He wrote and wrote and wrote, but the result was much more than hack work - a sprawling, dazzling geniusby Edward Pearce / December 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
Simon Raven once described meeting EM Forster at Cambridge. Forster had been given the most practical of honours, a non-teaching fellowship at King’s which gave a dawdling pleasantness to his later life. Raven and his friends were off to play real tennis-the Henry VIII game which separates the toffs from the real toffs-when they bumped into Forster.
He wasn’t going anywhere in particular, said Raven, so he came with us to watch. This seemed to Raven typical of Forster’s idle but immensely successful journey through life. He hadn’t done much work, five or six novels depending on what you counted (this was before the appearance of the suppressed Maurice) and a couple of collections of slack journalism. Overpraised in his prime, knocking off early, giving no offence, sustained by the goodwill of people whose outlook he shiningly reflected, soaking up the consensus.
Raven was unfair. Forster had so much to say and said it. Shutting up was both honest and shrewd; hard qualities to combine. He was the tentative liberal examining Edwardian society, subtly giving voice to the nascent sensibility of the Observer reader. But it is significant that Galsworthy, who held similar liberal views and fought the same corner, is given no such credit. If he lacked the courage to let Bosinney sleep with Irene and live, at least he got halfway to a defiance of Forsyte morality, whereas Forster kept his homosexuality in a drawer. What surely works against Galsworthy is that he went on-and on. The Man of Property is a very fine novel, but The Forsyte Saga is nimiety.
The idea of a little being good and a lot faintly discreditable is more pervasive. The paradigm is Jane Austen: so little, so nearly perfect. (Though bearing in mind her death at 41, and the fact that writing was for her necessarily a part-time activity, her six novels represent far more fluency than Forster’s.) Or, to take fiction within fiction, there is John Updike’s novelist hero Henry Bech. Henry, though possessed of a Jewish sense of humour, is an American Forster, victim of writer’s block over which Updike, that Missouri of prose, has since handsomely flowed. And however hard Henry finds it to write, he comes out on top, his little being admired both by the American establishment, which sends him as a cultural angel to Prague, and by the Czechs greeting him in the street, who fervently cherish that small store. In literature, at any rate, monetarism works. (Bech would, however, have won a cheery wave from Anthony Burgess for murdering a couple of critics in Bech Noir.)
A tight control over words was not a hallmark of Anthony Burgess’s career. He is indisputably a major writer, but guilty on all counts of working too hard, writing too much, and lacking both Bech’s mystery and Forster’s astute disposition of his small gems. “Two thousand words a day, every day, including Sundays,” said Burgess cheerfully to a television interviewer. He also saluted the arrival of the computer, not for technology’s triumphal sake, but because you can write a lot more with it.
The 2,000 words-a-day regime began with four books of 90,000 words each, written in a year, under the misapprehension-due to a doctor’s misdiagnosis-that he was going to die at the end of it. The books were to make some provision for his wife, Llewela, who in the end died long before him. Three of them comprise The Malayan Trilogy, or The Long Day Wanes (1956-9), a funny, melancholy account of Victor Crabbe, a British Council/Colonial Office sponsored teacher like Burgess. They are rich in recurring Burgess themes: linguistics, the Catholicism of his Manchester-Irish roots, and a coolness towards official Britain and its people in authority.
But the books are politically prophetic-of British retreat, ten years before the end of the east of Suez commitment-and cool-eyed about all the parties: imperial, subject, minority or emerging. Burgess is wonderful on other peoples, neither politically correct nor prejudiced. He is a retina, preserving all things. He sets down what he sees, and likes more than he dislikes. So Victor’s over-the-top transvestite servant, Ibrahim, is at once reflexively thieving, affectionately regarded and continuously funny. The unrestrained chorus of pious Malay roadmenders, who recurringly denounce pink-skinned European pigs, ambitious Tamil shopkeepers and upstart Chinese, are Enoch Powell’s dockers; they just happen to be dark brown and Islamic. Burgess is not shocked; being shocked or taking the high moral ground is not part of his nature. He was more experienced in the non-writing world than most writers, more cynical and more good-natured. Burgess is tolerant without expecting credit for being tolerant, and deficient in self-importance.
This may have contributed to his mixed relations with critics. As the Burgess empire spilt over the map, there were people ready to praise his work-most notably his biggest critical success, Earthly Powers (1980). But there were also many knives to plunge in. The malevolent John Grigson described him as “coarse and unattractive”; the cultural bureaucrat Charles Osborne wrote a squib in a fatuous 1960s book A Hundred Books We Could Do Without, hoping to be rid of “whatever has most recently dropped from the pen of Anthony Burgess.” It was a futile comment from a futile source, but from his account in the autobiography, it seems to have dug deep between Burgess’s ribs-and may in fact have spurred him to write more. Declared a hewer of wood, he kept hewing. It is absurd, but also right that, being neither a significant Maori, nor a Glasgow street fighter, nor a thoughtful lady with friends on the Daily Telegraph, he was never awarded the Booker Prize.
