When a well-known writer dies, there ensues either a period of mourning and exaggerated praise (see: Leigh Fermor, P.), or a silence like that which follows an outburst from the dock. Typically, this silence is a probationary interlude before the sentence of utter obscurity (see: Mailer, N.). Frequently, the silence is broken, and the jury fixed, by whispers of political and marital malfeasance (see: Bellow, S.). When the political deviation is considered especially offensive to decency, the whispering begins while the writer is still alive, in the way of dismemberments for treason (see: Naipaul, V.; Steiner, G.).
The birth of Anthony Burgess was one of the lesser upheavals of 1917. His death in 1993 inspired the critical equivalent of last orders, a cocktail of hurried tributes and foreshortened arguments. In The New York Times, Herbert Mitgang called Burgess a prolific, versatile, witty, and erudite follower of Sterne, Joyce, and Waugh. Yet Mitgang demurred from saying which of Burgess’s books were worth reading, or from suggesting which might endure. Instead, the obituary ended with a list of Burgess’s “most widely read” books. In the London Independent, Roger Lewis wrote that the “sheer quantity” of Burgess’s books amounted to “a resplendent career,” and identified “flashes and sparks of genius in every one.” But Burgess, Lewis said, was “a great writer who never wrote a single great book.” He did, however, achieve something much harder, by making himself “the first highbrow millionaire since Somerset Maugham.”
In the centenary of his birth, it is clear that Burgess has failed his posthumous audition for obscurity. Today, most of his thirty-three novels are in print, including lesser works like The Kingdom of the Wicked (1985)—a tedious precursor to an Anglo-Italian television epic on the origins of Christianity—and Tremor of Intent (1966), an unsolicited bid for the James Bond franchise. Admittedly, almost all of Burgess’s twenty-five works of nonfiction are out of print, even his incisive guides to James Joyce’s method, Here Comes Everybody (1965) and Joysprick (1973). But his two volumes of autobiographical Confessions have remained in print since their respective publications in 1986 and 1990. And this year, the press at his alma mater, Manchester University, issued the first volumes of the Irwell Edition, which will give Burgess’s collected works the scholarly treatment, regardless of individual merit.
Burgess was always as candid about his motivations as he was ironic in his grandiloquence.
Burgess has also survived a posthumous mugging by Roger Lewis, whose 2002 biography purported to expose Burgess as a sex- obsessed, money-hungry charlatan, a music-hall turn in modernist drag. Yet Burgess was always as candid about his motivations as he was ironic in his grandiloquence: “I call myself a professional writer in that I must write in order to eat, and I am not ashamed to belong to the ‘Grub Street’ confraternity which Dr. Johnson honored. But primarily I call myself a serious novelist who is attempting to extend the range of subject matter available to fiction, and a practitioner who is anxious to exploit words much as a poet does.”
He enriched himself with the pragmatic and public fecundity of an Augustan, but he aspired to the austere coteries of Modernism. To which the critical impulse, like Alex in A Clockwork Orange, asks, “What’s it going to be then, eh?” But this misses the point. Burgess’s quality cannot be separated from his quantity. The best of Burgess is, like the worst of Burgess, the most of Burgess. If he was the heir to the vitalists Joyce and Lawrence, and even a usurper of Waugh’s Augustan irony, he was also an entertainer. The son of a music-hall dancer and a pub pianist became the talk-show anecdotalist with a daft comb-over, and the composer of The Blooms of Dublin (1982), a musical adaptation of Ulysses. He also became the author of Earthly Powers (1980), in which the most frivolous of vehicles, a satire on twentieth-century English fiction, carries the reader through a moral wasteland to the limit of fiction—to the boundary where literature, unable to answer the problem of evil, returns to religion.
“Anthony Burgess” was the invention of John Wilson. Burgess was his middle name, and the maiden name of the mother who died of Spanish flu with the infant John in the crib by her bed. Anthony was his confirmation name. The mixing of genres between Manchester Catholic and tax-exilic man-of-letters produces the tension between the grafter who knocked out 2,000 words a day and the polymath who turned every interview into a lecture.
