Anthony Burgess

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Jean E. Kennard

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[For Anthony Burgess], as for Joyce, "The artist is a Promethean figure who ends by usurping the place of Zeus." Burgess writes in Re Joyce: "The fundamental purpose of any work of art is to impose order on the chaos of life as it comes to us; in imparting a vision of order the artist is doing what the religious teacher also does (this is one of the senses in which truth and beauty are the same thing)." It is not surprising that of twentieth-century fantasy writers Burgess most admires Nabokov and Joyce, because his use of fantasy is for their purposes…. Burgess, like Joyce, is "a free-thinking fabulist." He needs his reader to be detached and observing, and so he needs fantasy rather than the techniques of realism, but he does not finally alienate his reader.

Burgess, like Joyce, wishes to manipulate "the commonplaces of language into a new medium that should shock the reader into a new awareness." His language has infinite reverberations. The important thing for Burgess is to keep the reader observing the pattern, yet involved, willing to fit the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle together, and then to believe in the picture. He does not take the reader towards nothingness, but towards an image of all-inclusiveness, where "everything is there at once." His purpose, like Joyce's, is the "atonement, at-one-ment, of contradictions." Burgess writes novels of nightmare. (pp. 131-32)

Although almost all of Burgess's fiction illustrates the same basic philosophic stance, the kinds of fantasy he employs vary considerably…. [These] five novels … illustrate most clearly both Burgess's answer to the Post-existential dilemma and his basic method of conveying it: A Clockwork Orange, The Wanting Seed, Tremor of Intent, Enderby, and MF.

Burgess's novels deal with the same metaphysical questions as those of Heller, Barth, Purdy, and Vonnegut: the purpose of human existence, the nature of identity, the value and significance of language; but his answers—and he, unlike [them], has answers—are not the Post-existential ones. As comments in various interviews and many of his novels indicate, Burgess is directly answering Sartre's and Camus' notion that there is no essential pattern in the universe and that the relationship between man and his universe is therefore irrational.

MF, perhaps, demonstrates most clearly that Burgess is answering the Post-existential view. The protagonist, Miles Faber, believes he can define himself through acts of will, create his own identity in the way Sartre suggests. He imagines he is completely free and seeks for the poems of a little-known writer in whose work he hopes to find "Words and colors totally free because totally meaningless."… He learns, however, that "Nobody's free…. choice is limited by inbuilt structures."… Burgess reveals his interest in Existentialism also in his comments about his novels. For example, in an interview …, Burgess has stated that the central theme of A Clockwork Orange is "the idea of free will. This is not just half-baked existentialism, it's an old Catholic theme."

If Burgess's answer is the Catholic one—and he says himself that he "will not allow Catholicism to go over to the converts" nor "allow the Protestants to attack it," that what he writes "looks like Catholic writing"—it is certain only some Catholic doctrines interest him. Like Hillier, the hero of his novel Tremor of Intent , Burgess seems to have an Augustinian belief in the existence of evil and a sense of "what a bloody Manichean mess life is."… Duality is the key to Burgess's view of reality; the essence of reality for him—and there are essences in Burgess's scheme as opposed to Sartre's—is...

(This entire section contains 2753 words.)

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its double nature. "Ultimate reality," says Hillier, "is a dualism or a game for two players."… In religious terms this means that good and evil cannot exist without one another, "There is truly evil lying coiled in the good." But as Burgess realizes, "we don't believe in good and evil any more"; we need new terms. Each of the five Burgess novels illustrates this duality in new terms:A Clockwork Orange in psychological terms; The Wanting Seed in historical/sociological terms; Tremor of Intent in political terms; Enderby in aesthetic terms; MF in terms of the relationship between society's structures and those of language.

The basic method of each Burgess novel is to present the reader with two visions, sometimes two antithetical world views, sometimes two apparently opposed aspects of one personality, and to invite him to make a choice. The choice often proves to be a false one; the two visions are a double vision, a dualism, inseparable parts of the one reality. The true choice lies elsewhere, between this duality and another negative value. The great evil in Burgess's view is to see life as unstructured and therefore capable of being completely controlled by man. The world is not neutral, not simply there. Burgess's use of the double vision is reminiscent of Vonnegut's, but there is an important difference between them. Vonnegut … allows each vision to undercut the other, leaving the reader with nothing; Burgess … shows how the two visions are really one, leaving the reader with unity.

