Doing The Worst Things Well

What We Can Learn from Anthony Burgess

by Sean Bell

18 January 2012

Anthony Burgess, 1992, taken in a hotel in London the year before Burgess died. Photograph: Jane Bown 

Guarding the Wall of Fire

The diagnosis had a transformative effect on Burgess: death was now, in every sense, his deadline. That he succeeded in writing anything under such circumstances is impressive; that he produced the ‘Malayan Trilogy’ (Time for a Tiger, The Enemy in the Blanket, Beds in the East) a vivid and meditative return to a colonial literary tradition that was otherwise dying as surely as the British Empire, is extraordinary, arguably achieving in prose for Malaya what Graham Green had done for Vietnam. With the backdrop of a national Communist insurgency, the trilogy’s protagonist and author-surrogate Victor Crabbe (Burgess owed a lot to Dickens when it came to names) witnesses the influence of the once-mighty Empire wane and dissipate, and slowly understands just how comprehensively its methods and values have failed.

Obviously, Burgess did not die after his year was up, though he remained a martyr to productivity. Whether this was a result of misdiagnosis, British health care (Burgess claimed he was trepanned, but no record of such an operation exists), or Burgess’s notoriously self-mythologising imagination, he made a full recovery within the year and was rather bemused to discover he was now a professional writer of some small acclaim. And so he began to write… everything. Where can we possibly begin?

How about M/F, an absurdist contemporary retelling of the story of Oedipus (try and spot the joke in the title-acronym) and one of the funniest books ever to require that the reader own a dictionary of Classical Greek? Or Nothing Like The Sun, a fantasy of Shakespeare’s love life that outshines all others, spinning a blazingly sensual portrayal of the Bard’s fabled Dark Lady and revelling in the “delirium of coinages and grotesque fusions” that revolutionised Elizabethan speech and theatre? Maybe The Kingdom of the Wicked, Burgess’s blood-drenched account of the relationship between the Roman Empire and early Christianity, or Tremor of Intent, the “eschatological spy novel” which married Joycean wordplay to John le Carre-style espionage? Particularly impressive is Napoleon Symphony, a scandalously fictionalised life of the French dictator structured to mirror Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, but many prefer the tragicomic Enderby novels, chronicling a lonely, dyspeptic poet whose crippling self-doubt allowed Burgess his most autobiographical outlet other than memoir.

I could go on, but there are tome-sized biographies of Burgess that fail to give a full account of his canon. The poet Andrew Motion once suggested that Burgess’s literary reputation was stuck in limbo simply because “no one reads it all”, yet half the joy of discovering Burgess is knowing that, no matter how much one absorbs, there is almost always more. “We can no longer expect the one big book,” Burgess wrote in The Novel Now: The Student’s Guide to Contemporary Fiction, “the single achievement, to be an author’s claim to posterity’s regard. We shall be more inclined the assess the stature of a novelist by his ability to create what the French call an oeuvre, to present fragments of an individual vision book after book, to build, if not a War and Peace or a Ulysses, at least a shelf.”

Burgess more than succeeded in meeting his own standard—he could take up several shelves—but he did in fact produce ‘one big book’, 1981’s 656-page Earthly Powers, a story, as he once described it, “about a homosexual novelist and his brother-in-law, the Pope.” Intended as an elaborate parody of W. Somerset Maugham, Christopher Hitchens appreciated the irony that Earthly Powers ended up being “so much better than anything that W. Somerset Maugham ever wrote himself.” (‘Poor Old Willy’, Christopher Hitchens, The Atlantic magazine, May 2004).

Styled in the manner of a garish blockbuster, an epic globe-trotting tale spanning almost all of the 20th century, Earthly Powers sees Kenneth Toomey, an English writer who has become rich and famous in his old age, but is eternally denied the artistic acclaim he always sought, approached by the Vatican to attest to a miracle performed by the late Pope and his erstwhile brother-in-law, to which Toomey was the sole witness, despite being both gay and an atheist. This gives Toomey cause to reflect over his eight decades of life, encompassing the rise of fascism, two world wars, a colorful, cameo-filled evocation of literary life in the ‘20s, a moving but unsentimental memoir of closeted homosexuality, a melodrama-packed family saga, a deliciously sardonic description of the life of a writer, the agonising attractions and demands of art, and the shifting faces of evil, personified by Nazism, a religious death cult (modelled closely on the then-recent mass-suicide of the Jonestown People’s Temple), and perhaps even the Catholic Church itself. 

