Last Updated on January 19, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2481
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 crackling incidents, much verbal brilliance, and some nicely rendered characters, like the put-upon and infinitely resilient Ceylonese sociologist, Mr. Raj, or the cheerful but shifty and mean pub landlord, Ted Arden, who claims to be descended from Shakespeare's mother's family, and in whose attic a long-lost quarto of Hamlet is discovered….
In A Clockwork Orange Burgess goes on to explore the kind of spiritual life that might, in fact, lead to damnation. This novel, which is, I think, Burgess's most brilliant and blackest achievement, is set in a shabby metropolis at some unspecified time in the future, where teenage gangs habitually terrorise the inhabitants. The story is told by one of them in the first person, in a superb piece of mimetic writing. This narrator is morally but not mentally stunted; he writes an alert witty narrative in a special kind of slang that incorporates a large number of words of Russian origin; one is never told the social or political events that underlie this linguistic intrusion, but it is possible that Burgess is trying to comment, in a mirror-image fashion, on the current dominance of Americanisms in colloquial English speech. The invention of this idiolect is an extraordinary achievement; it is hard to read at first, but with a little persistence it can be mastered …; in fact, after a second reading of A Clockwork Orange I found myself starting to think in it….
Alex is cheerful, even high-spirited in his life of crime: older citizens, particularly of a square or bourgeois disposition, are fit material for beating-up; books are to be destroyed, and girls are to be assessed by the size of their breasts, and raped where possible. In A Clockwork Orange none of this behaviour is ascribed, as contemporary psychologists or sociologists would have it, to a mindless protest against lack of love or cultural deprivation or the alienating structures of capitalist society. Alex makes it clear that he has chosen evil as a deliberate act of spiritual freedom in a world of sub-human conformists. Despite everything—and this is, perhaps, the most disturbing thing about Burgess's novel—Alex is engaging. His adventures are often funny, or at least his way of describing them is….
Non-Augustinian Christians as well as conventional progressives will want to object to the extremity of Burgess's pessimism, as well as his basically romantic conception of evil. Nevertheless, as an embodied imaginative vision of life A Clockwork Orange is hard both to forget and to refute, and in its emphasis on the nature of human freedom in a totalitarian society the book has philosophical as well as literary importance. As a novel of ideas that projects a conservative and pessimistic view of human nature, A Clockwork Orange seems to me to have a similar quality and significance to William Golding's Lord of the Flies, while being more humorous and less diagrammatic. One wishes that it had achieved the same reputation….
The degree of Burgess's verbal finesse, his wit and satirical energy prevent The Wanting Seed from being an unrelieved display of horrors; his material has, for the most part, been transmuted into art, even though the novel tends to be over-episodic. A Clockwork Orange and The Wanting Seed are two of the most accomplished and literally thoughtful novels to have been published in England in the 1960s: however unedifying they may be to the doctrinaire liberal, they enlarge one's imagination and thrust into consciousness questions that are often and easily ignored. Burgess's peculiar and challenging value is that he speaks, urbanely enough, the same language as our dominant literary and intellectual culture, but rejects many of its basic, unexamined assumptions. His later novels, which are numerous, are frequently entertaining, though only one of them—Nothing like the Sun—seems to me to have achieved a distinction approaching that of the books I have discussed. Yet with a novelist so fertile of invention, one remains confident of his continued ability to surprise one.
Bernard Bergonzi, in his The Situation of the Novel (reprinted from The Situation of the Novel by Bernard Bergonzi by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press; © 1970 by the University of Pittsburgh Press), University of Pittsburgh Press, 1970, pp. 178-87.
This novel of the near future [A Clockwork Orange] hasn't got much of a story, as such; Burgess relies principally on an odd language he has devised—a mixture of current English, archaic English, and anglicized Russian (today, yesterday, and the future). This language, more than any other element, is asked to hold the reader, indicate social change, and suggest moral quandaries. The effects are limited; it's not my favorite Burgess by any means.
Kubrick's first mistake [in filming the novel] may have been to select a book whose very being is in its words. The film is inevitably much weaker. Kubrick uses the verbal texture as far as possible, which cannot be far. The language cannot create a world for him as it does for Burgess. The modest moral resonance of the book is reduced … mostly because Kubrick has to replace Burgess' linguistic ingenuity with cinematic ingenuity, and he doesn't. The story as such is thin, so the picture thins.
Stanley Kauffmann, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1972 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), January 1 and 8, 1972, p. 22.
