The career that didn't go like clockwork
Anthony Burgess was a gifted and prodigious writer of more than 50 books, along with countless articles and criticisms – but it was one slim, ultra-violent novella published 50 years ago that defined his career – much to his chagrin
HE GAVE NEW meaning to the word “showman”. No one, it seemed, spoke as much, wrote as much, or thought as much as Anthony Burgess, a maverick genius who never quite achieved a work of genius.
No mind moved faster. No one, not even John Updike, produced as much sideline work; because although Updike on a good day could out-write anyone, Burgess could go one better than most of his literary peers. When being interviewed in 1986 by Terry Wogan on the publication of the first volume of Little Wilson and Big God, his oddly philosophical, at times hilarious autobiography, Burgess played the piano.
As unrelenting as life itself, Burgess, the self-described Celt, a one-man band and European intellectual of Manchester Catholic stock – “with Irish complications” as he delighted in claiming – openly bewildered the British literary establishment because his hyperactivity recognised no rules.
His natural impatience gave his writing its urgency; it also provided his critics with the fuel they needed when accusing him of the haste and, at times, carelessness that marred his work. But then there was a great deal of it. By the time of his death in 1993, at the age of 76, Anthony Burgess, raconteur and avowed devotee of Shakespeare, Mozart and Joyce – not necessarily in that order – had published more than 50 books, including 31 novels, two volumes of autobiography, biographies, literary criticism, translations and musical works. His biggest mistake, it seems, was not taking himself sufficiently seriously.
He was dauntingly accessible and produced more journalism than most career journalists. He also lived most of his life out of Britain, preferring Switzerland and Monaco. Every year, it seemed, he produced at least one book and his many opinions on a variety of subjects tended to deflect attention from his own achievement. Above all, though, a vicious little early novella, A Clockwork Orange (1962), now 50 years old, was to stalk his entire career, overshadowing everything, even a large opulent narrative, Earthly Powers (1980), the book that should have defined him.
By the mid 1980s, Burgess had earned the battered face of an ancient roué. He was wonderful company. One hand gestured skywards with his habitual cigar, while the other pushed his wedge of dusty grey hair across his forehead. Simultaneously charming and combative, he often lamented the critical acclaim denied him. His hurt was obvious. His baroque, melodic actor’s voice hovered between cultures and languages.
He seemed ready to switch to French or Italian and somehow managed to keep track of the 10 themes he was invariably pursuing simultaneously. He was an active, informed reviewer and a tremendous champion of novels in which he believed. Burgess often alerted readers to new or neglected writers. This was at times used against him, as Burgess was frequently accused of being too generous. Anthony Burgess, it seemed, could never win.
Born in 1917 into modest circumstances, John Anthony Burgess Wilson set out in life as the literary outsider he would remain. Having already decided he was a failed composer, he went on scholarship to Manchester University. Music would remain vital to Burgess but he quickly became equally obsessed with literature.
Joyce was an early fixation and would remain so. Although he was not a Joyce scholar, Joysprick (1973), a study of Joyce’s language, reflects one of Burgess’s many talents, his response to language. In Burgess, Joyce had an instinctive reader.
Burgess, for all his linguistic panache and love of word play and cross references, was not a Joyce. Nor was he a Shakespeare, yet he certainly possessed the sprawling humanity of both. Joyce and Shakespeare, and to some extent Dickens, were his masters. Heady company indeed; but Burgess was no coward, his bravado delighted in erudition as much as ego.
There was also his moral sense. He was burlesque, daring, even risky, inventive and wayward, loved his father’s world of the music hall, yet at heart he was a deeply moral writer drawn to human folly and “the wretched wandering of our century”. Burgess identified behaviour committed in the name of ideology as well as exploring private choice and, with it, sin. He was, as expected, acutely touchy on the subject of another English Catholic writer, his rival Graham Greene.
Burgess did his bit in the second World War and later joined the colonial service. Stationed initially to Malaya, then Borneo, he worked as education officer between 1954 and 1960. The experience opened his eyes to the exotic, and influenced his first three novels: Time for a Tiger (1956), The Enemy in the Blanket (1958) and Beds in the East (1959), each of which were set in the Far East. His Malayan Trilogy, as they would become known, was later published under the evocative title of The Long Day Wanes.
About that time, Burgess was also presented with devastating news that not only dictated his life – it shaped the Burgess mythology. His first wife – who would predecease him by 30 years – informed Burgess just after Christmas in 1959 that he had an inoperable brain tumour and could expect to be dead within a year. Burgess’s reaction was impressive; he decided to become a full-time writer. Spurred on by the ticking clock and/or tumour, he wrote five novels in that deadline year. The mystery tumour became his companion.
During that initial race against time he wrote A Clockwork Orange, its violence clothed by an elaborate language unique to itself. The heavily coded narrative would become his personal albatross and acquired further notoriety in 1971 through Stanley Kubrick’s vile movie version (see panel). Luckily it was Enderby, poet and commentator, introduced in Inside Mr Enderby (1963), two years before Updike’s Henry Bech, who would become Burgess’s most enduring character – not young Alex, the narrator of A Clockwork Orange. In 1964, Burgess wrote one of his finest books, Nothing Like the Sun – A Story of Shakespeare’s Love-life. Written in a full-blooded pastiche of Elizabethan English, it was atmospheric, sympathetic and linguistically convincing. Meanwhile, old Enderby remained busy, surfacing in Enderby Outside (1968) and again in The Clockwork Testament (or Enderby’s End) (1974) in which he was killed off.
