Anthony Burgess Essay - Burgess, Anthony (Vol. 8)

Burgess, Anthony (Vol. 8)

Burgess, Anthony 1917–

Burgess is an English novelist, editor, translator, essayist, composer, and critic whose inventive use of language and unique with are displayed in such works as A Clockwork Orange. Admittedly influenced by James Joyce, Burgess has endeavored to explicate his genius in Here Comes Everybody: An Introduction to James Joyce for the Ordinary Reader. He was born John Anthony Burgess Wilson and has published under the pseudonym of Joseph Kell. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 4, 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Anchored to asexuality by stepmother fantasies and an excretion fetish, committed poet and vulnerable recluse, Enderby, the corpulent, flatulent, likeable anti-hero, was a major character created by Anthony Burgess in that year of writing five novels, 1959, which doctors said would be his last. Inside Mr Enderby appeared in 1963 and the sequel, Enderby Outside, in 1968. Now the trilogy is completed with a book in which Enderby, though nominally relegated to the subtitle, fights what seems to be Burgess's biggest ever battle on the last day of his, Enderby's life. For since we left Enderby in Tangiers, Burgess's A Clockwork Orange has been made into a film by Stanley Kubrick and subsequent real-life alleged imitations of the activities of Alex and his droogs have been labelled Artist Answerable and laid at Burgess's door. In a newspaper interview at the time, he promised that his new book would reply.

It has. The Clockwork Testament is a brilliant and very funny book. In it Burgess has sustained that novelistic ability to which he referred generally in The Novel Now 'to create what the French call an oeuvre, to present fragments of an individual vision in book after book, to build, if not a War and Peace or Ulysses, at least a shelf' as well as 'fusing the comic and tragic in a fresh image of man'. The wider issue of the artist's responsibility has prompted him to cook a virtuoso cadenza, allusively presenting ingredients from the opus larder as Artist's Credentials—taste and judge. Enderby has written a filmscript based on Gerald Manley Hopkins's poem The Wreck of the Deutschland, the film company have had re-write men lace it with flashbacks and up the tempo, and now the media are asking Enderby what he intends to do about a case of nun-slaughter in Ashton-under-Lyme where they are banning Hopkins from the bookshops. 'Me? I'm not going to do anything. Ask the buggers who made the film. They'll say what I say—that once you start admitting that a work of art can cause people to start committing crimes, then you're lost. Nothing's safe. Not even Shakespeare. Not even the Bible.' And to the television company inviting him for the chat-show: 'I see. I see. Always blame art, eh? Not original sin but art.'

Burgess has cooked with original sin before but, then as now, cannily. He does not believe in doctrinaire novels: in The Novel Now he has said that the deeper issues in his books 'are not my concern; they are strictly for the commentators.' In the same work he warns of the danger of moving the novel 'too far out of the sphere of enjoyment: any work of art must be compromise between what the writer can give and what the reader can take'.

It is difficult to say whether Burgess has been limited by his credo: he has been helped by what he calls the comic propensity which he cannot overcome, and by a technique with character, situation and even language which echoes cartoonist Gerald Scarfe's approach to a subject, taking each physical feature and pushing it as far as it will go. Burgess meets our need 'to be reminded of human insufficiency, to be told stories of anti-heroes' with creations like Enderby, guarding against mere exaggeration of anti-heroic fantasy by never overstepping the mark of credibility in his projections of contemporary society. Enderby, on the strength of his film-script and his 'not-unknown' poems, takes up a post as Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Manhattan and becomes the vehicle of Burgess's concern about original sin, liberalism, violence, literacy, the confluence of cultures, television, hypocrisy, social anaesthesia, separately massive issues which also grow out of each other's heads….