There are those who will tell you that no matter what you read of Burgess, you will always get the same thing: art, religion and sex. That might seem difficult (though not impossible) to argue with, until you remember that these are not exactly narrow or unrewarding themes. His frequently lapsed Catholicism, in particular, was a continuous source of torment throughout his life, as Burgess could never fully bring himself to permanently abandon the faith; “I have found no metaphysical substitute for it,” he wrote almost resignedly in his memoirs, “I know of no other organisation that can both explain evil and, theoretically at least, brandish arms against it.” Earthly Powers allowed him to explore the possibility that, in Burgess’s words, “perhaps God, if he exists, is beyond good and evil and is merely an ultimate power to whom human morality is of no interest. He is on nobody’s side.”

“Burgess does the best things best; he also does the worst things pretty well, too.”
—‘Why I Am Seven Years Younger Than Anthony Burgess’, by Gore Vidal, New York Times Review of Books, May 7, 1987

So what does Anthony Burgess have to offer a modern audience, beyond an expansive and largely undiscovered treasure trove? What makes him different than any other unappreciated author, of which there will always be too many? What example does he offer to modern literature, and more to the point, who would follow it?

Impressive though his output was, his daily routine should not inspire imitators: his turbulent, unhappy marriage to Lynn continued until her death in 1968 from cirrhosis, their domesticity reportedly lubricated a dozen bottles of gin a week. By his own admission, Burgess belonged to a particular pre-‘60s breed of hard-living professional that didn’t see being permanently intoxicated as any excuse not to get up in the morning and put in a solid day’s work; his 2,000 daily words were written whilst puffing his way through 80 daily cigarettes, and his evenings were spent composing music and devising gruesome-sounding cocktails such as ‘Hangman’s Blood’, a mixture of gin, whiskey, rum, port and brandy, topped with champagne and a bottle of stout, which “induces a somewhat metaphysical elation.” Somehow, he still managed to drink and wheeze his way to the age of 76, yet always still working like a man with a death sentence.

Such a lifestyle would be easy to romanticise, although we really shouldn’t. It would also be easy to say the lesson young and aspiring writers should draw from Burgess, if they rate him worthy of their attention, is that they should write more; that they should aspire to the kind of rigorous self-discipline that allowed a shambling, coughing drunk to draw a million words from himself per year. And of course they should try; writers should write, and they should write as much as possible.

But the true bravery of Burgess’s discipline was quality rather than quantity, which unlike the latter, Burgess could never quite maintain. Many critics would be willing to admit Burgess was a great writer, just not quite as great as he aspired to be. Within the cosmic vastness of his bibliography are more than a few failed experiments, acquired tastes and out-and-out dreary clunkers. Perhaps that’s the real secret behind the fading of Burgess’s reputation—the bar, which he set so high even he could barely touch it, is too shaming to a generation that cannot drink as he could, cannot think as he could, and certainly cannot write as he could.

In the 2010s, ‘celebrity’ authors (the definition which has almost entirely transformed since Burgess’s death) are usually far more concerned with building a brand than churning out product. Burgess would most likely have found a brand as hopelessly confining as any pigeon-hole, not to mention a distraction from the only two things that mattered: the art and the money.

Photographer / year unknown

Photographer / year unknown

The ongoing economic maelstrom has only made the modern business of literature crueller and more tight-fisted, and struggling young writers suffering the hard end of it could do worse than see Burgess’s mercenary instincts as a survival guide; that is, if they have the talent to back them up. A better inspiration to draw, however, would be one that Burgess offered countless proofs of: that art can be achieved almost anywhere, even in the depths of so-called ‘hack’ work, provided the standard artists hold themselves to is always slightly higher than their reach.

“We need some Johnsonian or Ruskinian pundit to frighten everybody with near impossible conditions for true creativity. We have to stop thinking that what kindergarten children produce with pencil or water-colour is anything more than charming or quaint. If you want to be considered a poet, you will have to show mastery of the Petrarchan sonnet form or the sestina. Your musical efforts must begin with well formed fugues. There is no substitute for craft… Art is rare and sacred and hard work, and there ought to be a wall of fire around it.”
—‘A Deadly Sin - Creativity for All’ by Anthony Burgess, Homage to Qwert Yuiop, 1986

Read about a recent rediscovery of an archive of Anthony Burgess’ unpublished work on The Guardian, “Anthony Burgess archive reveals vast body of previously unseen work”, by Vanessa Thorpe, 19 November 2011.

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