing furiously till his death last week at the age of 76.

The result was about 60 books, plus television and film scripts, plays, indeed symphonies, in profusion. There were works of criticism and children's books, grammars and volumes of verse. They poured from an endlessly fertile talent, fed by an endlessly curious imagination and an endlessly spinning mind. They drew on, incorporated, a massive reading and a great mental library, a love of language and of languages, a timeless fascination with fiction's variety. They borrowed from - intertextualised, as we say now - the work of the great writers, the myth-makers, language-users and composers of the past, from Marlowe to Mozart, who shaped the overall richness of culture - in which he firmly believed, and tried, a teacher always, to disseminate and re-inseminate.

In some years there could be as many as six books, as well as almost the same amount of words in reviews, essays: 1,000 words on this, 500 on that. He claimed until late on that poverty drove him to the typewriter to pay his homage to QWERTYUIOP. But that was doubtful; the charge for his words was often high.

He also claimed, as a reason for living abroad, that the British public ignored him, as they did by comparison with his large reputation around the world. Critics here also showed a disturbing inclination to contain him, put him in this box or that, demand more and more of the same, and less of the different. That was not his way, and rightly so. His talent was above all in his fertility, which drove him on, through books good and bad, through great passages and weak ones.

He once said that he regarded writing as 'a trade like anything else, not some precious rite', but if his work sometimes resembled an unstoppable monologue, it was also intellectually, morally and artistically complex. It bounced with ideas, was laden with freight. Admiration for Joyce was crucial, but what Joyce finally conserved, distilled, took long years over, he was willing to squander.

His books have frantic drive and a sharp moral urgency, a Catholic pain. He said: 'I suppose I try to make comic novels about man's tragic lot.' But that could produce many different things: the near-realistic form of The Malayan Trilogy; the prophetic nightmare future world of A Clockwork Orange (1962) or The Wanting Seed (1962); the complex game-plans of MF (1971) and ABBA ABBA (1977), books with such elaborate experimental and structuralist presumptions it took Frank Kermode to decode them; or the sheer plenitude of later works like the encyclopedic Earthly Powers (1980), papal sins and modern history in 81 chapters, or the triptych of The End of the World News (1983).

The books which came, almost unremittingly, from 1956 on make a vast record of the second half of the 20th century, a collective pulling together of what a deeply engaged literary and linguistic mind might draw from what had already been written, what it was now time to write. Burgess is the great postmodern storehouse of British writing, maker not just of contemporary stories but of innumerable new narrative codes. He is a popular writer, but also an important experimentalist; an encyclopedic amasser, but also a maker of form; a playful comic, with a dark gloom.

No doubt the critics will now find it necessary to go sifting, pulling out the best from the worst. The best would have to include the moving Malayan Trilogy (1956-59); A Clockwork Orange, with its invented language, nadsat, and its two different endings; his Shakespearean tale Nothing Like the Sun (1964); the four Enderby novels; MF, and the vast Earthly Powers. It should also include some of his fine criticism, such as Joysprick (1973), his lively study of James Joyce's language, and his generous study of The Novel Now (1967), which ends with a reflection on his own work:

'There are two good reasons for writing much, if one can. The first is the need to earn; the second is the fear of an untimely death, which will prevent the half-formed books in one's mind from being realised.' And since the novel 'is the only literary form we have left . . . I am proud to be involved in its continuing life and development.' So, more than most, he was. There's surely no doubt he'll long be remembered for it.

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