Francis King

A stranger to the truth

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The Real Life of Anthony Burgess

Andrew Biswell

Picador, pp. 434, £

Anthony Burgess was someone whose accomplishment as a fibber far surpassed even that of such formidable rivals as Laurens van der Post, Lilian Hellman and Patrick O’Brian. What made fibbing particularly perilous for Burgess, as for most fibbers, was that he rarely remembered his fibs. In consequence they varied widely from telling to telling.

The best example of this is the case of the son, Paolo Andrea, of the Italian woman, Liana, whom Burgess precipitately took as his second wife within five or six weeks of the death of his first wife, Lynne. In a 1968 Spectator essay, ‘Thoughts of a Belated Father’, Burgess announced that, having just remarried (in fact the marriage did not take place until three days later), he had acquired a four-year-old stepson. This would seem to be accurate, since the boy’s birth certificate gives the name of his biological father as Roy Lionel Halliday, Liana’s then husband. But eventually Burgess transmuted stepson into son. Having acquired this pathetic trophy, he then treated him with neglect and indifference, as Biswell vividly recounts.

After a dry, sparse start, in which the story of Burgess’s early years relies too much on his autobiography and novels, Biswell is excellent on Burgess’s army career and his work as a teacher in Malaya in the mid-Fifties. Out of the tempestuous and unhappy experiences of that exile Burgess eventually created the trilogy that is, in my view, his finest literary achievement. In it, Lynne is represented with searing accuracy as a character clinging on to life in a state of intermittent rage and despair. When not sprawled on the bed with a gin bottle and a Jane Austen novel, she is making drunken scenes in seedy bars or sleeping with anyone on offer. Meanwhile, always enjoying the role of rebel, the Burgess character is repeatedly alienating colleagues and government officials with his arrogant bolshiness.

Burgess would often ascribe Lynne’s aberrant behaviour either to the tropical climate or to boredom. But it is difficult not to reach the conclusion that, in major part, Burgess himself was to blame. There was clearly something amiss with the couple’s sex life — perhaps a latent homosexuality, perhaps the ejaculatio praecox that (according at least to Burgess himself) made him reach a climax merely by watching an unknown woman cross her legs in a bar. There was also his obsession with words, so that, totally absorbed, he would all too often read or write on and on, oblivious of Lynne when she was famished for attention.

After the couple returned to England, my abiding memory is of them arriving already drunk at Olivia Manning’s parties and then staggering out of them, almost the last to leave, their arms round each other in mutual support, like survivors from a shipwreck. With the second marriage all that changed. Burgess now became astonishingly well disciplined and, after the years of impoverishment, set about amassing money and property with manic persistence and remarkable success. Convinced of his genius, he railed against the judges of both the Booker Prize and the Nobel Prize for honouring William Golding instead of himself. In consolation, he could boast of the first performance (has there ever been a second?) of his ‘Third Symphony’ in Iowa City and of the large sums earned by screenplays that never went into production.

Essentially Burgess was the literary equivalent of a heptathlon athlete. No rival reached the same proficiency in such a variety of roles: novelist, translator, scriptwriter, poet, critic, university lecturer, composer. But if he had competed in only one of those disciplines, he would never have qualified for more than a bronze medal.

Biswell makes some startling errors. Hove can hardly be called ‘a reasonably up-market suburb of Brighton’. At that time and until recently it was a separate town. Nigel Dennis was not ‘the popular thriller-writer’ but a distinguished critic, playwright and novelist. Olivia Manning and her husband did not live in separate wings of a house in Chiswick, their marriage having broken down. They lived in close physical, emotional and intellectual proximity in a house with no wings in St John’s Wood. In general, however, one feels that Biswell is a chronicler to be trusted both with his facts and the deductions he draws from them.

The chief justification for the existence of biographers is that they correct the lies of autobiographers. In the case of Burgess, this task must inevitably be onerous. Biswell performs it with scrupulous honesty, but with a discretion bordering on timidity. In contrast, in his erratic, often vituperative but hugely entertaining Anthony Burgess of three years ago, Roger Lewis laid into the old pretender with demonic glee. Biswell’s biography, so sober and scrupulous, and Lewis’s, so highly-coloured and biased, perfectly complement each other. Anyone wishing to learn the truth about this consummate fibber must read both.