Burgess, Anthony (Vol. 2)
Burgess, Anthony 1917–
A British novelist, critic, and composer, Burgess is the author of A Clockwork Orange and Enderby. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
What makes Burgess a good novelist is that the absolute ethic he proposes is clear, inclusive, and convincing, and that the people involved in the complex problems Burgess sets up are more or less convincing human beings, however grotesque, whose excuses for failing to measure up are as valid as our own and must therefore be overwhelmed by a shock of blind assertion by the reader, a kind of despairing laughter, a revolt. Infernal complications obstruct the ends the spirit reaches for—such complications as Freudian ambivalence of emotion and motive, the distractions of physical human need, the doubtful morality of available means….
Anthony Burgess is a good writer, as everyone knows, but not a great one. One reason for this is that Burgess's characters do not fight toward the impossible with the same demonic intensity as those of, say, [Pär] Lagerkvist, and they are not as cruelly broken when they fall. This is why among writers of black comedy … there is still only Beckett at the first rank. Burgess's basic limitation, however, is one he shares with all black-comic writers—which is why I have granted black comedy only a measure of staying power. Black comedy is narrowly pessimistic. Burgess, like Beckett, would say "Faw!" to this. An argument which is unanswerable.
John Gardner, in The Southern Review, Vol. V, No. 1 (Winter, 1969), pp. 239-40.
[Burgess] seems to me to embody the opposition between nostalgia and nightmare in an exemplary form; he is also a passionate Joycean, and the one English novelist of his generation who has the verbal inventiveness, energy, and self-confidence that one takes for granted in American fiction. [In] one sense Burgess is a very derivative writer; his early novels, based on his experiences in Malaya, owe a good deal to the Forster of A Passage to India, and his anti-utopias are equally indebted to Huxley and Orwell, while the influence of Evelyn Waugh is apparent passim. Nevertheless his imagination is entirely his own, and in his best work these influences are fused into an original entity; what, above all, characterises his fiction is a unique sense of humour combined with a desolate philosophical despair that makes Burgess one of the few novelists to whose work the much-abused label 'black comedy' can reasonably be applied.
Burgess's first three published novels, which came out between 1956 and 1959, have been collected as his Malayan Trilogy, which in the American edition is called, more elegantly and suggestively, The Long Day Wanes. Compared with his later novels, this is a fairly unsophisticated piece of writing, in which Burgess was evidently feeling his way into the art of fiction. The organisation is casual and episodic….
It is [an] Augustinian pessimism—which has literary antecedents in Baudelaire, Eliot and Graham Greene—that informs Burgess's two finest novels, A Clockwork Orange and The Wanting Seed.
In these books Burgess projects a horrifying vision of the English future, but I should like to approach them via the novel in which Burgess, after years of expatriation, first examined the contemporary English scene. This was The Right to an Answer, published between Malayan Trilogy and The Devil of a State, which Burgess has described as 'a study of provincial England, as seen by a man on leave from the East, with special emphasis on the decay of traditional values in an affluent society.'… The indictment may be a familiar one, though here it is not made from a position of High Tory isolation from the common scene, but through the eyes of an unpretentious observer who has lived out of the country for a long time; this was Burgess's own situation, and The Right to an Answer has, as a result, a peculiar conviction that has not reappeared in his later novels. It is, undoubtedly, one of his funniest books, with a variety of...
(The entire section is 2,481 words.)