By Tim Conley
Anthony Burgess wrote and wrote and wrote. The word "prolific" does not even come close to describing a man who produced over thirty novels, many studies of language, music, Shakespeare and James Joyce, hundreds of reviews, film and television scripts, opera librettos, several symphonies, newspaper articles, a pair each of plays and books for children, one volume of poetry, a ballet, and a two-volume autobiography. "I refuse no reasonable offer of work," he confessed in 1978, "and very few unreasonable ones." He produced several translations from various languages, and could read French, Italian, Russian, Indonesian, Gaelic, Swedish, Anglo-Saxon, and heaven only knows what others (he devised an ur-language for the prehistoric denizens of the film Quest for Fire). When in his seventies, Burgess began to study Hebrew and Japanese, but his strained eyes could not seize the written characters. Still he scorned surrender: "How can one fade out in peace, carrying vast ignorance into a state of total ignorance?" To contemplate the possible scope of Burgess's ignorance expands one's own humility (and perhaps even shame). Burgess once said of Umberto Eco, "no man should know that much": anyone else might enviously say the same of Burgess.
He was born John Anthony Burgess Wilson on 25 Feb 1917 in Manchester; when he was two years old he would watch his mother die of influenza. His enrolment at university in Manchester would later haunt him, as he felt excluded and denigrated by Oxbridge types for the crime of not being one of them. From a young age, Burgess's reading was voracious and wide, and he must surely be the only soldier who went to the front with a copy of Finnegans Wake in his bag. After the war he took up a lecturing position at Birmingham, and from 1950 taught at Banbury Grammar School. From 1954 to 1959 he was a colonial education officer in Malaya and Brunei, which experience supplied him with matter for his early novels, The Long Day Wanes (a.k.a. The Malayan Trilogy, made up of Time for a Tiger (1956), The Enemy in the Blanket (1958), and Beds in the East (1968)). At this point he was already collecting a good number of languages with relative ease. In 1960 he was diagnosed with a fatal brain tumor and given a year to live. Samuel Johnson once famously observed that the prospect of being hanged in the morning concentrates one's mind wonderfully, and Burgess's career after that moment in 1960 more than proves the point. With an eye to insuring his wife's financial security after his death, Burgess wrote five novels that year. When the alleged tumor failed to kill him, neither did the reprieve kill his new industriousness. A glance at Anthony Burgess's bibliography tells the rest of the story. He died in 1993.
Certainly A Clockwork Orange (1962) is Burgess's best-known work, unfortunately because of controversy and not for its innovative language play. The book is a satiric and morally probing nightmare of violence and evil, made all the more unsettling for coming out of the mouths of babes. Alex, the teenage antihero, gives a confession of sorts to his readers ("O my brothers") in a Slavic-based slang, nadsat (Russian for "teen"). Alex's language is both revolting in its degradation of certain subjects (victims, especially women, and the human body) and strangely appealing for its sing-song rhythms. His story of reformation begins with gang warfare, "ultraviolence", rape, and other youth recreations:
So there we were dratsing away in the dark, the old Luna with men on it just coming up, the stars stabbing away as it might be knives anxious to join in the dratsing. With my britva I managed to slit right down the front of one of Billyboy's droog's platties, very very neat and not even touching the plott under the cloth. Then in the dratsing this droog of Billyboy's suddenly found himself all opened up like a peapod, with his belly bare and his old yarbles showing, and then he got very razdraz, waving and screaming and losing his guard and letting in old Dim with his chain snaking whisssssshhhhhhhhh, so that old Dim chained him right in the glazzies, and this droog of Billyboy's went tottering off and howling his heart out.
The fun and games inevitably go too far and Alex is imprisoned, but he subsequently volunteers himself as a test subject for a mysterious experiment. "Ludovico's Technique" is a chemical and psychological method of rehabilitation: a forced compulsion for docility, and aversion to evil. In losing his free will, the newly released Alex finds himself wholly vulnerable to his enemies, who explicitly lack his new inhibitions to violence. The nod to the philosopher Giambattista Vico in "Ludovico" highlights the importance of the cyclical nature of Burgess's plot, just as the reference to the demonologist Ludovico Maria Sinistrari signals the problem of evil's manifestation as a physical feature.
Perhaps the most distressing element of A Clockwork Orange is its subtle but pointed questioning of the allegedly redemptive values of the arts and so-called "humanities," as well as the sciences. Alex, for all of his barbarism, is a classical music aficionado, an ardent admirer of Beethoven. His experience of "high culture" does not negate his baser impulses, but apparently affirms and amplifies them:
There was music playing, a very nice malenky string quartet, my brothers, by Claudius Birdman, one that I knew well. I had to have a smeck, though, thinking of what I'd viddied once in one of these like articles on Modern Youth, about how Modern Youth would be better off if A Lively Appreciation Of The Arts could be like encouraged. Great Music, it said, and Great Poetry would like quieten Modern Youth down and make Modern Youth more Civilized. Civilized my syphilised yarbles. Music always sort of sharpened me up, O my brothers, and made me feel like old Bog himself, ready to make with the old donner and blitzen and have vecks and ptitsas creeching away in my ha ha power.