“Actuality,” reflects Kenneth Toomey, the narrator of Earthly Powers, “sometimes plays into the hands of art.” In Little Wilson and Big God, the first half of his memoirs, Burgess admits to a “willed collapse” in Brunei. The doctors in London diagnose “psychological stress”—drink and tropical demoralization, like one of Maugham’s planters. Lynne, by now a hallucinating, trembling alcoholic, tells Burgess that one of the doctors had “mumbled” that he has “an inoperable cerebral tumour.” So Wilson, in trying to redeem his “prospective widow,” becomes Burgess in earnest: “I would have to become a professional writer. Work for the night is coming, the night in which God and little Wilson, now Burgess, would confront each other, if either existed.”
In fact, Burgess had already completed or drafted the material of eight novels, and published three of them, as well as a guide to English literature. The first novel, A Vision of Battlements, written in 1949 and published in 1965, reflects Burgess’s unheroic wartime experiences on Gibraltar. The second, The Worm and the Ring, derived from Burgess’s postwar employment as a schoolteacher in Banbury, Oxfordshire. It appeared in 1961, only to disappear because the Mayor of Banbury, recognizing herself in the character of the school secretary, sued Burgess for libel. The Banbury interlude also generated a play, The Eve of St. Venus, which Burgess was to recycle into a novella in 1964.
Burgess had published all three parts of The Long Day Wanes, his Malayan trilogy: Time for a Tiger (1956), The Enemy in the Blanket (1958), and Beds in the East (1959). In Brunei he had written a fourth Asian novel, Devil of a State, which he was to transpose to East Africa before publication in 1961 to avoid a second libel suit. And he had drafted The Right to an Answer, which began as a “true story” from Lynne about wife-swapping in wartime London, but was published in 1960 as a “sardonic study” of the England to which Burgess had returned—“all television, fornication, and a rising generation given to rock music and violence.”
In the Malayan Trilogy, Burgess appended himself to the confraternity of Kipling, Conrad, Orwell, and Maugham. The empire is dying, its functionaries are becoming postcolonial, and the natives are still unredeemed. The protagonist is a teacher, a member of the lower middle class who has risen by merit, but not far enough to allay his resentment of authority. The récit of the novels is realist and bitterly ironic. If A Vision of Battlements had been published when it was written, in 1949, Burgess might now be credited as the first of the Angry Young Men, for gin, black magic, and communists in the jungle are a more dangerous brew than Professor Welch’s sherry, and Burgess’s materials are much more exciting than Larkin’s Jill or Braine’s Room at the Top. Instead, Burgess came too late to the English Fifties.
In “Eros and Idiom” (1975), George Steiner wrote that Dickens’s “genius and the representative stature he achieved were in large part the result of a vital accord between the taste of the public and Dickens’s profound sympathy with that taste.” Burgess had a vital accord with the taste of the postwar middle-class readership. His Irish grandmother had been illiterate. He had grown up in bookless rooms over pubs and tobacco shops. A Catholic education had made him a linguist. Conscription had made him a teacher, charged with lecturing recruits about The British Way and Purpose. But his sympathy for the public’s taste contracted rapidly after his return to Britain.
Burgess had left England in 1954. “Meat was coming off the ration. We were too poor to afford T-bone steaks, but, by dint of waiting patiently and not indulging in union activism, we had seen the Burnham scale of teachers’ pay improve somewhat. . . . In time we would be able to afford a television set, if not a car.” He returned in 1960, on the cusp of the revolution in consumption and morals, “between the end of the Chatterley ban/ And the Beatles’ first LP.” He was out of time and place, and his purpose was increasingly at odds with the modern British way. Like V. S. Naipaul, Burgess responded with the fury of a lover betrayed. He had become a postcolonial novelist.
