Obituary: Anthony Burgess

Roger Lewis
Sunday 18 September 2011 10:21

John Anthony Burgess Wilson (Anthony Burgess), novelist and critic: born Manchester 25 February 1917; British Army Education Corps 1940- 46; Lecturer, Extra-Mural Department, Birmingham University 1946- 48; Lecturer in Phonetics, Ministry of Education 1948-50; English Master, Banbury Grammar School 1950-54; Senior Lecturer in English, Malayan Teachers Training College, Khata Baru 1954-57; English Language Specialist, Department of Education, Brunei 1958-59; Writer-in-Residence, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill 1969-70; FRSL 1969; Professor, Columbia University, New York 1970-71; Distinguished Professor, City University of New York 1972-73; married 1942 Llewela Isherwood Jones (died 1968), 1968 Liliana Macellari (one son); died London c24 November 1993.

TO THINK of him (as was said of a magnifico like Dr Johnson) is to think of an empire falling. All those big books, reference works, volumes of critical essays, plays, opera librettos, orchestral symphonies, and much else, which tumbled out of his head add up to a resplendent career. Simply in terms of sheer quantity, it is hard to believe it was all done by hand. His personal manner, too, was expansive. With his Roman emperor's hairstyle and countenance, and puffing ostentatiously on a cigarillo, he would hold the floor with impromptu lectures on Malay cuisine, Bloom's Dublin, how Shakespeare spoke, where to buy shoes in Barcelona, the beauty of Sophia Loren, working for Lew Grade, learning Japanese - anything really, so long as he could throw in colourful words: orchidaceous, pinguid, rebarbative. You would think to yourself, there's nothing this man doesn't know.

He was the most self-dramatising of authors, fully aware that 'Anthony Burgess' was a performance perfected over several decades by John Wilson - the name on the birth certificate (25 February 1917) and on the much-used passport. Burgess was the public role, the baritonal, slightly arrogant columnist and literary pundit, the Monte Carlo citizen fancying himself as the heir of James Joyce. Wilson was the more sensitive, chivalrous reality beneath the swagger: the Manchester boy nervous of fame and riches, who shut himself away in a variety of residences (from Sussex to Switzerland, from Princeton to Provence) and who banged out close on a hundred texts - and there are flashes and sparks of genius in every one of them.

It is perhaps Burgess's memoirs, Little Wilson and Big God (1987) and You've Had Your Time (1990), which constitute his best novels, his masterpieces. Rather in the style of Roy Campbell's similarly rollicking reminiscence, Light on a Dark Horse, Burgess allowed fact to become fantasy. (Some of the real people depicted, army colleagues, for example, or former teachers at Banbury Grammar School, were much put out by the fictional embellishments.) Rowdy, lusty, the book presented the author as a persecuted picaro - with women lining up to bed him, with officialdom going out of its way to thwart him, with the universe, you feel, organised specifically for his disadvantage.

It is a tone (of victimised exasperation) found in the Enderby tetralogy - Inside Mr Enderby (1963), Enderby Outside (1968), The Clockwork Testament (1974), and Enderby's Dark Lady (1984) - FX Enderby being another of Burgess's fictional doubles, whose ambition is to be left alone in peace so that he can write. The ambition was realised by Burgess himself in 1960. Invalided home from Malaya and Borneo (with an alcoholic wife), having been a tutor at Teacher Training Colleges since 1954, he was deemed, by his own admission, unemployable (owing to a suspected brain tumour, with a prognosis of 12 months - though that medical fact is open to dispute). So he took to the typewriter, having dabbled both as a writer and a composer since the end of the war, and he made himself into the first highbrow millionaire since Somerset Maugham.

It is not too fanciful to say that Wilson did indeed die at the end of the 1950s; thereafter, as the reputation of Anthony Burgess grew, the real man receded, to be usurped, at least on television or in magazine profiles, by a paper man. Even friends started to call him Anthony, or Antonio, but never Tony. Lew Grade once called him Tone Boy. (Another alias, Joseph Kell, did not last.) Being an honorary graduate of Manchester and St Andrews universities, he preferred to be addressed (Johnsonianly) as Dr Burgess. But the people he knew pre-1960 always called him John.