Burgess the journalist was busy, too busy dashing off poor biographies of DH Lawrence and Hemingway countered by a good one of Shakespeare. An ocean of reviews was interspersed by minor novels, TV scripts, commentary pieces, an orchestral work here and there, Joycean outpourings for Bloomsday.
Expectations of a great work continued to flicker among his admirers and Burgess duly delivered in 1980 with Earthly Powers, the history of the 20th century as experienced by an elderly homosexual writer who makes his appearance with what has become Burgess’s most famous opening sentence: “It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the bishop had come to see me.” Destiny suggested Earthly Powers would win the then Booker Prize. Burgess thought so too and was openly crushed when it went to William Golding’s Rite of Passage. Burgess continued to write.
A weak novel, The End of the World News, followed in 1982, with Burgess juxtaposing Freud and Trotsky with the space race. Good things are difficult to say goodbye to and Burgess decided to have some fun by reviving the dead Enderby in Enderby’s Dark Lady, a comedy set in Indiana with an Elizabethan subplot. Far less funny was The Kingdom of the Wicked (1985), a jokey parody of the history of Christianity.
Almost as forgettable is The Piano Players (1986) which begins well; after all, the music hall had been his father’s stamping ground. But the narrator, a retired prostitute, is soon lost in what becomes a tribute to the no-hoper entertainers who played poorly for those willing to pay to listen. Any Old Iron (1989) while not quite a return to form, did revisit the territory of Earthly Powers and The End of the World News as Burgess attempted to explain what went wrong with the 20th century. It is messy but funny.
In between writing and reviewing and being his public self, Burgess completed his second volume of autobiography: You’ve Had Your Time in 1990. But he hadn’t, not quite.
Still in the wings was a terrific final work. A Dead Man in Deptford – published in April 1993, some months before his death on November 25th – returned to the Elizabethan world he had evoked so well 30 years earlier in Nothing Like the Sun. That colourful, fast moving last book, A Dead Man in Deptford, proved a freewheeling, virtuoso swan song based on the brawl in which Shakespeare’s great rival, Christopher Marlowe, died.
How good was Anthony Burgess? Very good indeed; he possessed rare, unclassifiable genius, originality and a love of language. Above all, he was driven by wayward intellectual energy, a quality rarely welcomed by the lesser, conventional minds of an establishment always eager to classify.
Horror show: Why Anthony Burgess could never escape Alex and his droogs
ALEX IS 15. He frequents milk bars and sustains an idiosyncratic style of dress; he also favours a grotesquely elegant Nadsat argot composed of Russian words and rhyming slang at times filtered through quasi-Elizabethan syntax. Most of all, as he tells us, he gets high on the music of old Ludwig Von and yeah he loves violence of the smash-thee-in-the-face variety, gang rape and watching bright red blood flow.
A Clockwork Orange is “horror show” shocking as our narrator would say. It is now 50 years since Anthony Burgess delivered his nasty little subversive sermon on the evils of indoctrination. He came to hate the book or, rather, he turned against it, not just because it overshadowed his career but because he resented Stanley Kubrick’s film.
The film version is garish, ugly and for all its notoriety, now looks surprisingly dated, even ridiculous, and is nowhere as frightening as the novel. Worse still, Kubrick, with his adult cast, misses the point of all. Because, like it or not, there is a point; Burgess the moralist took wanton badness as his theme. Alex and indeed the narrative have been compared with Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost.
But Alex lacks the grandeur of the fallen angel. He is far more squalid; he is a spoilt kid who beats up old people. His actual antics, however, are only a sideshow. The true theme of this novella, in which the virtuosic language deflects from the hatred of women and old age, is that without free choice, an individual has lost all relevance. Being forced to be good doesn’t count; a human amounts to what he or she does of their own free will. It may not seem particularly religious and God has reverted to Bog, but as with most of Burgess’s work, God and religion undercut A Clockwork Orange.
“What’s it going to be then, eh?” asks cocky defiant Alex throughout the book. Each of the three sections opens with his catch cry. Do we care what happens to him? No chance. Yet his fate is communal. We are all a bit too like creepy little Alex. After he has been sentenced for the murder of the cat woman – whose ownerless cats are supported by the sale of Alex’s possessions – he informs the reader that “this is the real weepy and like tragic part of the story . . . You will have little desire to slooshy all the cally and horrible rashkazz of the shock that sent my dad beating his bruised and krovvy rockers against unfair like Bog in his Heaven, and my mother’s grief at her only child and son of her bosom like letting everybody down real horrorshow.”
No one could care a toss for Alex. Reading A Clockwork Orange is to experience a fascinating linguistic sleight of hand. The language shimmers; it’s a crazy dance, as is Kevin Barry’s similarly dazzling, linguistic tour de force City of Bohane, a funnier book with superior characterisation. As dystopian narratives go, A Clockwork Orange highlighting youth in revolt versus corrupt and corrupting government and police is nowhere as good as Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) never mind the best of them all, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1921).
As for chillingly cautionary, A Clockwork Orange also fails to achieve the mastery of JG Ballard’s pornographic morality play Crash (1973). Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker (1980) pushed the dystopian genre even further and was applauded as literature by Anthony Burgess, who could never quite shake off Alex and his droogs.