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...
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- Critical Essays