In A Clockword Orange Burgess presents a concept of human nature quite different from the Sartrean view that there is no essential human nature and that man is free to create his own identity. His view, like the Catholic one, is that there is a permanent and universal essence to man. Free will for Burgess, as for all Catholics, is the choice of "whether or not to realize a given essential nature. Sartrean man invents his own essence." (pp. 132-34)

Burgess's fable is constructed on a series of doubles: there are two characters called Alex; two visits to the old men in the library; two visits to the house of the author; two views of Alex's friends, as criminals and as policemen. The clarity of the pattern forces us to make comparisons. But Burgess's aim is our involvement. His use of the title of his own novel as the title of the author's book, which … might have served to alienate us by means of the self-conscious art technique, is employed here to suggest that Burgess is F. Alexander, "another Alex," and therefore partakes equally of the violence. Throughout the novel Alex addresses his readers as "O my brothers," a phrase with obvious implications of complicity. Finally the teenage slang, Nadsat, that Burgess invented for the novel, serves to include us also. Initially strange, the words of the language are learned by the reader as he learns any language by being constantly exposed to them. He is, in fact, conditioned as Alex was; the effect of Nadsat on the reader functions as an ironic comment on the novel itself. (p. 137)

Burgess stated that The Wanting Seed is a Catholic book: "… it's a very Catholic book. It's a total vindication of the encyclical [on birth control]. You know, of course, what the encyclical leaves out of account is the acceptance of natural checks, you know, is fact Malthusianism. Malthus has always been condemned by the church, yet the church will now accept Malthusianism, at least tacitly. What's going to happen to our excess population? 'Well, Nature will take care of it,' As Malthus said, in other words, wars and pestilence, earthquakes."

If the novel functions as a defense of the encyclical on birth control, it is also a defense of Burgess's own view of reality as duality. In the book Burgess expresses his view as a defense of the Augustinian against the Pelagian doctrine, this time in terms of history rather than those of psychology. (p. 138)

The Wanting Seed, like A Clockwork Orange, is constructed on obvious doubles: the day versus the night, "Pelagian day, Augustinian night";… twin brothers Derek and Tristram, the Pelagian and the Augustinian, later repeated in Beatrice's twins also called Derek and Tristram; "The human dichotomy. The division. Contradictions. Instincts tell us one thing and reason tells us another."… The structure of the novel forces us to compare the separate journeys of Beatrice and Tristram…. Just as in A Clockwork Orange, Burgess has presented us with two unattractive visions and through the relentless logic of the fable method forced us to prefer his view of a dual reality over neutrality.

Tremor of Intent is not a fantasy novel in the same sense as A Clockwork Orange and The Wanting Seed. It is not science fiction, but takes place in a world very definitely that of the cold war period of postwar Europe. It is a spy-thriller, of the kind practiced by Ian Fleming and E. Howard Hunt, fantasy only to the extent that Burgess has deliberately exaggerated some of the characteristics of the form. (p. 140)

But Burgess explodes the spy-thriller form by relating its essential characteristic, sensationalism, to the evil of the book, Mr. Theodorescu. Hillier, who describes himself as subject to satyriasis and gluttony, a duality he claims tends to cancel itself out, sacrifices both at the end of the novel. The novel, with its surface story of spy intrigue, is actually the account of Hillier's spiritual regeneration after a mock death…. (pp. 140-41)

Hillier is associated with St. Augustine and shares with Burgess an Augustinian pessimism and a belief in the fundamental sinfulness of human beings. (p. 141)

Hillier's true enemy is not communism or Pelagianism but those qualities represented by Mr. Theodorescu. Mr. Theodorescu is a neutral "in the pay of no power, major or minor."… He is homosexual, and homosexuality here, as elsewhere in Burgess's novels, is used to suggest a denial of life, a denial of the great duality. Like Hillier, Theodorescu has used gluttony and self-indulgence as a way of avoiding real commitment. For Hillier … is, he discovers, a neutral too. (pp. 141-42)

This neutrality, as in A Clockwork Orange and The Wanting Seed, is the real evil. (p. 142)

The concept of the game is important to this novel and Hillier's progress is marked by a change in his attitude to the significance of the war he is fighting…. Hillier's final realization is that … the game on the floor of the world is a copy of the big war and as such must be taken seriously.

