Doing The Worst Things Well: What We Can Learn from Anthony Burgess

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

The 50th anniversary of Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange, along with the recent discovery of a vast archive of the author's unpublished work, should shine fresh light on one of the 20th century's most prolific, daring and underrated writers.

"The whole of English Lit. at the moment is being written by Anthony Burgess. He reviews all new books except those by himself... Do you know him? He must be a kind of Batman of contemporary letters. I hope he doesn't take to poetry."

-- Philip Larkin, in correspondence with Anthony Thwaite, 1966.

There was a time I actually became angry that nobody told me about Anthony Burgess. I discovered him quite by accident, and felt ashamed it had taken me so long. He seemed, in every sense, too big to miss, too formidable to have been forgotten by the wider world so easily. Nonetheless, it's difficult to exaggerate just how profoundly unfashionable Burgess has now become.

His modern-day legacy is ghostly and unobtrusive -- for many, little more than a notable name, a few oft-told book-chat anecdotes and a once-infamous Stanley Kubrick picture, which the author never entirely liked. "As yet, there has been no collected edition of his works," Andrew Biswell observed in his excellent 2005 biography The Real Life of Anthony Burgess, "and only a handful of his novels are available in Britain and America. The majority of his books are waiting to be reprinted and rediscovered by the generation of readers that have come to maturity since his death. He may yet," Biswell allows hopefully, "have his time."

By contrast, the generation immediately preceding mine was virtually saturated with his presence. Larkin did not overstate the case as much as one might think: in the course of his dense and hydra-headed career, Burgess produced a staggering 33 novels, as well as an intimidating mass of essays, journalism, poetry, theatre, screenplays, memoirs, children's books, biographies (of Shakespeare, Ernest Hemingway and DH Lawrence) and critical studies (of James Joyce, Mozart and linguistics), not to mention the countless songs, symphonies, librettos and operas composed in his double-life as an unfulfilled composer, most of which remain unreleased. The barely concealed awe and vague wariness Larkin betrays in his appraisal was, while Burgess was alive, a common reaction amongst other professional scribblers to the furious, neverending, chimerical enormity of his output. All but invisible he may be now, yet there was a time when Anthony Burgess was seemingly everywhere, doing everything... and doing it well.

His conspicuous absence may abait in the coming months, as the world remembers that 2012 marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of A Clockwork Orange, which (for better or worse) remains his best known work. The irony is the original novel was a relatively minor part of the Burgess canon, a brief, dark coming-of-age fantasy concerning the savagery of youth, wrapped in a linguistic experiment with which the author was never truly satisfied. But its place in popular culture has endured while Burgess's has faded, thanks primarily to Kubrick's dystopian 1971 film adaptation and its accompanying 'ultraviolent' notoriety.

In preparation for the anniversary, the International Anthony Burgess Foundation have begun the epic task of cataloguing a huge archive of unpublished material, donated by the author's widow Liliana Macellari, adding to his already titantic bibliography such curiosities as an opera centred around Leon Trotsky, the script for a TV series on Atilla the Hun, a biographical play of Napoleon, numerous new musical compositions and a significantly expanded lexicon of the invented Anglo-Russian slang which provides A Clockwork Orange's unique prose style. Because Burgess was, almost above all else, a writer who subscribed to Dr Samuel Johnson's view that "no man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money," perhaps the most astonishing revelation of the archive has been the fact he had any works of note that were not immediately turned in for publisher's cheque.

"Wedged as we are between two eternities of idleness, there is no excuse for being idle now."

-- Little Wilson and Big God, Being the Confessions of Anthony Burgess, by Anthony Burgess

Such assumptions continue to colour his reputation; until the end of his life, he would aggressively claim to all who would listen that he had "no money", and that he wrote at such a constant, dizzying volume only to keep himself from ever-looming threat of destitution -- a seemingly dubious claim for a man who reputedly had several million pounds sterling squirrelled away when he died in 1993, although the precise figure has always been something of a mystery.

But Burgess, unapologetic, knew exactly what the link between art and commerce was -- his pay-cheque -- and predictably, such a defiantly unromantic view of the financial side of writing repulsed some sensitive souls who felt an artist should be unconcerned with such matters. Though it was rarely uttered aloud, more than a few high-minded critics came to regard Burgess as a kind of fiendish master-of-hacks, whose explosive but inconsistent brilliance must, they felt, be some kind of elaborate con-trick; surely, such a prolific, varied and apparently money-driven work-rate -- what Gore Vidal neatly termed his "unfashionable prodigiousness and originality" -- could only indicate a villainous insincerity? How dare a hack be so talented?

Backing this was ever-present chorus of sneers: Burgess wrote 'too much' (as if such a thing were possible), and if he had written less, he might have written better... Holders of such jealous opinions generally come with no evidence of course, but it is for reasons like these that Burgess has not been forgotten as much as he has been studiously ignored. Academia finds it difficult to celebrate what it cannot comfortably categorise, and the literary media pack always seemed squeamish about praising one of their own too openly, particular when he shamed them so often (throughout the '70s and '80s, Burgess was, almost as an afterthought, one of the most interesting and erudite book critics in the world -- an extra source of income, naturally -- despite an early scandal when it was discovered he pseudonymously gave a surprisingly critical review to one of his own novels).

But the ostentatious prolificacy, and the cast-iron concern with money connected to it, were always there, since the very beginning of his career as a writer. Admittedly, this career started late: John Burgess Wilson, as was his given name, spent the first half of his adult life either in the military or as a teacher for the British Colonial Service, stationed for nearly a decade in the balmy British protectorates of Malaya and Brunei. This part of his life ended abruptly one morning in 1959, when Burgess suddenly collapsed in his classroom halfway through a lesson.

According to Burgess -- though many have questioned the legend -- he was soon diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour and given a single mythic year to live. At that time, Burgess's marriage was an inescapable, barely functional disaster area: his first wife, the "almost philosophical unfaithful" Lynn, was an alcoholic whose hopeless excesses outstripped even Burgess's infamously boozy proclivities, and could easily tip her into bouts of suicidal depression. In spite of the shambling, acrimonious wreckage of his matrimony, Burgess became determined to safeguard Lynn's welfare after his apparently imminent death, and decided the best way in which to do it was to make his erstwhile "gentleman's hobby" of creative writing profitable, thus leaving Lynn financially secure. With a characteristic mixture of high ego and false modesty, Burgess describes this process in the second volume of his memoirs:

"I got on with the task of turning myself into a brief professional writer. The term professional is not meant to imply a high standard of commitment and attainment: it meant then, as it still does, the pursuit of a trade or calling to the end of paying the rent and buying liquor. I leave the myth of inspiration and agonised creative inaction to the amateurs. The practice of a profession entails discipline, which for me meant the production of two thousand words of fair copy every day, weekends included. I discovered that, if I started early enough, I could complete the day’s stint before the pubs opened... Two thousand words a day means a yearly total of 730,000. Step up the rate and, without undue effort, you can reach a million. This ought to mean ten novels of 100,000 words each. This quantitative approach is not, naturally, to be approved. And because of hangovers, marital quarrels, creative deadness induced by the weather, shopping trips, summonses to meet state officials, and sheer torpid gloom, I was not able to achieve more than five and a half novels of very moderate size in that pseudo-terminal year. Still, it was very nearly E.M. Forster’s whole long life’s output."

-- You've Had Your Time, Being the Second Part of the Confessions of Anthony Burgess, by Anthony Burgess.

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