As a lowest–middle class northern Catholic of part-Irish extraction, Burgess had always felt himself to be one of “a gang of orphans.” The “bigger family of the nation” tolerated people like him, but only so long as “they kept quiet,” and refrained from using the language. Common cradle Catholics “were not admitted to the drawing-room” with Eliot, Waugh, and Greene. He cut all three down to size in his criticism. When Eliot had coined “juvescence,” he had betrayed that he was no Latinist; the word, Burgess argued on impeccable grounds, should have been “juvenescence.” Greene was a joyless Jansenist, seeking out sordid heresies in the dark places. And when Burgess observed that Waugh used “repine” just as his father the Edwardian bookman had done, he exposed Waugh as a suburban climber who had exchanged the maquillage of Oxford aestheticism for the camouflage of the squire of Stinchcombe.
He exposed Waugh as a suburban climber who had exchanged the maquillage of Oxford aestheticism for the camouflage of the squire of Stinchcombe.
Burgess was educated at Xaverian College, Manchester, a school named for the Apostle of the Indies, a founder of the Society of Jesus. “Nothing could be less English.” Nothing could be more English than teaching the British way as an apostle to the Malayans. As Burgess recoiled from Sixties England, his fiction rebounded and became less English. The Joycean experiments became more elaborate, the display of foreign tongues more aggrandizing, the fascination with French theory more irritating. Sentenced to “tobacco-addiction, an over-reliance on caffeine and Dexedrine, piles, dyspepsia, chronic anxiety, sexual impotence,” he served his stretch with gusto, writing eight more novels between 1960 and 1968, as well as a small mountain of literary journalism. But he never reconnected to English society. The changes of 1968—Lynne’s death, his remarriage to his Italian translator, Liana Macellari, and their departure for Europe in a Bedford Dormobile camper—confirmed rather than created his distance from the drawing room.
Burgess was now writing literature about literature; perhaps this is why he was such an observant critic. Now and then, this recipe worked. In A Clockwork Orange (1962), the English vocabulary is arranged so that the reader understands Nadsat through context alone. The Tudorbethan pastiche of the Shakespeare novel, Nothing Like the Sun (1964) evokes the passion for language shared by author, subject, and reader. The satirical realism of the Malayan novels continues with Inside Mr. Enderby (1963), but the reflexivity becomes stifling. Enderby, the bad poet who confuses Cicero’s afflatus, divine inspiration, with digestive flatus, appeared a year after Nabokov’s Pale Fire. Like Nabokov in Paris, he writes in the lavatory. Like Kingsley Amis, he destroys his digestion with fried breakfasts and spicy pickles. His verses are Burgess’s juvenilia, once written in earnest, now recycled as farcical self-loathing. Burgess published Enderby under a pseudonym, Joseph Kell, then reviewed it as Burgess.
The pickings from the Seventies are even slimmer. Burgess was so enamored with literature as to boast of being cuckolded by Dylan Thomas. After the film of A Clockwork Orange, he became so captivated by the role of Anthony Burgess that, as John Bright said of Disraeli, he became “a self-made man [who] adores his maker.”
I first heard the phrase ‘queer as a clockwork orange’ in a London pub before the Second World War,” Burgess wrote in The New Yorker in 1973. “It is an old Cockney slang phrase, implying a queerness or madness so extreme as to subvert nature.”
The New Yorker’s fact-checkers missed that one. The phrase is not Cockney, but Mockney. There are similar formulations in London slang. The lexicographer Jonathan Green dates the obsolete “Queer as Dick’s hatband” to 1835. “Queer as a nine-bob note”—a “bob” was a shilling—is still in circulation, though altered by inflation and decimalization to “Queer as a three-pound note.” And “Queer as a coot” is still used too. Tellingly, Green attributes that one to Julian Maclaren-Ross, who was not a Cockney, but a novelist who spent too much time in the pub, some of it with Burgess.