Two things stand out from his corpus of work. First is the great cultural hinterland which, like the teacher he never stopped being, Burgess wanted to communicate. Second is the distance he kept from cliques, the “arts community,” the Groucho folk. This saved him from being in fashion and having to get out of it.
There are ironies in this. Burgess knew as much about modernism and more about James Joyce than almost anyone else. His little book Here Comes Everybody (1965) takes you round the labyrinth of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake handsomely and without fuss. He is himself a user of language in an allusive, punning, puzzle-making, Joycean way. Some of the nasty reviews are simple failures to recognise the games he plays. There was, for example, a burst of spiteful rage at the use of Russian as the argot of the future used by the hooligans in A Clockwork Orange (1962). Burgess, vast in his knowledge and complex in his prose, was often accused of showing off. But it is a terribly innocent showing off, a glorying in knowledge and, Burgess being a talented musician, in the rhymes and chimes of words. Anyway, why shouldn’t a writer show off? Joyce showed off all the time.
Burgess’s fascination with language, combined with his teacher’s instinct to instruct, can get slightly on the nerves. Burgess recognised this perfectly well. The Doctor is Sick (1960) is a hilarious book, most of it set in a picaresque dream in which the linguistically-obsessed protagonist, Edwin Spindrift, descends into the comic underworld of illegal drinking clubs and mobsters, still rattling on about phonemes. He wakes to encounter a wife gently divorcing him because she is fed up to the ears with his constant talk of bilabial fricatives. It is almost an internal memo from Burgess to Burgess. But he never took notice of it, and neither should we.
For all that, most of the time he wasn’t a modernist. His novels are narratives, often rattling good yarns, but set, sometimes spangled, with prose tropes and allusions. And he was a walking two fingers to the long, ear-aching whine that the novel is dead. For Burgess the novel was a medium for intelligence and imagination, a plastic thing through which you could preach, make people laugh, haul a theory or play word games, which, as a philologist and phonetician, he did. He truly was, in belief as well as practice, the antithesis of Harold Brodkey or BS Johnson, say. It wasn’t that he didn’t take himself seriously. He just didn’t have that poseur’s quality which dwells on the tinkered-with masterpiece or “my message to the age.”
Burgess was gloriously contemptuous of the politics of writing, the unacknowledged politics of positioning oneself in the current mood. He started work late as a novelist, roughly at the age at which Austen died, something which makes his production rate even more phenomenal. But that saved him from the 1960s and subsequent deference to the young. He had a vast culture; they did not. An article in the early 1960s laughed in the teeth of the pop cult. William Mann, the foolish music critic of The Times, had argued that Lennon and McCartney were greater song writers than Schubert. “The Beatles, God bless you, sir,” wrote Burgess, “are four MBEs and lots of hair.” The phrase for “cool” in the 1960s was “with it.” Burgess was categorically without it.
The place of high art is central to the best-known of his books, A Clockwork Orange. Alex, the leader of the teenage gang which destroys anything getting in its way, has two passions, violence and Beethoven-the lovely Ludwig van whose music lifts him into a state of exaltation. But as the brutality of the street boys is met by the more scientific brutality of the Ministry of the Interior, it is Alex’s soul which has Burgess’s sympathy. Brainwashed out of the urge to break glass and beat people up, Alex has also lost his passion for the Choral Symphony. This is not an extreme form of Bloomism proclaiming the amoral precedence of art. Good and bad, say Burgess, are one soul, not to be modified by the intruding hand of office-an example of his Catholic streak.
Burgess has, like Orwell, a deep fear of what authority will do, given a mob behind it and bureaucratic slogans to hand. The Wanting Seed (1962), a complementary book to A Clockwork Orange, born in response to the gang violence of the late 1950s, creates an architecture of authority beginning, aptly for Burgess, in the classroom. There have been three phases of political thinking, says the teacher. There was na? optimism, belief in the inherent goodness of man, Rousseau and all that, but belonging properly to Pelagius. That is the Pelphase, when the way to the brotherhood of man was clear. After a great deal of drunken, pointless violence by youths with a recreational view of other people’s existence and no sense of wrong, reaction will assert itself. That won’t work either, but a rule of strong measures and good hidings will constitute the interim, the Interphase after which comes the era of St Augustine, the Gusphase. St Augustine believed in original sin. But what happens if original sin is the only part of religion which is acknowledged? The nihilistic horrors of Gusphase slowly become clear as events unfold outside the classroom, including war, therapy and cannibalism.
The debt to Orwell is obvious, but he has been appropriated to some purpose. Burgess was critical of this work-he would have liked to have given it more time-but for a sketch it makes a pungent point. Burgess’s rulers have no exalted theory of rule, no doctrine of state. Marx be damned, the brutality of the delinquents is conquered by the greater brutality of the bosses. If anyone rules here, it is Hobbes.
