His critics accused him of being a mere entertainer with highbrow airs. But Anthony Burgess was one of the most astonishing writers of the 20th centuryby Kevin Jackson / February 15, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
It is 100 years since the birth of the man who, at his confirmation into the Catholic Church, took the name Anthony, patron saint of lost causes, to become John Anthony Burgess Wilson. Forty years later, the Manchester-born writer began to be known under the name “Anthony Burgess”—created, as he said, by pulling the cracker of his full name at both ends. In the 1970s, he became world famous thanks to the notoriety of Stanley Kubrick’s slick and meretricious film of his 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange—an ambiguous triumph for Burgess, since he regarded the book, most of which he had dashed off in three weeks, as a squib.
Burgess was perhaps justified in feeling resentful of the book that made his reputation. His career—and it is very hard to write about him without reaching for superlatives—is of quite astonishing range and diversity. He is much more than a man of one novel.
Yet his posthumous reputation remains in the balance. Most writers suffer a period of decline in fashion a few years after their demise, and in many instances this leads to oblivion. After Burgess’s death in 1993, writers who admired him—including Martin Amis, William Boyd, AS Byatt and Gilbert Adair—remained loyal, but among sceptics it has become received critical wisdom that Burgess was a gimmicky, flashy, show-off talent. For some, he was not a real novelist—he was simply an entertainer, though one with highbrow airs.
One of the difficulties in making a fair assessment of Burgess is his enormous output across many genres. He published about 60 books, including novels, biography, autobiography (the two volumes Little Wilson and Big God and You’ve Had Your Time are hugely entertaining), translations of opera libretti, original libretti for musicals, an epic poem, literary criticism, music criticism, plays, studies of linguistics, coffee-table works, tales for children, polemics against censorship and a collection of sonnets.
That would be a respectable lifetime of work for 10 authors, but still it is only a fraction of his output. Burgess also wrote screenplays for television—Jesus of Nazareth (1977) was his most successful—and for film. He wrote and presented severaldocumentaries; at least one of them, his short black-and-white tribute to his hero James Joyce, is a masterpiece.