Dance of the intellect: Anthony Burgess ©Michel Setboun/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Anthony Burgess at 100: unearthly powers

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 century
February 15, 2017

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.

"Burgess managed to use the most recondite of materials to create fun for a mass audience. On top form he was incomparable"
He produced a mountain of journalism varying from hastily drafted political columns for the tabloids to his witty book reviews for the Spectator, Independent and Observer, which for the last five years has run the Anthony Burgess Award for best article on an artistic subject. A polyglot, he was fluent in Malay and created the prehistoric languages for Jean-Jacques Annaud’s 1981 adventure film Quest for Fire. He also had a popular touch: from the 1970s, he was a regular performer on chat shows, most notably with Michael Parkinson in the UK and Dick Cavett in the United States.

Enough? Well, there’s more. From his teenage years in Manchester, Burgess regarded himself primarily as a composer. Although he was almost 60 before he heard an orchestra playing one of his works (his Third Symphony), he composed music in the few spare moments his career allowed him—in airports and hotel lobbies, in green rooms and recording studios, or at home in the evenings while his wife watched noisy television.

His music was composed in the outdated idioms of Vaughan Williams, Delius and Holst. Some of it is unremarkable but at its best—for instance, in his setting of Thomas Nashe’s poem “A Litany in Time of Plague”—it is both ingenious and heart-piercing. Since Burgess’s death, the American conductor and composer Paul Phillips has had Burgess’s compositions performed, recorded and published. Phillips has also published the first major study of Burgess’s music, A Clockwork Counterpoint—which is also the best critical study of the writings, since Burgess’s prose and poetry were shaped in profound ways by music. His novels Napoleon Symphony, a homage to Beethoven’s Third, and Mozart & the Wolf Gang are the most obvious instances.

Even the most sceptical of Burgess’s detractors would have to concede his industry. But even this has been used against him. “Incontinent” was a word I recently heard a literary scholar use, and even in his lifetime he became used to jokes about the publication of “this week’s novel by Anthony Burgess.” His own suspicion was that he had violated an English code of good form. Serious novelists—he was thinking above all of EM Forster—should produce no more than a handful of well-wrought tomes, preferably moderate in size.

In some ways he agreed with his critics. Joyce only wrote a handful of books in a hard-working lifetime. But Joyce had patrons who indulged his genius. Burgess was also quietly proud to be a latter-day Samuel Johnson, a professional writer—defining “professional” as making enough money to pay your rent and bills and have enough left over to buy gin.

Burgess began writing in earnest at the age of 43, in 1960, when he was incorrectly diagnosed as having a terminal illness. His initial ambition was to make enough money to leave to his (first) wife, and he wrote or rewrote five novels in what he thought was his final year. He did not die and he could not find a job; so he kept writing.

But Burgess was not merely an unremitting slogger; he was also a prodigy of imagination and inventiveness. There are some duds in there, for sure, but on top form he was incomparable. There are at least 10 thrillingly high peaks in the Burgess mountain range and they all have one thing in common: the quality Ezra Pound called “the dance of the intellect among words.” From his student days in Manchester, Burgess was fascinated by linguistics—his primer Language Made Plain is still worth reading—and he probably knew more about the material reality of language than his contemporaries. Most decent novelists create their own worlds of people, places, emotions and events; but not so many create worlds of words.

Burgess achieved this time and again. Nothing Like the Sun, his novel about the love life of the young Shakespeare, is composed in a delicious synthesis of Elizabeth idiom and obvious anachronism. His minor satire One Hand Clapping is composed in a sociolect of scrupulous meanness, derived from nightly viewing of ITV in its early years. And A Clockwork Orange is narrated in “Nadsat,” a futuristic teenage argot derived mainly from Russian, with jiggers of Roma, Cockney and Malay. (Orang means “man” in Malay.)

True, and unlike in the documentary form, there is probably not a single book that could be called his definitive masterpiece. The closest he came was his attempt at an airport blockbuster, Earthly Powers—shortlisted for the Booker Prize, but pipped in 1980 by William Golding. It’s a comic but also imposing and gripping account of the 20th century as narrated by a minor novelist (loosely inspired by Somerset Maugham). As AS Byatt shrewdly observed, it is at once a parody of the blockbuster novel and an outstanding achievement in that disreputable genre.

Burgess’s favourite of his own novels was the now little-read M/F—standing, among other things, for male/female, the musical notation for very loud, the initials of its narrator, and a well-known term of abuse. It is a fast-moving and funny novel about a young man’s adventures around the globe. It is based on a work by Claude Lévi-Strauss about the Algonquin nation, which Burgess reviewed. This is typical of Burgess: using the most recondite materials to create fun for a mass audience, using Lévi-Strauss’s incest taboos to make a sexy romp.

Burgess’s talent was superabundant. So why were many critics scornful and so many readers unwilling to give him a chance? Burgess thought the answer was snobbery. No doubt he was touchy on this point and yet he was not always wrong. Throughout his life, Burgess felt like an outsider. As a Mancunian born and raised, he believed that he was looked down on as an upstart provincial by the literary establishment.

As a Catholic (lapsed but still attached to its culture and ritual), he looked on Britain as a land occupied by Protestants; he was more at home in Malta or Italy, hearing the Angelus, watching robed priests stroll the streets. Many of his novels are, like Graham Greene’s, oblique dramatisations of theological quandaries. He never forgot the agony of losing God during his adolescence.

As a son of what he described as “the lower-middle class”—bullied by poor, rough boys, ignored or sneered at by the slightly more posh—he chafed against the British class swindle. Hence his sympathy for another northern novelist of humble origins, DH Lawrence. Like Lawrence, he escaped to other countries; like Lawrence, his reputation has suffered its ups and downs recently, especially downs.

The accusation that he was merely an entertainer was an insult to which Burgess had become accustomed. Popular entertainment was, he shyly bragged, in his blood. His mother, who had died of influenza when he was an infant, had been a music-hall singer, “The Beautiful Belle Burgess,” while his father had earned pocket money accompanying silent films as well as playing the piano in pubs. The novelist, he declared, had to be first and foremost someone who gave pleasure. Burgess could manage darker tones as well—the passages about supernatural evil in Earthly Powers are chilling. But most of his enduring work is heavily spiced with ingenious humour.

The whirligig of time can bring vindication. After a decade or so of comparative neglect, Burgess’s reputation has begun to grow. In fact, in certain respects it is now higher than it was in his lifetime. At roughly the same time that Paul Phillips launched his project to establish Burgess as a serious composer, the establishment of the International Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester began to re-assert his status as a major author. Mainstream publishing houses have brought quite a few of his works back into print, both as paperbacks and hardbacks.

The Vintage imprint has recently published new editions of Earthly Powers, the Malayan Trilogy (Time for a Tiger, TheEnemy in the Blanket, Beds in the East), the novel about Christopher Marlowe A Dead Man in Deptford, the complete Enderby novels and the sprightly biography Shakespeare. Penguin have kept A Clockwork Orange and other novels in print.

Some of his books will always be caviar to the general. But, in his centenary year, he is a stubbornly enduring presence, and new generations are waking up to what they have been missing. The greatest British novelist of the 20th century? Others may doubt it, but I believe so. Certainly he was one of the most ingenious, learned, fecund, moving, original and sheerly entertaining writers of his time. A vast lode of delight is out there, hidden in plain sight, waiting to be mined.