Anthony Burgess: More than ultraviolence

A new archive reveals how the novelist Anthony Burgess's polymathic vision went way beyond mere dystopian allegory, says Sophie Morris

Tuesday 15 June 2010 00:00

We've reserved three graves for you, Mr Burgess," went an anonymous letter delivered to the Midland Hotel, where Anthony Burgess was staying on a rare visit home to Manchester. "One for your body, one for your books and one for your ego."

Burgess, according to his biographer Andrew Biswell, was delighted by this witty piece of hate mail. "He thought it was characteristic of how Mancunians responded to what he had to say. Maybe that's changing now."

Let's hope so, because this week an arts centre devoted to Anthony Burgess opens its doors in the Engine House on Cambridge Street in Manchester's city centre.

On the one hand it will be a hip new cultural venue with a library, café/bar and space for literary, music and film events. On the other, it is to house the International Anthony Burgess Foundation's archive of his work, a vast and largely unexplored collection of writing, music and Burgessian paraphernalia which, until now, has been gathering dust in a house in Withington.

The intention is for the opening of the centre to encourage the study of Burgess and reinvigorate interest in the man, his work and his difficult relationship with Manchester. Although the gesture is on a much smaller scale than the grand concert hall and gallery named after Lowry, in comparison to the artist who lived close to the city and etched his Northern working-class roots into every painting, Burgess is every bit the prodigal son.

"Burgess has been dead since 1993, and it's only now people are going back to the books," says Biswell. "It is quite hard to see Burgess's entire work – a lot of his books are below the waterline. One or two have been out of print for more than 40 years. It is different in other places: France, Germany, Italy. All over South America, Burgess is read in Spanish translation. In North America there is more in print than there is here."

New studies of Burgess might also shed light on some of the many myths that he, if not actually created, then certainly propagated about himself. There is the boast that he was thrown out of the Whitworth Art Gallery – while not even of an age for long trousers – for indecently assaulting a modernist sculpture. And then there's the story that he was diagnosed with a fatal brain tumour in 1959 and given a year to live. "There's no medical evidence for that at all," says Biswell. "But it's a good story and one he told so many times it showed up in all his obituaries. It's the one thing everybody thinks they know about Burgess other than he wrote A Clockwork Orange."

A Clockwork Orange is probably the reason most people have heard of Burgess at all, although he certainly didn't consider it his best work and ended up saddened by the furore over Stanley Kubrick's 1971 film of the novel. "When the film came out he reviewed it very favourably," says Biswell. "Then Burgess was accused of having created some sort of Frankenstein's monster, because people who'd committed various crimes said they had seen the film or somehow been influenced by A Clockwork Orange. He was attacked on both sides of the Atlantic. Eventually he became resentful of Stanley Kubrick for having wound up this clockwork monster and decided the film was a travesty of his own novel."

The cult dystopia was based on the Moss Side street gangs he grew up around in the 1920s and 30s. Born John Burgess Wilson in 1917 into a Catholic family with Irish and Scottish heritage, his mother and sister died the following year in the influenza pandemic. The tragedy of losing his mother impacted profoundly on his life and work. Burgess was raised by an aunt and then by his stepmother. He went to school in Rusholme and studied at the University of Manchester. It wasn't until 1956 and the publication of Time for a Tiger that he began using the pen name Anthony Burgess.

He fell out with the city, or rather it fell out with him, when he abandoned it for the more glamorous environs of Malaya (now Malaysia) and Brunei as a young teacher and later, as a tax exile, Malta, Italy, the US and finally Monaco, where he is buried.

His attitude towards Manchester was ambivalent. Though he once said "as a piece of civic planning, or rather unplanning, I think it's terrible," he also remained proud of his Northern working-class roots, however far, geographically and socially, he left them behind.

Alan Roughley, a professor of English and director of the International Anthony Burgess Foundation, met Burgess at a Joyce symposium. They became friends and the foundation was set up posthumously with Burgess's widow, Liana, who died in 2007. According to Roughley, Burgess was resented for turning his back on the UK while contemporaneously suffering from overexposure. Before he left, the BBC considered him perhaps their most reliable expert guest because he could assimilate knowledge and ideas very quickly, literally turning himself into an expert on any given topic overnight. "He was one of the first major talking heads on English television," says Roughley. "He'd talk about music one day, Chaucer the next and journalism the next. People were overexposed to him and he wasn't the most humble man."

For all his pontificating on other subjects and people, the greater proportion of Burgess's own output remains unknown. Will Carr, events co-ordinator at the new centre, describes him as much more than the author of A Clockwork Orange: "He was a polymath and provocateur, author, poet, playwright, composer, linguist, translator and critic."

"The problem with Anthony," says Roughley, "is that he wrote so much. About 30 novels including fictional biographies, novels written in poetry, historical novels and a considerable number of science fiction novels."

He didn't consider himself a writer until the 1950s, would have preferred to be remembered as a composer and said his greatest creative moment came in 1975, when listening to one of his three symphonies being performed by a full orchestra.

Biswell considers some of Burgess's music to be very good, but says it falls short of Burgess's own high opinion of his compositions. Of his other writing, Earthly Powers was nominated for the Booker in 1980 and his books on the lives of Shakespeare, Marlowe and Keats were well received.

Roughley currently has four Ph.D. students working on Burgess across Liverpool and Manchester and the foundation is trying to secure funding to support others. For these and any others the archive is full of treasures: there are several unpublished stories, music manuscripts, Burgess's own library and the first drafts of A Clockwork Orange. Then there are his typewriters, a wonderful patterned armchair and an array of carved and painted masks and sculptures picked up on his travels.

The gem might well be Burgess's personal cocktail recipe book, which is, according to Will Carr, "much-thumbed". The centre opens on Wednesday evening when some of Burgess's piano music will be played. The venue's bar, Carr confirms, will be serving up "vodka and milk and ultraviolence".

The International Anthony Burgess Foundation, Cambridge St, Manchester (0161 235 0776) opens tomorrow

For further reading: The Real Life of Anthony Burgess by Andrew Biswell (Picador)

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