In January, 1960, Anthony Burgess was diagnosed as having a terminal disease and informed that he had less than a year to live. Approaching his forty-third birthday, he decided to write six novels in his remaining time so as to leave some kind of legacy for his wife. This apparently instantaneous resolve to become a professional writer is not otherwise explained, and readers therefore must consult the first volume of Burgess’ life story, Little Wilson and Big God: The Autobiography (1987) for an account of his initial efforts as a novelist while teaching in Malaysia. Nevertheless, You’ve Had Your Time stands by itself, with Burgess’ race against the clock providing this second volume with a particularly swift beginning.
Although Burgess calls his “temperament essentially secretive and mendacious,” his memoir seems brutally frank, as befits a book that in Europe was titled Confessions. A lapsed Catholic, he observes that to confess is to seek forgiveness, and it is perhaps this apparent precision in admitting his faults that accounts for his narrative’s remarkable lack of rationalization. Not surprisingly, Burgess feels guilty about his misdeeds, and his narrative is a kind of atonement for them, the testimony of a man who believes in original sin—at least in its secular manifestation as a tragic flaw. His humor seems rooted in this recognition of the incongruity between his ability to be articulate (in his fiction he has invented languages) and his inability to lead a tidy life and to leave an organized estate for his family.
Midway through his terminal year, Burgess realizes that he has been misdiagnosed and probably will not die any time soon. He does not accomplish his goal of writing six novels, but he does produce four. He fails to observe that, even as he becomes certain of his reprieve, his wife is sliding deeper into alcoholism—in part provoked by his aloofness, his avoidance of the marital bed, and his long periods of isolated work on his novels.
It is difficult to determine whether it is Burgess or his wife who is to blame for their troubles. Does she seek the love of other men because he is indifferent, or is he indifferent because, as he says, he does not choose to compete with her other lovers? Burgess allows the ambiguity of the marriage to stand, seeing its comic side: Lynne refuses to read his novels and then claims to have written them. It is still a marriage, as in those moments when she consents to have him read passages from his novels when they are in bed together. They are two of a kind when it comes to drink, except that Lynne’s alcoholism is more desperate because she has no outlet for her creativity or her frustrations.
It is painful to watch Lynne drink herself to death (she dies six years after the misdiagnosis of Burgess), yet she is accorded a kind of tribute in her husband’s depictions of her outspokenness, denouncing Russians in their Leningrad tour and sometimes giving Burgess ideas for novels. When he takes up painting, she notices his shaking hand bringing brush to canvas and remarks on “the tremor of intent,” a phrase that becomes the title of a Burgess novel. There is no sentimentality in Burgess—not even for this woman who obviously hurt and entertained him, regaling him with accounts of her lovers and gauging his own sexual prowess on the scale of her extramarital experience. What gives his humor bite is that he is both amused and depressed by his life’s contradictions.
Burgess, then, is extraordinarily candid on the relationship between life and art, never indulging in the coy denials of other novelists who claim a rigid separation between their biographies and their fiction. Of course, he takes liberties with facts, and his novels are not merely disguised autobiographies, but their basis in biography is recognized and profoundly probed. Virtually every novel Burgess has written, and much of his nonfiction as well, receives at least an insightful paragraph in his memoir, so that the development of his career is clearly set out and critiqued.
Burgess makes no apology for writing for money. Words have been his livelihood, and if he has sometimes written too much to support himself, he has always taken care with every project, recognizing its flaws but persevering nevertheless. He often cites negative reviews of his novels, agreeing in one case that his work has been “half-baked” and should have been in the oven longer. Reviewers bother Burgess—sometimes because they fail to understand his work, but more often because they seem needlessly cruel and do not offer the writer any assistance in correcting his defects. He almost never defends himself, except to say that with certain novels—Napoleon Symphony (1974), for example—he knew that he was bound to fail in trying to fuse musical and novelistic form and that...