As in A Clockwork Orange, Burgess sets up a false choice and then reveals the true one. The pattern is again made obvious through the striking use of doubles: death must be compensated for by the other half of the duality, procreation…. The structure of the novel is a series of double scenes…. Burgess forces upon us the necessary degree of detachment so that we can perceive the metaphysical fable underneath the spy thriller. Form echoes theme brilliantly for the spy-thriller form here is an imposture, a game version of a metaphysical fable, just as the war between good and evil on earth imitates that in Heaven.

Part of Enderby was originally published as Inside Mr. Enderby under the pseudonym, Joseph Kell. The novel Enderby as it now stands in the edition published in the United States presents two visions of a poet. In the first and last parts, posterity, through a fantasy visit of a schoolmaster and a group of unappreciative school children, is watching the sleeping Enderby. Only in this way does the reader learn that Enderby has become a major poet, whose poems are assigned as set books for national examinations. Ironically, in becoming important Enderby has become an object; the children have to be reminded that he is "not a thing to be prodded; he is a great poet sleeping."… "Thingness" is what Enderby, whose life is seen from his own point of view in the rest of the novel, has been avoiding all his life. While living he is a minor poet, not included in the anthologies, hardly known, with only the slightest intimation of the fantasy visit of posterity which he apprehends as a dream.

The part of the novel concerning Enderby's life seen from his point of view is fantasy only in the sense that the action is exaggerated, possible but improbable. Nevertheless, in spite of the fact that the exaggeration serves primarily to make this a very comic book,… and the fact that the skeleton of Burgess's fable is much more fleshed than in the earlier novels, the same basic theme is here. Art depends on a choice of the duality of life over the neutrality of nonlife. (pp. 142-43)

The dual nature of Enderby's life in [the] first part of the novel, composed of dirt and beauty, is summed up in the image of the lavatory, Enderby's "poetic seat." His poetry is written here, partly to suggest the function of art as time's cleanser and cathartiser, partly to suggest "a cell, smallest unit of life" … which is all that is necessary for art. Most of all, though, it conveys that duality which to Burgess is the essential nature of reality. The reader's associations with excrement and poetry are obviously in opposition to one another. (p. 144)

Although the end of the novel doubles the beginning … there is less emphasis in Enderby on the duality of reality, which this doubling has dramatized in other Burgess novels. It is implied, however, in Enderby's need for disorder to create order. Although Enderby offers the usual Burgess choice between life and no-life of the earlier novels, three important themes here—incest, the mysteriousness of reality, and the nature of bad art—point towards his next novel, MF. (pp. 145-46)

MF is an incredibly difficult book…. Burgess has dared to put the reader in the position of solving a whole series of riddles, not just those which Miles has to solve, but the riddles of the book itself. The reader is obviously intended to be placed in a position parallel to that of Miles, just as in A Clockwork Orange Nadsat conditioned the reader much as Alex was conditioned. MF is full of scraps of foreign languages … of conundrums, some of which Burgess has invented and some of which belong in folklore, of palinlogues, of every possible kind of word game.

To understand what Burgess is attempting here it is helpful to refer to two comments in his book on Joyce, who, after all, practiced many of these games before he did. The first concerns the significance of riddles and talks of the relationship between the mysteries of the cosmos and those of language. To Burgess, as to Joyce, there is more than a metaphorical connection between them: "The difficulties of Ulysses and, very much more, of Finnegans Wake are not so many tricks and puzzles and deliberate obscurities to be hacked at like jungle lianas: they represent those elements which surround the immediate simplicities of human society; they stand for history, myth, and the cosmos. Thus we have not merely to accept them but to regard them as integral."

