When I was in the sixth form, I thought Anthony Burgess the greatest writer imaginable. The outlandish vocabulary, the fireworks, the bravura, the glorious showmanship — surely this was what literature was all about? Then I grew up and realised he was absolutely terrible — a cackling and grim caricaturist, pseudo-forceful and very dead.
Whilst it is true that few of his 60 or so books come off at all — and that his confidence in himself was never as great as he pretended it to be — I rather love the old rogue again now. There is something splendid and heroic about his boastful, mendacious personality (‘At the moment I’m working on a novel about the life of Christ’). I applaud the way he’d turn up on television and at literary festivals puffing a cigar and sounding off. He always sported a red silk handkerchief.
Who, for instance, can forget the look on Michael Parkinson’s face when Burgess, with a straight face, stated that the dome of St Peter’s Basilica ‘isn’t the breast of a supine woman but a great obscene testicle’? Or the look on Siân Phillips’s face when Burgess started speaking what he said was Welsh? She thought he’d had a stroke. As Richard Ingrams has rightly said, mentioning Burgess alongside such sages as Lord Hailsham and A.N. Wilson, ‘I have known a handful of intellectually very clever people and have noted how prone they are to make fools of themselves.’
To this day I don’t know to what extent Burgess was in on the joke about himself. The biblical epics he wrote for Lew Grade, a history of the stagecoach, musicals about Cyrano de Bergerac, novels about chaps going to seed in the Far East that are shameless rip-offs of Graham Greene: he was rollicking, he was shameless, and he was a self-invention.
The boisterous reveller of the memoirs (Little Wilson and Big God and You’ve Had Your Time) never quite existed. Anthony Burgess was the pen-name of a former Banbury schoolteacher called John Wilson, a nervous chap who for a staff-pupil cricket match wore a tweed jacket and bowled underarm. Burgess was the public performance, Wilson the reality. He virtually made himself a foreigner, marrying an Italian, moving abroad, and his prose style seeming as if badly translated from an unfamiliar tongue.
Though Burgess claimed to live as a tax exile in Monte Carlo, whenever I met John Wilson he was staying in Twickenham and drawing his old-age pension. He had odd ideas about money. If a newspaper commissioned an article, payment had to be made in cash, the brown envelope left at the reception desk of a hotel in Grosvenor Square. If pressed, he maintained he had no fixed address of any kind, and that he mostly lived in a Bedford Dormobile. His plan was to criss-cross national boundaries to avoid residency restrictions for tax purposes.
This restless dipping and diving was hysterical. But at least he got to write the books he wanted to write (Beard’s Roman Women was written in the lay-by on the road out of Ferrara) and to scribble lucrative essays on meaty themes — the James Joyce centenary, the meaning of Beethoven or the difficulties of translating the Omar Khayyam (‘because my Persian is rusty’).
Were Burgess alive today (he smoked himself to death in 1993), it’s hard to imagine that the phone would ring for such a polymath, not when all feature editors want in 2012 are pieces on ‘Would You Let Your Little Girl be Waxed?’, ‘Why Can’t Anyone Give Me a Decent Hairstyle Now I’m Fifty?’ and (a cancer story) ‘I Held a Farewell Party for my Left Breast.’
Burgess was a roistering man of letters in a line that included Wells, Chesterton, Bernard Levin and Keith Waterhouse. The breed has died out, and the younger people who might have belonged to it have had to become Professors of Creative Writing at former polytechnics. Hence Burgess’s own posthumous fate. He is artificially kept going by the International Anthony Burgess Centre in Manchester, a body funded, I believe, by the sale of Burgess/Wilson’s many scattered flats and houses.
Whether the Dormobile fetched a pretty penny, I don’t know. Perhaps it is the focal point of a permanent exhibition. The director, in any event, is Andrew Biswell, who would be the first person to acknowledge that his work on Burgess is heavily indebted to my own pioneering researches, as published in my monumental Burgess biography, which has sold eight copies worldwide in the last five years. A solitary copy was sold in Eire, and returned to the shop.
Biswell is the diligent editor of the ‘fully restored’ 50th anniversary edition of A Clockwork Orange — by which is meant a final chapter has been tacked on, where Alex, Burgess’s ‘leering, sneering, sniggering, snivelling young sociopath’ (Martin Amis’ words) marries and becomes a father. There is also a glossary of Burgess’s use of rhyming slang, cod-Russian, embedded quotes from Gerard Manley Hopkins, and the neologisms adapted from Eric Partridge’s dictionary of unconventional English (e.g. yarbles = balls).
If A Clockwork Orange is Burgess’s best-known work, that’s because of Stanley Kubrick’s film, released in 1972. It is impossible to read the book without picturing Malcolm McDowell’s bowler hat, false eyelash and malevolent stare. Mick Jagger wanted the role, and the drummer of the Sex Pistols said it was the only book he’d ever read, apart from a biography of Ronnie and Reggie Kray.
If one looks at the novel itself, with its background of ‘teenage gang culture, fashion, music and the casual use of drugs,’ it is curiously unreal and schematic, a Roman Catholic parable about good and evil, brainwashing and free will. Kingsley Amis’s original review, reprinted here as an appendix, seems about right: ‘A fine farrago of outrageousness.’
A nutcase once wrote to me claiming that Burgess was sending her secret messages hidden in the text of the book — messages, that once decoded, would reveal the whereabouts and map co-ordinates of top secret CIA dirty ops HQs. I found this much more interesting — more in the zany Burgessian spirit — than anything the earnest scholars in their polytechnics have come up with.