This bleak view of the people in charge is a general theme with Burgess, but because of his never-ending curiosity about things, it does not become an obsession. The point is transmuted in, for example, The Kingdom of the Wicked (1985). This vivid, rather filmic novel turns the Acts of the Apostles into a narrative and harnesses the squabbles of Greek, Hebraic and Roman culture. Authority is the indulgence of Tiberius and the psychosis of Caligula, transmitted through such agents as the Colosseum manager directing gladiators in death. The Burgess pattern is repeated: dim, selfish authority fawning on a headless mob. But so much more goes into this piece of speculation, notably a humanised apostolate: Peter, a slow, decent man, like any old-style trade union moderate; Luke, quick-minded and enquiring; sullen, sensible Thomas. It is also very well written, progressing through a series of takes-“filmic” really is the word.
But what is here most compellingly is evil. The murder, before a passive and anaesthetised court, of the Jewish girl, Ruth, is an example. Burgess’s professionalism, enhanced by what he had learned working in the cinema, does everything that must be done, but recognition of and revulsion at evil is bright on the page. For an academic mind preoccupied with philological nuances, Burgess got surprisingly often and noisily into trouble for violence, most notably of course over Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971). But the killing of Ruth is a good example of non-gratuitous violence. In the world of Caligula, exactly as in the world of Hitler and Stalin, monstrous things excited no protest. The onlookers continue looking on. Burgess was a friend of Pamela Hansford Johnson, who wrote a fierce and compelling pamphlet after attending the trial of the Moors Murderers, observing in Brady and Hindley what she feared to see more widely-“an affectlessness,” the doing of wrong with no sense of wrong.
The Kingdom of the Wicked, though freckled with Burgess’s word play, is a running moral debate as well as a tale crisply told. Mob against dissenting believer; one kind of zealot, Saul, becoming another kind of zealot, Paul. Its cultural clashes are of rough and smooth, Greek and Jew; the ironies of an essentially moderate man, the Emperor Claudius, coping with all the unreason his empire is heir to. The Kingdom of the Wicked, though well received, has never had star billing-a good reason to cite it in Burgess’s cause. This middle-ranking work contains so much intelligence, asks so many questions, and, like the Roman governor, will not stay for an answer. It is a fair paradigm of Burgess. The things which annoy people are here, small patches of frolicking word play, but so are all the virtues of Burgess: vigorous prose, a moral point unavowed and enormous energy.
A friend of mine who writes about politics for a tabloid newspaper objected to my esteem for Burgess. “No, no,” he said, “Oh, he’s very clever and all that, but he just sprawls.” So, I assert, will any writer of great culture who takes the world for his province. The pertinent question is whether he sprawls to a purpose. Another sense of the term “sprawling” is a huge and voracious curiosity. Burgess sprawled across Malay-Chinese-Tamil antipathies, language, music, scabrous verse and the Classical and Hebraic world and its religions-he wrote symphonies, he invented a language for the 1981 film Quest for Fire.
He also did something of a lurch into Shakespeare. Nothing like the Sun (1964) is a serious attempt to get inside the language of the 16th century and, as he claimed, is free from anachronism: “no Freud, no Jung and no word which Shakespeare himself would not have known.” The book was a typical Burgess thing, written for the market, hurried to completion for 23rd April 1964 (the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth). And also typically, it was done with loving scholarly care to be true to Elizabethan prose.
An aspect of Burgess’s approach to life which irritated some of the literary clique was to work cheerfully for money: film scenarios, television scripts, works like the quite excellent Shakespeare (1970), a beautifully illustrated guide in large format. The other Burgess characteristic was to be an unapologetic highbrow, capable of going into the ring with (and affectionately patronising) George Steiner, holding all pop and youth culture in scorn, having the languages and chief books of a dozen cultures and being happy to tell us about them.
Does this remind the reader of anyone? It does me. Someone with the erudition of a classicist and lexicographer with enough legal knowledge to ghost write a new professor’s lecture cycle who famously said that only a blockhead ever writes for anything but money. Religion, for Burgess, was argument-he would never have contemplated being sent to hell and punished everlastingly. And he had no Boswell, unless his widow, Liana, a clever, combative woman, should give us the pleasure. Though of course, he did it himself with the two volumes of autobiography which even the critics paused at to enjoy. But the drive and the work are Johnsonian, the compulsion to use the gift, to fill the days. And Johnson’s remark, “I dogmatise and am contradicted,” is Burgess through and through. In his busy, assured manner, Burgess dogmatises all the time and never found an adequately interesting contradictor. (Instead, unlike Johnson, he was sulked at.) But people also got Johnson wrong. They saw him, sloppily, as a Tory in the 19th-20th century sense, missing the Johnson who drank to black risings in the West Indies. But at least they got him wrong sympathetically. Burgess, offending firstly by his work rate, latterly by his earnings, was vaguely but firmly disliked in the trade.
I met him once, at a dinner party where he was the most pleasant and good-humoured company. He wasn’t, they said in the language of house masters, “a team player.” No, he wasn’t and thank God for it. “He wrote too much.” Thank God for that as well. n