The second is a comment about himself and the relationship between languages:

Waking literature (that is literature that bows to time and space) is the exploitation of a single language. Dream-literature, breaking down all boundaries, may be more concerned with the phenomenon of language in general….

In MF Burgess uses many languages as an indication of a fundamental structure basic to all languages. The fact that the reader does not need a translation is itself an illustration of Burgess's point. (pp. 146-47)

As the novel progresses Burgess expects the reader to solve them himself, but invariably gives the answer obliquely in the following sentence. For example, three riddles, the answers to which are Breath, Mouth, and Heart, are followed by the sentence, "The breath grew sour in my mouth, and my heart pumped hard."… This is one of Burgess's methods of keeping the reader parallel to Miles, in the same relation to the experience of the novel. (p. 150)

Like all novelists of nightmare, Burgess takes us towards the mystery of infinity not the nothingness of the void. He answers the Post-existential premise that the world is irrational by a leap of faith that what we see is mystery not muddle. Each novel is constructed on a pattern of doubles to suggest a patterned, and therefore meaningful universe. His technique forces the reader to reconstruct the pattern, to fit the pieces together in an all-inclusive picture. The act of reading a novel of nightmare, like the act of writing it is, then, itself a way of transcending the Post-existential dilemma. (p. 154)

Jean E. Kennard, "Anthony Burgess: Double Vision," in her Number and Nightmare: Forms of Fantasy in Contemporary Fiction (© 1975 by Jean E. Kennard), Archon Books, 1975, pp. 131-54.

Bruce M. Firestone

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Mr. Burgess likes to portray the universe as a "duoverse," that is, a cluster of contending opposites which agitate against moderation. "The thing we're most aware of in life," he writes, "is the division, the conflict of opposites—good, evil; black, white; rich, poor—and so on." And since living in the center of this conflict is, to use Mr. Burgess's illustration, like trying to picnic in the middle of a football field, we gravitate naturally (and gratefully) toward any ideology which is able to convince us that this conflict is actually an illusion, that in fact there is somewhere an ultimate unity in which all extremes resolve themselves. To this end the Church proffers God; socialism, the classless society; and the artist, his art.

"Art," according to Burgess, "is the organization of base matter into an illusory image of universal order." The artist is an alchemist, drawing on the inherent disorder and dissonance of the human experience and somehow transmuting them into a dazzling display of order and harmony. Contending forces which divide our allegiances in the real world are tamed and reconciled in the artistic creation, or at least seem to be, and the illusion of unity is the final product of this creative process.

Yet though most people, according to Burgess, are possessed by the need to unify, they generally accept solutions rather than work out their own. How many Calvinists are there, after all, for every Calvin; how many Marxists for each Marx? Only the sexual division, the thing that makes a man different and apart from a woman (and vice-versa), is actually resolvable on an individual and thoroughly active level. This ritual, grâce à Dieu, is the exclusive possession of no one class or profession—there is, one assumes, no sexual aristocracy—and it may serve the artist as well or as poorly as it does anyone else. But it is of particular importance in Burgess's novels about artists because, as another means of achieving confluence, sex is closely allied with the creative act. It is, in fact, consistently used to reflect the condition of the less democratic syntheses which his artist-characters pursue.

Sex and art, then, serve as two separate though related expressions of the same drive, and because Burgess's protagonists in Nothing Like the Sun and A Vision of Battlements resort frequently to both, the two provide a good perspective on the conflict and confluence theme which figures so prominently in the ever-burgeoning Burgess canon. (pp. 46-7)

[In A Vision of Battlements] "the rock" looms like a threatening deity over the affairs of Sgt. Richard Ennis, Burgess's half-fictional protagonist who finds himself posted in wartime Gibraltar as instructor in the newly formed "Army Vocational and Cultural Corps." The unit is divided into two branches: the forward-looking "Vocational," which goes about training men to build a new world when the war is over; and the backward-looking "Cultural" (Ennis's), which is supposed to inculcate an appreciation for the arts, but languishes instead in the inattention of what C. P. Snow was to call the New Men. Ennis wants to make it in this new world, for his own sake as well as for his wife's (she eventually runs off with an American—the new world personified), but finds himself irresistibly attracted to the old: to his art, to the ancient culture of the Spanish and the Moors, and to his Spanish mistress, Concepción.

