Little Wilson and Big God Essay - Critical Context

Anthony Burgess

Critical Context

Although Burgess has offered a considerable amount of autobiographical material to the public over the years, nothing approaches the comprehensiveness of this work, and one is surprised to find such intimate details of his social indiscretions provided here. Readers will also find richly detailed and evocative memories of life in Manchester in the 1920’s and 1930’s and full accounts of Burgess’ various occupations up to the age of forty-two, much of which contributes to one’s understanding of Burgess’ earlier novels. Again, one is surprised at how closely Burgess stays to the reality of his own life in his fiction. That is particularly true of Richard Ennis, hero of A Vision of Battlements, whose unruly and truculent army service in Gibraltar is frequently a mirror image of Burgess’ own experience. Many times Burgess did not even change the names of real people he describes in his novel.

Burgess’ life is always presented in the broader context of history. For example, he provides interesting descriptions of what London’s literary world was like during wartime, a rich and lively account of the complexity of Malaya before it achieved independence, and valuable glosses of common Malay and Chinese words which clarify various religious and social distinctions not familiar to Western thinking.

Allowing for comic fictional distortion, there is little disparity between Burgess’ autobiographical opinions and the moral and religious implications of most of his novels. Burgess’ heroes—decent, well-intentioned men—follow or find a commitment. Their seriocomic blunderings are largely the result of their assertion of free will in societies which cause suffering for nonconformists. Burgess’ sinner-heroes, often Catholics, are guilt-ridden or deeply aware of their shortcomings, but they struggle for their rights against painful odds.

Little Wilson and Big God deserves to stand among the best autobiographies of twentieth century authors. Burgess is a lively, often-shrewd commentator on and witness to his own times, combining entertainment and instruction. His contribution to the literary treasury of English literature is considerable, for all of his eccentricities and personal resentments. Paul Boytinck writes that the book is a masterpiece,the best literary autobiography of the year. . . . Every page includes something of interest: a tag of verse here, a damp squib that goes off hundreds of pages later, an intelligent speculation here and a gross shaft of indelicate wit there; and, above all, a touching honesty everywhere.