Some of the joy Anthony Burgess gives his readers grows from the evident joy he gives his work. His zeal for the act of writing becomes an overt part, though sometimes symbolized, of his art—represented to date by 21 books, two of them on the zealous Joyce, one on the zealous Shakespeare, two others on language and literature, and 14 of them novels, plus numerous articles. Burgess would seem to have uncontrollable literary energy, which he controls beautifully.
Richard P. Brickner, "A Mental Rigoletto," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 12, 1972, pp. 4, 37.
In a number of his novels, notably The Wanting Seed, The Eve of St. Venus, The Worm and the Ring, and Enderby, Anthony Burgess builds deliberately upon mythic frames, and, like his master Joyce, he even reveals some mythopoeic tendencies. Many of his characters are ironically modified archetypes who undergo archetypal experiences or ironic parodies of such experience. In addition, we find literal goddesses as well as goddess figures intervening in human affairs in order to revive and regenerate. However, none of these novels fits wholly within a mythic frame, presumably because Burgess found such archetypes too confining for his purposes. In his most recent novel, MF, he seems to have found a framework large enough to accommodate his total artistic design. He has fused incest myths—Algonquin Indian and Greek—and given them new meaning as a devastating satiric indictment of contemporary western cultural values which goes well beyond the criticisms leveled in the Enderby novels.
The novel's title, MF, derives in part from the initials of the narrator-protagonist, Miles Faber. It also stands for "male-female," a valid human classification which the book implicitly contrasts with various false taxonomies. It has also, of course, another, related significance with reference to the all encompassing theme of incest, especially when certain racial factors, bases of false taxonomies, are revealed in the conclusion. As everyone knows, the term "mf" has a wide range of usages in the North American Black idiom, and Burgess reveals that the range can be widened further to encompass totally the maladies currently afflicting western culture….
[The] focus of MF is broader than art—much broader. The whole pattern of Western culture, as Burgess sees it, is incestuous. Race consciousness in particular, which has in no way diminished in recent years, is symptomatic of an incestuous pull. In Burgess's view, "the time has come for the big miscegenation." All of the races must overcome their morbid preoccupation with color identity and face the merger that is inevitable in any event….
Burgess has, then, invited us to recognize, if we can, the incestuous pattern on the racial plane as it mirrors the incestuous yearning in art, or rather, "antiart." The two are directly related in that they both reveal a colossal, willed ignorance and laziness on the part of Western man. Just as it's a good deal easier to shirk the burdens of true art in the name of "freedom," so it is easier to allow oneself to be defined and confined by a racial identity in such a way that the search for truths that concern "the human totality," truly a "man's job," can be put off. Both the "freedom" of the artist who incestuously allows his own masturbatory "codishness" to create for him and the "identity" of the black or white racial chauvinist are pernicious illusions which the artist, perhaps more than anyone else, is bound to expose. To the extent that it deals with the role of the artist, then, MF can be seen as a continuation of the explorations in Enderby….
Most readers will probably enjoy MF a bit less than some of Burgess's other books, not because it is inferior artistically but simply because it is a devastating satire with much of Western culture as its object. Satire that cuts in so savage and sweeping a fashion and at the same time demands so much in the way of intellectual involvement will always be less contentedly received than gentler entertainments….
Like nearly all of his novels, it is a piece of linguistic wizardry that delights and never wearies. If one objects that Faber does not sound very much like a typical twenty-year-old university student, then he is overlooking the clearly indicated fact that Faber is not a twenty-year-old student but a highly literate middle-aged man looking back upon his youth and remembering imperfectly the ways in which he spoke. When Burgess wants to give us the sounds of youth, he is quite capable of doing so, as any reader of A Clockwork Orange will readily attest. If one happens to be an American and finds the directions of the satire unsettling, he may take some comfort from the fact that the objects of attack are really much broader than America. One can … see much of Western culture in general being satirized….
Perhaps the happiest "message" one may distill from MF is that Burgess is still continuing to produce fiction. Life on American university faculties has not dried him up, nor has he been completely absorbed into show business by his [recent] involvements on Broadway and in Minneapolis. Indeed he is seething with ideas for new novels, wanting only the time to complete them…. One is not even tempted to guess when his creative vein will be exhausted. Certainly MF, whatever else one might say about it, reveals no diminishing whatever of his verbal and imaginative gifts.
Geoffrey Aggeler, "Incest and the Artist: Anthony Burgess's MF as Summation," in Modern Fiction Studies (© 1973 by Purdue Research Foundation, Lafayette, Indiana), Winter, 1972–73, pp. 529-43.
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