Burgess's description of the dilemma is characteristically direct: "Ennis had become a manichee, at home in a world of perpetual war. It did not matter what the flags or badges were; he looked only for the essential opposition—Wet and Dry, Left Hand and Right Hand, Yin and Yang, X and Y. Here was the inevitable impasse, the eternal stalemate."… And down the line the alliances form. Ennis's English wife, Laurel, is cool, refined, aseptic; Concepción is rich, warm, fragrant. While Laurel is the England of the Norse gods and the briny sea, Concepción is Spain, the ancient mingling of Latin and Moorish cultures, the stronghold of the Catholic Church—not the defensive, displaced Catholicism of Ennis's (and Burgess's) Northern England, but the proud, entrenched faith of Mediterranean Europe. And while Ennis is portrayed as sexually impotent with his wife ("Really, you are impetuous"), he is seen to enjoy a quite satisfactory relationship with Concepción, the product of which, predictably enough, is conception. (pp. 47-8)

The dichotomy, of course, brings to mind Shakespeare, particularly the Shakespeare of the sonnets, who serves, if somewhat posthumously, as the subject of Burgess's Nothing Like the Sun. Fair England and dark Africa once more compete for the allegiance of the artist, and once more, it is the very delicate, refined beauty of the aristocratic North balanced against the rich and passionate allure of a black woman. In Nothing Like the Sun Concepción reappears as the dark lady, an East Indian woman of mysterious background whom Will woos and wins for his mistress; and Laurel's place is taken by young Harry (WH), Earl of Southampton, patron and sometime object of Will's hypergamous affections.

The important distinction between the two pairs, however, is not so much that the fair image turns male, but that the hostile/reverent attitude which characterized this relationship in A Vision takes on the added aspect of sexual attraction. With Laurel, Ennis is unable to achieve any sexual compatibility; rarely, in fact, does he think of her in sexual terms. But with young Harry, Will manages to express both his hostility and his admiration through the ambivalence of their homosexual relationship. Sex serves as a vengeance as well as a pleasure, and as a result, the role of the fair image in this novel becomes much more complex and much more vital.

Burgess carefully adumbrates the relationship which is to develop between Harry and the poet by inserting early in the narrative a number of passages which establish Will's homosexual leanings. (p. 48)

In the light of Burgess's concern with artistic synthesis, particularly synthesis as it carries over into sexual activity, homosexuality certainly seems a distortion of the drive to unite the male/female division. In A Vision, this is partially explained by the notion of channeling the energy which derives from the tension of conflict out of the natural heterosexual solution into the more demanding but ultimately more satisfying possibilities of art. The greater the sense of division, the more potent (and productive) the drive to unite it. When Ennis talks about transmuting lust into creative energy, it is to this that he is referring. The "calm epicene atmosphere" of Julian and his circle serves to dam the energy which might otherwise dissipate in lesser (i.e., sexual) activities.

But the relationship between the creative and the sexual impulse is much more complex than this simple equation of psychodynamics suggests, primarily because other factors enter into the process. For Ennis, as well as for Will, sexual excitement becomes almost a necessary condition for the creation of art. Time and again these artist/protagonists find themselves composing, often against their own will, at the height of their sexual passion. (p. 50)

In a sense, sexual heat becomes the muse, the inspiration to create. This is certainly the case in Nothing Like the Sun, where the entire narrative is built up around the conviction that the sonnets Shakespeare wrote stemmed from his bisexual entanglements. (p. 51)