Posterity shall have to decide whether, of the actual novels produced, the ones stemming from the early days are actually the best; that is, when there remained Wilsonian experiences to talk about and transfigure. A Vision of Battlements (1965) recalled army days in Gibraltar; The Long Day Wanes (1965) was a brilliant and ambitious account of the dying days of Empire; The Worm and the Ring (1961) captured perfectly the mood of shagged-out post-war England, the rationing and the rain. It was set in Banbury Grammar School, where Wilson taught before leaving for the East. The real school secretary, deciding she could identify herself in the book, sued for libel. The book was withdrawn and never reissued.

And then there were the first two Enderby books (much coveted by Richard Burton as potential filmscripts): they depict the life and times of a poetaster whose muse, for some reason, resided in the latrine. Burgess, never quite recovering from the scene in Ulysses where Bloom's bowels are moved, took delight in making parallels between Art and the Body; he saw the division as comic - the brain thinking its thoughts while the body answered back with constipation, disease, lust.

Wilson was a rich source of material, as the later memoirs proved; Burgess was not. When Burgess left England for good in 1968, the cable was cut on the past and on contemporary England - so what could he now find to write about? The answer was science fiction and historical romance; works you could research and make up. The End of the World News (1982), for example, prophesied the apocalypse, presented a fable about Freud, and presented lyrics for a musical on Trotsky. Clever, undoubtedly, but empty-hearted? Moses (1976), Man of Nazareth (1979) and The Kingdom of the Wicked (1985) ambitiously rewrote the Bible: Old Testament, New Testament and Acts of the Apostles, it was all run-of-De Mille stuff, spun-off from the lucrative screenplays he had been commissioned to write for Lew Grade, Franco Zeffirelli and Vincenzo Labella. Napoleon Symphony (1974), which he said was about Bonaparte, as inspired by Beethoven's Eroica, began life as a film project with Stanley Kubrick (to whom it is dedicated) - Kubrick's notorious film of A Clockwork Orange (1971) being the one work which gave Burgess his greatest gush of fame.

Napoleon Symphony aimed for brilliance (prose constructed out of music), but was a bit pretentious. MF (1971) was, again, experimental. A story of incest, it was based on the work of Claude Levi-Strauss and Oedipal myths. Little of this was apparent from the bewildering text itself. When Burgess felt he had better explicate his own ravings (in This Man and Music, 1982), the effect was not to deepen our appreciation. On the contrary, MF looked the more stiff and over-burdened: a recondite crossword puzzle. But we could see what his ambition was. He wanted to write another Ulysses.

I suggest that, if you take his work as a whole, he succeeded. Enderby is his Leopold Bloom (as well as self-caricature). Shakespeare, in Nothing Like the Sun (1964), is Stephen Dedalus. His own mother, he once said, 'would be easier to recreate in fiction, relating her to Molly Bloom'. Like Joyce, Burgess had a love affair with language. A Clockwork Orange (1962), like Finnegans Wake, invented a whole new language, and Burgess actually dashed off a history of linguistics in Language Made Plain (1964). One of his last publications, A Mouthful of Air (1992), brought his philological and semantic researches up to date, with chapters on Chinese and tips on translating a Sherlock Holmes story into Malay. Joysprick (1973) examined 'the language of James Joyce' and Here Comes Everybody (1965) was 'An Introduction to James Joyce for the Ordinary Reader'. These primers remain superb assessments, packed with original interpretation. (Burgess was the last of the scholar-critics not to hold a university post.)

In interviews and in his memoirs, Burgess tried hard to lard his origins as Irish. He was, as he frequently said, a Lancashire Catholic whose grandmother was a Mary Ann Finnegan from Tipperary. Manchester, you'd begin to think, listening to him run on, was but a postal district of Dublin.