Elsewhere, Burgess suggested that he overheard “clockwork orange” in an Army barrack during the war. This is plausible, but he either misheard it, or heard a malapropism. In 1932, when Burgess was fifteen, Terry’s Chocolate Works of York produced the Chocolate Orange. This bolus of fat, sugar, and milk chocolate comes in a box, as though it will bruise easily. It is wrapped in a skin of orange tinfoil. Its segments are stamped with a mock-pithy surface, and are freed from the fake fruit not by peeling, but by banging the “orange” on a table. It is bizarre and unnatural. Hence “Queer as a Chocolate Orange.”
A chocolate orange is a commercial counterfeit, a false nourishment. A nine-bob note is a criminal counterfeit, issued against the authority of the Bank of England. But a clockwork orange is a counterfeit issued by authority, a human mind reprogrammed. Orang is Malay for “man”—the clockwork orang is a man remade by the intrusion of the state into his consciousness. A Clockwork Orange is less concerned with sex than with violence, and the argument that free will is a lesser danger than unfettered government. Yet the orange, chocolate or clockwork, is also sexually queer, as in the related coinages, “soft as a chocolate teapot,” and “bent as a three-pound note.” In Earthly Powers, Burgess placed the homosexual theme at the center of modern literature.
The “tonality” of the “modern movement,” Steiner wrote in “Eros and Idiom,” is inflected with “explicit homosexuality or homosexuality symbolically declared.” To Steiner, the prominence of “homosexual codes and ideals” reflects the “most characteristic of modern strategies: the poem whose real subject is the poem, art that is about self-possibility.” The artistic modes “seem to underlie, as if re-enacting their own solipsism, their own physiological and social enclosedness.” Earthly Powers is a tribute to the enclosed languages of English modernism—the class code, the Catholic code, and the homosexual code—by a writer who by origin, belief, or disposition cannot subscribe fully to any, yet who speaks them all with mimic fluency.
Burgess, who admired Herman Wouk’s management of character, plot, and historical tableaux, ironizes Toomey by placing a drawing-room farce on the stage of twentieth- century history. Toomey’s surname arrogates—“To me, to me!”—and twins author and character. Just as “Je est un autre,” so Toomey is Burgess’s “Two-Me,” his second “I.” Toomey’s split subjectivity witnesses the twentieth century, but the meaning of his life is beyond his ken. “Do more than write farces and sensational fiction,” the inner voices tell the young Kenneth. “Construct something in which to believe. Love and beauty are not enough.”
So Toomey, like “filthy Norman Douglas” with South Wind, writes Moving South, a paean to “sun, sea, wine, bad peasant cooking” that ends with “an Affirmation of Life.” Yet coded affirmations are dwarfed by the cosmic drama of religion, and religion’s decline and apotheosis as mass politics. Literature is comic when it aspires to tragic grandeur, tragic in its dream of sophistication, and finally barren—morally stunted before the human nature it purports to investigate, or maliciously fascinated by evil.
The posh code of Anglo-Catholic converts loses its power to enchant.
“The world of the homosexual has a complex language, brittle yet sometimes excruciatingly precise,” Kenneth Toomey tells himself on his eighty-first birthday. “So, Cher maître, these are the tangible fruits of your success.” Forcing his way into the drawing room, Burgess the highbrow millionaire destroys the thing he loves. The exalted but barren codes of aestheticism and snobbery merge with the low, money-breeding form of the blockbuster. As with Waugh’s Sword of Honor trilogy, the codes of the twentieth century are weighed and found wanting. The officers are no longer gentlemen, and the gentlemen no longer command. The posh code of Anglo-Catholic converts loses its power to enchant. The exile is vindicated, because there is nothing left to which he might return. After Earthly Powers, the Anglo-Catholic novel belongs to Northern cradle Catholics like Hilary Mantel.
Burgess represents a late triumph of modernism, the diffusion of pure Joycean principles into the impure marketplace of mass literature. After the retreats to Taos, Trieste, and the cork-lined bedroom, the conquest of the cities of the plain.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 2, on page 28
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