But neither the homosexual nor the heterosexual relationship endures through the maturing of Shakespeare's own artistic abilities, and by the time he is ready to begin the period of the great tragedies both have virtually expired. Love ceases to be his goddess—fair or dark—and, simultaneously, love ceases to be his muse. The venereal disease which he contracts (Burgess speculating here) represents the product of his love, just as the miscarriage and death of Concepción in A Vision represent the end result of Ennis's love. Heterosexual love proves not only unproductive, as is the homosexual, but destructive, a force which is capable of inspiring the soul to create, but which in the process exacts a terrible price. The goddess is no longer one of love and sweet verse, as the early comedies certainly suggest, but an embodiment of the evil which shackles the lives of good men in the tragedies. Scabrous and near death, WS perceives that the disease which has come of his love is a metaphor for the evil that dominates all mankind, that "… the great white body of the world was set upon by an illness from beyond, gratuitous and incurable. And that even the name Love was, far from being the best invocation against it, often the very conjuration that summoned the mining and ulcerating hordes"…. In both novels then the movement is away from this form of inspiration, and toward deeper and more personal wells of creative energy. Sexual love reveals itself to be far more destructive than it is procreative, and the division between man and woman, so alluring in its promise of synthesis, yields only to the confluence of the protagonist's art. (pp. 51-2)

Bruce M. Firestone, "Love's Labor's Lost: Sex and Art in Two Novels by Anthony Burgess," in The Iowa Review (copyright © 1977, by The University of Iowa), Vol. 8, No. 3 (Summer, 1977), pp. 46-52.

Robert Martin Adams

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[Like] Joyce, and like no other novelist in English, Burgess is fond of using language harmonically or impressionistically, and not just in nostalgic moods—he likes to strip words of their representational values and use them for their tonal values. This was apparent almost from the beginning. Without its special dialect, A Clockwork Orange would be not only a sparse but a muddled book, with its bare bones in evident disarray. (p. 166)

But the dialect of the novel performs several services for this rather crude fable. Being relatively opaque, it absorbs a lot of attention in its own right; it's a rich mixture of Russian conflated with English, Romany, rhyming slang, and Burgess-coinages, so that initially a lot of the meanings have to be guessed from the contexts. The reader is thus kept well occupied, not to say distracted; a good deal of his attention goes simply to the surface of the novel. Reading the book also involves a lot of back-and-forthing—that is, a word used in one context is given further meaning by its use in another context further on, which reflects back on its first usage. All this to-do on the linguistic surface of things blurs one's attention to the overall shape of the novel, and the scenes of gleeful sadism work to reinforce that desirable superficiality. It's a flat novel written in a thick, impasto style. The theme of music is integral to the novel, defined in this way; it makes for tonal unity on an immediate and impressionistic level, which is just another way of saying that the book is put together more like a movie than like a novel.

It is also a book, like those of Joyce, largely unconcerned with morality in any form. No doubt this was part of the reason for its popular success; it was an authentically cold book, at which a reader was entitled to shiver. Partly this was because of the society that Burgess envisioned, but partly also it derived from a personal artistic option within the book. One can almost feel the pathetic, beseeching figure of Poetic Justic imploring the novelist for admittance to his book and being roughly shouldered away. (p. 167)

Music in this novel … doesn't work in any logical way on the narration, nor is it an integral part of the plot, yet it's no less functional. In conjunction with the language, which is a major source of the book's vitality, it suggests a sphere of instinctual and uncorrupted response,… which contrasts with the asphalt jungle of the book itself. It's this intimation of the primeval and healthy barbaric, if only as a possibility within the corrupt, sick barbaric of the city slumster, that's distinctively Burgess and at the same time strongly Joycean.

Even more marked is the application of Joycean prose in a pure entertainment like Tremor of Intent. Burgess, like Joyce, is delighted by the linguistic patterns that form in the fading shadows of unconsciousness; and in this wholly implausible thriller, the most impressive and inventive passages are those where various characters … wander off for one reason or another into gaga-land, letting words, their sounds, and their associations take over for the common order of discourse, or imposing on them a whole new order of non-meanings…. [Though] it's only a dash of Joycean seasoning on books which are of a pretty common order, Burgess unmistakably uses that garnish, and not by any means to contemptible effect…. Burgess at the high point of his fictions escapes into Joycean language. (pp. 168-69)

Robert Martin Adams, in his AfterJoyce: Studies in Fiction After "Ulysses" (copyright © 1977 by Robert Martin Adams; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, 1977.


Burgess, Anthony (Vol. 1)


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