The obsession (to put it no lower) with the Joycean genius aside, how much of what Burgess did was self- parody? It wasn't all rarefied word- games. He did love the garlicky low- life: the criminal underworld of The Doctor is Sick (1960), Keats's Rome in Abba Abba (1977), the brothelkeeper in The Pianoplayers (1986), the muddle and mess of travel in The Coaching Days of England 1750- 1850 (1966). He loved the musical and adapted Cyrano de Bergerac first as an operetta, then as a straight play for Broadway, where it failed ('because it opened the same week as Watergate'). In 1983, the Royal Shakespeare Company, with Derek Jacobi, had Burgess overhaul his translation, this time to enormous acclaim. (Burgess also supplied the subtitles for Gerard Depardieu's film.) Translations of Carmen and Oberon for Scottish Opera, any number of movie scripts (never made; they languish in the vault of an Italian bank), versions of Sophocles for a theatre in Minneapolis: these were all ways Burgess attempted to be involved with a community bustle of creativity, whilst remaining in solitude abroad. He spent many years trying to interest Hollywood in a musical comedy about Shakespeare, called The Bawdy Bard, with Robert Stephens as Will, Maggie Smith as Anne Hathaway and Peter Ustinov as Ben Jonson. As an idea, that is still simply too good to come true. Just before his death he returned to the Elizabethan era, with a thriller about Christopher Marlowe, called Dead Man in Deptford.

How, then, to sum up his achievement? Though I think Burgess was a great writer who never wrote a single great book, many of his outpourings approach eminence. Earthly Powers (1980) must rank among the top 10 novels published since the Second World War, even if it was too craftily a synthesis of his other productions. Little Wilson and Big God is brave, boastful, and shames those (like Kingsley Amis) who seem to believe that your reminiscences are to be written left-handed. I, for one, also take delight in his squibs, like Mozart and the Wolf Gang (1991) - a mixture of imagined conversation between famous composers, short stories, biography, and a dialogue between two characters called 'Anthony' and 'Burgess'; it is full of vigour, wit, invention and gibberish. Had anybody other than Burgess written it, it would never have been set up in printer's ink.

Long after he needed the money, he used up a lot of energy on hack journalism; he knocked off swiftly remaindered books (such as On Going to Bed, 1982, or Ninety-Nine Novels, 1984); and who knows what he put into those interred film scripts? His journalism, in fact, is a subject in itself. His lively reviews in the Observer and the Independent, though generous to younger authors, grew testy when contemplating those who had successfully combined the popular and the lofty, those who had spanned intellectual and best-seller markets: Scott Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Le Carre, for example. He knew that, somehow, he was in that kind of company, not Joyce's or DH Lawrence's.

He moved house and country a good deal - nervously shunting about his residences because he had an aversion to paying any form of tax. He once lived in a Dormobile van and ceaselessly criss-crossed the borders of France, Switzerland and Italy to confound the fiscal authorities. I personally met him on several occasions, when the Inland Revenue allowed him back. He did not strike me as a happy creature; but what if there was any bitterness deep down? He had to be on good terms with his neuroses, otherwise would never have written 2,000 words every day for over 30 years.

At first, in my company, he was the bluff Burgess, scowling and frowning and bragging about a book on Lawrence he had scribbled in three weeks. We went with the late Richard Ellmann around New College, Oxford, and Burgess calculated, from memorial stones, how old the famous alumni were when they died. What did he and Ellmann, the world-renowned James Joyce scholar, talk about? Pension funds, income tax, capital- gains liabilities; hanging on to their loot is what absorbed them.

At the now defunct Punch, another time, Burgess endured the garrulous serenades of media folk who had read less of his work than they pretended. He took it well - he knew their game. He started to speak in Russian, or perhaps it was Anglo-Saxon. Then, unheralded, I once received a telegram, instructing me to meet him in a theatre foyer. That time I met John Wilson. He was alone (his voluble second wife left behind in Lugano) and utterly generous, utterly a modest man of letters, happy to sign autographs and chat to students. If I had been working on a book about him, I'd have gone off into the night to rewrite, reconsider. I had suddenly been shown the hidden world of his texts: that beneath the belligerence lay a vulnerable intelligence, for whom language was less a weapon than a defence.

(Photographs omitted)

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