In talking about his 1962 novel The Wanting Seed, Burgess referred to the essential process of 'the finding of a set of symbols for the problem we're all facing … and of the kind of myths, the kind of social patterns which must emerge from this'. What better set of symbols to start with in The Clockwork Testament than those of Hopkins's poem, which Robert Bridges only read once before forming his opinion of it, and which sets the trial of life firmly in a context of the Fall of Man and the Passion of Christ, to show that each man and all the world must be prepared to succeed by failure and ask, in Hopkins's words:

       … is the shipwrack then a harvest,
       does tempest carry the grain for thee?       (p. 88)

The Clockwork Testament throws out leads from the Burgess philosophy in every direction important to him. It acknowledges his debt to Joyce as an example of what Burgess, citing Ulysses, has called 'parody of the literature of action'. It reiterates his fear of a world locked in a relentless alternating cycle between liberalism and totalitarianism. It alludes, in the person of Enderby, to Huxley's Savage in Brave New World, who 'rejects the new sinless … order' and 'thinks that man ceases to be man when he is incapable of squalor, shame, guilt and suffering'. Burgess presents Enderby as unable to tolerate Negro protest because Enderby has not evaluated protest in context, at the same time as contrasting 'ethnic agony' with the world agony of Hopkins's poem. Yet he avoids laying down the law, opting here, as in A Clockwork Orange, to follow Isherwood's example of drawing a powerful picture 'on the margin of entertainment'. With Isherwood it was the decay of bourgeois German society; with Burgess it is violence.

But whatever the issue—and Burgess has made violence his particular issue in order to point the futility of what Enderby calls the attempt to 'educate people out of aggression, great liberal fallacy that'—it is set here in the wider arena of the artist's duty. Perhaps one should look, for a final clue, not to minor Enderby but to major Shakespeare. In his fictional biography Nothing Like the Sun, published two years after A Clockwork Orange, Burgess gives to the Earl of Southampton and to WS two key observations on the difference between violence in art and in life. First the Earl, goading WS for not wanting to witness Tyburn executions, says: 'He who makes Tarquin leap on Lucrece and everything the filthy world could dream of happen in Titus. Well, you cannot separate so your dreaming from your waking. If you would indulge the one, you must suffer the other.' WS replies: 'I will not look.' And then WS, later: he is thinking about getting audiences to sustain the theatre: 'It is the drawing-in that is needed, blood and murder (well, it is there, it is the world, I would be what the world itself would be).'

This is the same dilemma which has occupied Burgess throughout his work: the dilemma of withdrawing from life in order the better to confront it and yet having a human obligation fully to participate. The Clockwork Testament is an important and exceptional book because it shows how the apparent hopelessness of the dilemma reinforces the crucial role of the artist in society and proves that he is bound to reply, to cries of Artist Answerable, that the fault is and always has been in Man. (p. 89)

Graham Fawcett, "The Grain in the Tempest," in Books and Bookmen (© copyright Graham Fawcett 1974; reprinted with permission), August, 1974, pp. 88-9.

[The] novels of Anthony Burgess … imitate life fairly straightforwardly in their way, but are also recklessly untidy and very much aware of themselves as fiction. Enderby, for example, in The Clockwork Testament, is writing a long poem about Augustine and Pelagius and is teaching in New York while Burgess, as we know if we read the newspapers, was teaching in New York and writing a long poem about Moses. This suggests a leakage from life into fiction, which is quite different from a confession or the creation of a roman à clef, and which can be felt in the books, I think, even apart from any information one may collect about Burgess's career. It is this leakage, along with Burgess's very attractive combination of frivolity and intelligence, that gives his novels … energy and complication….

Beard's Roman Women is not an evasion of life, it is an apparent exorcism of a piece of past life, clearly successful for Beard, and perhaps useful for Burgess. The novel is based, the blurb says, on "an autobiographical episode," but that seems to be putting it rather mildly. The death of a woman you have been married to for twenty-six years is hardly an episode, and the subject of the novel is widower's guilt, the haunting of a man by his dead, sick wife, as he tries to start again with fresher, firmer female bodies, and to balance the loss of a marriage that he thinks of as a civilization, a system of delicate signs and meanings, by the gain of healthy sex and a sense that he is not as old as he thought he was.

