Anthony Burgess Essay - Critical Essays

Anthony Burgess Long Fiction Analysis

Anthony Burgess shares with many postmodernist writers an almost obsessive awareness of his great modernist predecessors—particularly James Joyce. The vision that Burgess inherited from modernism is informed by the anguish of a sensitive soul lost in a fragmented, shattered world. Each of Burgess’s novels reveals one central character virtually “at sea” in a landscape of battered, broken figures and events. Burgess conveys this fragmented worldview by means of many of the literary devices of his modernist predecessors. Often he employs a stream-of-consciousness narration in which his main characters tell their own stories; he also uses what T. S. Eliot, reviewing Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), called the “mythic method,” in which contemporary chaos is compared with and contrasted to heroic myths, legends, religious ceremonies, and rituals of the past. As Eliot remarked, the mythic method “is simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and significance to the intense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.”

Like many postmodernists, convinced that most literary forms are serious games devised to stave off approaching chaos and collapse, Burgess delights in the play of language for its own sake. Here again, Joyce is a prime source of inspiration: surprising images, poetic revelations, linguistic twists and turns, and strange, evocative words nearly overwhelm the narrative shape of Ulysses and certainly overwhelm it in Finnegans Wake (1939). Burgess’s best novels are those in which language for its own sake plays an important role, as in Enderby, Nothing Like the Sun, A Clockwork Orange, and Napoleon Symphony.

At the heart of his vision of the world lies Burgess’s Manichaean sensibility, his belief that there is “a duality that is fixed almost from the beginning of the world and the outcome is in doubt.” God and the Devil reign over a supremely divided universe; they are equal in power, and they will battle to the end of the world. In the Manichaean tradition—most notably, that of the Gnostics—Burgess sees the world as a materialistic trap and a prison of the spirit, a place devised by the Devil to incarcerate people until their deaths. Only art can break through the battle lines; only art can save him. The recasting of a religious commitment in aesthetic terms also belongs to the legacy of modernism. Burgess’s Manichaean vision produces such clashes of opposites as that between East and West, between the self and the state, and between a single character and an alien social environment. These recurring polarities structure Burgess’s fiction.

The Right to an Answer

This principle of polarity or opposition is evident in the early novel The Right to an Answer, in which J. W. Denham, businessman and exile, returns to his father’s house in the suburban British Midlands and finds a provincial, self-satisfied community engaged in wife swapping, television viewing, and pub crawling. He remains a detached observer, longing for a kind of communion he cannot find, and in his telling of his own tale, he reveals himself as friendless, disillusioned, and homeless.

The wife-swapping quartet at the Black Swan pub is disturbed by the entrance of Mr. Raj, a Ceylonese gentleman who is interested in English sociology and in satisfying his lust for white women. He plays by no rules but his own and espouses a kind of deadly Eastern realism that threatens the suburban sport. Moving in with Denham’s father, Raj unfortunately kills the old man by “currying” him to death with his hot dishes. The upshot of this clash of cultural and social values is that Raj kills Winterbottom, the most innocent member of the ménage à quatre, and then kills himself.

Throughout the novel, Burgess explores both Denham’s point of view and Raj’s within the seedy suburban landscape. Their viewpoints reflect the irreconcilable differences between East and West, between black and white, between sex and love, and between true religion and dead ritual. Denham’s stream-of-consciousness narration eventually reveals his own spirit of exile, which he cannot overcome. He remains disconnected from both worlds, from England and the East, and epitomizes the state of lovelessness and isolation that has permeated modern culture. This early novel clearly explores Burgess’s main themes and narrative forms.

Tremor of Intent

In the guise of a thriller à la James Bond, Tremor of Intent explores a world of “God” and “Not-God,” a profoundly Manichaean universe. Soviet spies battle English spies while the real villains of the novel, the “neutralists,” play one camp off against the other purely for personal gain. Burgess derides the whole notion of the spy’s realm, but he insists that taking sides is essential in such a world, whether ultimate good or evil is ever really confronted.

Denis Hillier, aging technician and spy, writes his confessional memoirs in the light of his possible redemption. His Catholic sense of Original Sin never falters for an instant, and he is constantly in need of some higher truth, some ultimate communion and revelation. In the course of the novel, he fights every Manichaean division, drinks “Old Mortality,” sees himself as a “fallen Adam,” and works his way toward some vision of hope. Finally, he abandons the spy game and becomes a priest, exiling himself to Ireland. From this new perspective, he believes, he can approach the real mysteries of good and evil, of free will and predestination, beyond the limiting and limited categories of the Cold War.

Hillier’s opposite in the novel is Edwin Roper, a rationalist who has jettisoned religious belief and who hungers for an ultimately unified universe based on scientific truth and explanation. Such rationalism leads him to the Marxist logic of Soviet ideology, and he defects to the Russian side. Hillier has been sent to rescue him. One section of the novel consists of Roper’s autobiographical explanation of his actions; its flat, logical prose reflects his methodical and disbelieving mind, in contrast to Hillier’s more religious sensibility.

Within the complicated plot of the novel, self-serving scoundrels such as Mr. Theodorescu and Richard Wriste set out to destroy both Hillier and Roper and to gather information to sell to the highest bidder. They fail, owing largely to the actions of Alan and Clara Walters, two children on board the ship that is taking Hillier to meet Roper. The children become initiated into the world of double agents and sexual intrigue, and Theodorescu and Wriste are assassinated.

Burgess displays his love of language for its own sake in exotic descriptions of sex, food, and life aboard a cruise ship. Such language intensifies the Manichaean divisions in the book, the constant battle between the things of this world and the imagined horrors of the next. The very language that Hillier and Roper use to tell their own stories reveals their own distinctly different personalities and visions.

Tremor of Intent insists on the mystery of human will. To choose is to be human; that is good. Thus, to choose evil is both a good and a bad thing, a Manichaean complication that Burgess leaves with the reader. In allegorical terms the novel presents the problems of free will and its consequences, which underlie all of Burgess’s fiction.

Nothing Like the Sun

Nothing Like the Sun, Burgess’s fanciful novel based on the life of William Shakespeare, showcases every facet of his vision and technique as a novelist. Shakespeare finds himself caught between his love for a golden man and his love for a black woman. Sex feeds the fires of love and possession, and from these fires grows...

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