Anthony Burgess Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Anthony Burgess, born John Anthony Burgess Wilson, was one of the most prolific and by many accounts one of the most important British novelists of the later twentieth century. There is no question of his productivity: In a publishing career of some thirty years that began when he was nearly forty years old, he had more than sixty books published, including novels, criticism, essays, translations, plays, screenplays, short stories, children’s books, and poems. He also wrote, late in his career, a two-volume autobiography. Moreover, under the name John Wilson he gained wide respect as a composer of music. This prodigality of production ironically worked to his disadvantage, some critics and reviewers finding it hard to associate great quality with great quantity. Yet the entertainment quotient of his fiction is high, as is his control of the technical bases of narrative writing. His themes are characteristically deep and significant.{$S[A]Wilson, John Burgess;Burgess, Anthony}{$S[A]Kell, Joseph;Burgess, Anthony}

Educated in local schools and at the University of Manchester, Burgess did not start out to be a writer. From Manchester he obtained a degree in musical composition in 1940, though he did also develop an avid interest in English language and literature as a student. Upon graduation he joined the army, serving during World War II first as a musician and then in intelligence in Gibraltar. Discharged in 1946, he held a number of jobs over the next seven years, including playing jazz piano and teaching in a grammar school. In 1954, he went to Malaya as an education commissioner in the British Colonial Service, and there he began writing and assembling the materials for his early trilogy The Long Day Wanes. In these three novels, Burgess uses the experiences of a young British teacher to illustrate the decline of British imperial prestige and the conflicts between European values and local traditions and practices.

One event in Malaya confirmed Burgess in his decision to write professionally. In 1959, following a lengthy illness, colonial physicians detected a brain tumor, remanding him to England for specialist treatment. There he was told he had one year to live. Deciding that he wanted to produce as much as he could in the time he had left, he began to write furiously. He finished five novels that year, and he left the hospital cured. He hardly slowed that furious pace during his lifetime.

Those five novels, all published astonishingly within a twenty-month period, marked the advent of a serious voice and an eye for piercing satiric detail. All relatively short, they resemble the early novels of Evelyn Waugh, rivaling Waugh in...

(The entire section is 1093 words.)


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

John Anthony Burgess Wilson was born in Manchester, England, on February 25, 1917. His mother and sister died in the influenza epidemic of 1918. Of Irish background, his mother had performed in the music halls of the period and was known as the Beautiful Belle Burgess. His father performed as a silent-film pianist and, when he remarried, played piano in a pub called the Golden Eagle, owned by his new wife; Burgess himself began to compose music when he was fourteen. Burgess graduated from the Bishop Bilsborrow School and planned to study music at Manchester University. When he failed a required physics entrance exam there, he changed his focus to literature and graduated from Xaverian College in Manchester; in 1940, he wrote his senior honors thesis on Christopher Marlowe while Nazi bombs fell overhead.

In October, 1940, Burgess joined the army and was placed in the Army Medical Corps. He was later shifted to the Army Educational Corps—a prophetic move, given that he became a teacher for nearly twenty years afterward. In 1942, Burgess married Llewela Isherwood Jones, a Welsh fellow student. He spent three years, from 1943 to 1946, with the British Army on Gibraltar, during which time he wrote his first novel, A Vision of Battlements (which was not published until 1965).

Burgess left the army as a sergeant major and as a training college lecturer in speech and drama in 1946 to become a member of the Central Advisory Council for Adult Education in the British armed forces. He lectured at Birmingham University until 1948, when he served as a lecturer in phonetics for the Ministry of Education in Preston, Lancashire. From 1950 until 1954, he taught English literature, phonetics, Spanish, and music at the Banbury grammar school in Oxfordshire.

Throughout these years, Burgess was painfully aware of his Irish heritage and Catholic religion. Although he had renounced Catholicism early, the Irish Catholic stigma remained with him in rigorously Protestant England. His decision to apply for the job of education officer for the Colonial...

(The entire section is 847 words.)