The other subject of the book is the conquest of death by anticipation, and this again echoes an "autobiographical episode"—Burgess's twenty-year-long postponement of a death diagnosed as early and certain. (p. 41)

[Ghosts] turn all of Beard's relations with women into versions of his selfishness and cowardice, and it is a virtue of the book that this point of view is put with some authority. "Time's been good to you," Beard says to his old girlfriend at the airport. She, thinking of her cancer and her amputated breast, says "How do you know?" Again, Beard, referring to his wife, trying to express sympathy for the girlfriend, says, "Cirrhosis isn't too bad a thing to die of," and the girlfriend, speaking for the double class of women and the dying, says, bitterly, "Have you ever died of it?"

But then, once the accusations are out, Burgess helps to let Beard off the hook by making him such a likable, disorganized, drunken clown. There is some sense in this, even some moral sense: why beat your breast if you're beyond improvement? And it is true that Burgess's heroes are always at their best when their lives are completely out of control. But there is also a reluctance to face the questions the novel itself throws up. There is only guilt, and the record of guilt's more dramatic manifestations, and scarcely any inspection of possible grounds for guilt. Beard's Roman Women is a lively book but it is a shallow one, and we are likely to remember its gags—"His dentist had once told him that he was one of the lucky few whose teeth would outlive him. He would have preferred his work to, but you could not have everything"—and its language—"such thoughts panted thought his mind"; "the regular sort of cremation regularly ignited by the local funeral directors"—when we have forgotten its ghosts and the neglected brief they almost brought against Beard-Burgess.

This is perhaps as Burgess would wish, since in a note on his Moses he suggests that "our salvation lies in understanding ourselves" and that "such understanding depends on a concern with language." I hope our salvation doesn't depend on Moses, a rambling, amiable epic in loose verse, which Burgess used as the basis of his script for a television film starring Burt Lancaster. It is far closer to DeMille's Ten Commandments than it is to the Book of Exodus, and although it reiterates some of Burgess's favorite themes—the heavy burden of free will, the need to respect and yet to order the multiplicity of the given world—it is finally too much of a lumbering anachronism to be anything other than a curiosity. Its language sometimes catches an interesting rhythm and flow, and a man who can incorporate verbatim whole stretches of the King James version of the Bible without breaking his stride or his diction is clearly some sort of master of pastiche, but the verse of Moses is too often just sad doggerel. (p. 42)

Michael Wood, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1976 NYREV, Inc.), September 30, 1976.

In modern literature dying seems the last frontier. I don't mean this as an Irish bull or a Sam Goldwynism; rather that as a subject matter for artistic treatment it's the only one left veiled and mysterious enough to solicit the over-informed modern imagination….

Anthony Burgess took up novel-writing when a doctor in Brunei told him he had only a year to live. The several titles he produced that year were intended as an estate for his wife. The diagnosis was mistaken and Burgess has continued with his writing, astonishing us all with his productivity and originality. By a sad irony, his first wife passed away in the mid-1960's. To describe his new novel, "Beard's Roman Women," as a death trip is not to hint that it is full of autobiographical cris du coeur, but to suggest he knows more about his subject than can be gained through library research….

"Beard's Roman Women" has a surprise ending which I would not give away even if I fully understood it. Burgess is full of literary sleight-of-hand like his use of the demotic Trastevere poet Belli as a leitmotif and the framing of the book's last scene in a musical setting of Dryden's "Ode for St. Cecilia's Day":

              The dead shall live, the living die
              And music shall untune the sky.

Now there is confidence! But whether the reader can be confident that Burgess in this book has unknotted the enigma of dying, I am not so sure. (p. 8)

Julian Moynahan, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 10, 1976.