The novel suffered some publishing abuses. Burgess did not approve of the inclusion of a glossary in one edition, since he wanted his book on brainwashing to have an apposite, programmative effect on his reader, who would have to "learn" nadsat as he/she went along. Another edition of the book, even worse, entirely omitted the last chapter -- one which is crucial to the moral argument of the book -- and it was upon this mendacious version that Stanley Kubrick's 1971 film is based. (Burgess hated the film.)
In contrast to Alex, the protagonist of the Enderby tetrology -- Inside Mr. Enderby (1963), Enderby Outside (1968), The Clockwork Testament (1974), and Enderby's Dark Lady (1984) -- is a dyspeptic, privacy-craving poet who likes to compose while seated on the toilet, using an unused bathtub as a catch-all filing cabinet. (The first book of this series originally appeared as a work by Joseph Kell, Burgess's occasional pseudonym.) Here's an example of Enderby's "love-poetry" (not his usual mode):
Your presence shines above the fumes of fat,
Glows from the oven-door.
Lithe with the litheness of the kitchen cat,
Your image treads the floor
Ennobling the potato-peel, the lumps
Of fallen bread, the vulgar cabbage-stumps.
'Love!' cries the eggs a-whisk, and 'Love!' the beef
Calls from the roasting-tin.
The beetroot blushes love. Each lettuce-leaf
That hides the heart within
Is a green spring of love. Pudding and pie
Are richly crammed with love, and so am I.
Enderby's trials and tribulations are great comedies of anxiety. The adventures with publishing, plagiarism, and pushy women plunge Enderby into levels of introspection where even his verse does not take him, and the series as a whole represents Burgess's own fascination with the social construction called "an author."
Burgess's other novels include The Doctor is Sick (1960), The Wanting Seed (1962), Honey for the Bears (1963), Tremor of Intent (1966), MF (1971), 1985 (1978), The Pianoplayers (1986), and Any Old Iron (1989). Burgess enjoys speculative biographies, mischievously turning and loosening the bolts which hold together the established forms of figures such as Keats (Abba Abba (1977)), Shakespeare (Nothing Like the Sun (1964)), and Sigmund Freud (The End of the World News (1982)). For my money, Earthly Powers (1980) is Burgess's best novel. As a grabber, its notorious opening sentence is very hard to outdo: "It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me." The story offers a panoramic view of the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, with cameo appearances by a variety of historical personages. In this method and in its sweep Earthly Powers can be readily likened to Gore Vidal's Creation or Don DeLillo's Underworld. Here too the reader gets the fullest view of Burgess's own persistent nostalgia for modernism, a characteristic which marks both the best and worst features of all his work.
In A Dead Man in Deptford (1995), Burgess returns to the subject of his university thesis, Christopher ("Kit") Marlowe (1564-93), the author of Doctor Faustus and The Jew of Malta. Contemporary of Shakespeare and Kyd (who make their appearances in Burgess's retelling), Marlowe was entangled in espionage until he was murdered (assassinated?) in a tavern, a dagger run through his eye. Narrated by a boy actor, A Dead Man in Deptford unwinds in a gnarled, often punning prose that is a clever reconstruction of Elizabethan speech; at least until the end, when Burgess reveals himself and his difficulties:
I put off the ill-made disguise and, four hundred years after that death in Deptford, mourn as if it all happened yesterday. The disguise is ill-made not out of incompetence but of necessity, since the earnestness of the past becomes the joke of the present, a once living language is turned into the stiff archaism of puppets. Only the continuity of a name rides above a grumbling compromise. But, as the dagger pierces the optic nerve, blinding light is seen not to be the monopoly of the sun. That dagger continues to pierce, and it will never be blunted.
Besides A Dead Man in Deptford, works by Burgess continue to be posthumously published with stunning regularity. Byrne (1998), a novel in verse, is Burgess at his most Joycean, and a collection of essays, One Man's Chorus, appeared in 1999. Even dead this author outpaces his contemporaries.
As much as he craved success as a composer of music, Burgess's legacy is in his writing: more often dense than spare, and usually an incomparable lexical magic show, his style is distinct for all its variations, and is always ferociously vital. In twentieth century English letters -- as many other writers have noted with similar understatement -- there is no one like him.
--Tim Conley, 18 July 2000
More on Anthony Burgess
You may order Burgess's works online by visiting the Libyrinth's Anthony Burgess Bookstore.
New! Tim Conley has written a review of Anthony Burgess: A Life, the hatchet job penned by Roger Lewis.
The Anthony Burgess Center has a Web site that contains pictures, an autobiographical sketch, information on their Burgess Library, and instructions for subscribing to their newsletter.
Literature Classics runs a tidy Burgess site with essays, papers, and an exhaustive list of Burgess quotations.
The Authors Calendar profile of Burgess is a nice biographical sketch with a good bibliography.
James Sparling and Craig Ryan operate AnthonyBurgess.com, a growing site dedicate dto "the man, his books, and his music."
The Internet Movie Database has some information on films relating to Burgess.
Here's Burgess's own list and explanation of the 99 best novels since 1939.
The New York Times' obituary for Anthony Burgess.
Google News Search -- This will search news groups related to Burgess.
Yahoo News Search -- Searched Yahoo for artcles and news related to Burgess.
Northern Light -- This will search Northern Light for online articles and sites about Burgess and his work.
Back to the Scriptorium
Send Tim Conley email
Send Anthony Burgess Info, Links & Comments to the Great Quail