The Real Life Of Anthony Burgess
WHEN literary historians of the future look back on the late 20th century, what year might they choose as the crux? 1981, when Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children appeared? 1954, when Kingsley Amis published Lucky Jim?
I would suggest 1980, when the two big beasts of the literary world went head to head for the Booker Prize: William Golding's Rites Of Passage versus Anthony Burgess's Earthly Powers.
It was a competition between two radically different approaches to modern fiction: bold, satirical experimentation against restrained, subtle craft. Earthly Powers starts with perhaps the most famous shock opening in modern British literature: "It was the afternoon of my 81st birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me."
Golding won; and Burgess, famously and petulantly, refused to attend the prize dinner. Golding went on to receive the Nobel Prize, and has remained a staple of the school curriculum ever since. Burgess's posthumous reputation has proved to be far less secure.
Yet in the 1980s he was an almost ubiquitous cultural phenomenon: a prodigiously prolific journalist, a tireless promoter of Modernism in general and James Joyce in particular, a perpetual crusader against the perceived philistinism and insularity of British literature. Ironically, this defender of 'high culture' was most famous for his 'horrorshow' novel of youth violence, A Clockwork Orange. Yet the sheer range of his achievements - 33 novels, translations of Rostand and Sophocles, numerous non-fiction works, film scripts and television plays, not to mention symphonies and operas - has often occluded the depth of his talent. One of the successes of Andrew Biswell's immaculately researched and engagingly written biography is the extent to which it inspires the reader to return to Burgess's work in its entirety.
Born John Burgess Wilson in Manchester in 1917, he 'became' Anthony Burgess at the age of 38 with the publication of Time For A Tiger, the first of his Malay trilogy. As a teacher employed there by the British Colonial Office, it was deemed imprudent to publish 'frivolous' fiction under his own name. On the basis of his first published work, and its two sequels, The Enemy In The Blanket and Beds In The East, it would be difficult to predict the future trajectory of Anthony Burgess. These black comedies, vaguely reminiscent of Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis, chart the end of the Empire, satirising both the alcohol-soaked colonial administrators and their errant, angry subjects. There are, however, certain aspects that resonate throughout his career.
Burgess's ambition was to write - or perhaps encourage one of his pupils at Malay College to write - "a Ulysses of the East". Joyce was always looming close, and linguistic experimentation suffuses Burgess's work. In the melange of Malay society, with its diverse Islamic, Chinese, Sikh, Tamil and Malay elements, he found a natural background for polyglot exuberance. Unfortunately, and not for the last time, Burgess's mischief and wordplay landed him in trouble. An irate reader wrote to his publisher, Heinemann, complaining that many of the local names had bawdy undertones: the town, Kenchang, means "urine" in Malay; Mr Mahalingam's name translates as "large penis". More seriously, another reader wrote to suggest that he had been libelled; an accusation upheld at first and overturned on appeal. Despite the praise given to Burgess's powers of invention, much of his work derives from real-life scenarios.
Towards the end of his life, he seemed to throw aside the veil of fiction in order to publish two volumes of self-consciously titled 'confessions', Little Wilson And Big God and You've Had Your Time. Heinemann's lawyers prepared an 11-page document on potentially actionable material, and even when Burgess accepted some of the alterations, he added barbs - the name of one of his wife's supposed lovers, for example, was changed from Emile Pcriaux to Emile Sollers; protecting a rather anonymous individual while hinting at Phillipe Sollers, the editor of the journal Tel Quel.
Those memoirs are any biographer's nightmare. As much as Burgess was keen to plagiarise reality for his fictions, he fictionalised extravagantly about himself. Humble John Wilson Burgess, whose father was a tobacconist, was transformed by the chain-smoking Anthony Burgess into the descendant of both Bonnie Prince Charlie and a Shakespearean actor mentioned in the First Folio.
IT WAS PERHAPS this tendency to self-mythologise that earned Burgess the unremitting enmity of his previous biographer, Roger Lewis. Biswell is far more judicious in unpicking the 'false memories', and makes prudent use of Burgess's interviews with psychiatrist Anthony Clare. Many key points in Burgess's life are thus narrated from multiple perspectives - his nervous collapse in Brunei, for example, or the assault on his first wife by GIs when he was stationed in Gibraltar.
Biswell's sensitivity to how events can become distorted does not mean the book becomes hagiographic. For all Burgess's grandstanding and pontificating, he emerges as a conflicted, uncertain and unhappy individual. Willie Rushton's caricature of him as a whisky priest is perfect: he knew what was the right thing to do, even if he didn't have the strength to do it. Particularly on his first marriage, Biswell is tactful without being taciturn. It is not quite "to know all is to forgive all", but it approaches that position.
Between the initial trilogy and the last diptych, there is a lot to cover. Biswell uses Burgess's fears of "neo-Pelagianism" - the idea, whether communistic or liberal, that humanity can improve of its own accord - to structure this diverse body of work. It is there, clearly, in A Clockwork Orange; in the epic Earthly Powers ("always knew it would be Anthony's Ulysses", the French translator telegrammed); and in late satires such as The End Of The World News.
It is difficult not to agree with Andrew Motion, who lamented: "There's so much by him... it is not always easy to see where the centre lies". The quartet of melancholy caprices about Enderby, Burgess's alter-ego poet, could be by a different author to the Joycean scherzo on Shakespeare, Nothing Like The Sun. As a centre, Burgess's problematic relationship to Catholicism suffices, but Biswell is adept at suggesting the peripheries as well as the core of the career. I was particularly convinced by his readings of two minor works, One Hand Clapping and The Doctor Is Sick. Burgess suffers from a similar misprision as Gilbert Sorrentino, BS Johnson and Harry Mathews - all of them are experimental writers, and even when the experiment fails, it fails more interestingly than the tepid successes of more mainstream writers.
Biswell, at the end of this fine study, complains that there is no collected edition of Burgess's works. Given his fluency with both the material and the milieu, I can think of no one better placed to begin such an onerous and necessary task.