Anthony Burgess Burgess, Anthony (Vol. 15) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Burgess, Anthony 1917–

Born John Anthony Burgess Wilson, Burgess is an English novelist, editor, translator, essayist, composer, and critic. A remarkably prolific writer with a wide range of subjects, he frequently uses his knowledge of music and linguistics in his fiction. Burgess's fascination with languages is evident in many of his novels, most notably A Clockwork Orange. Terming himself a "renegade Catholic," Burgess explores free will versus determinism in his novels. Admittedly influenced by James Joyce, Burgess has endeavored to explicate his genius in Here Comes Everybody: An Introduction to James Joyce for the Ordinary Reader. He has also published under the pseudonym of Joseph Kell. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 4, 5, 8, 10, 13, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

D. J. Enright

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A book by Anthony Burgess, fictional or otherwise (and ABBA ABBA is both), is likely to be tricky—and harsh almost to desperation, moving and funny. Also, at times, exasperating: over-insistence and the obvious are a word-player's fatal Cleopatras, sure to engulf him in the mire of horseplay, yet irresistible through their very unattractiveness, perhaps.

Part One is a tale about Keats, dying in Rome, in the care of his friend, Severn. Word-play starts in the title and proliferates speedily. The poet is Junkets, to be eaten by Fairy Mab, disjointed, disjuncted, disjunketed. A resident English sculptor uses the same marble as Michelangelo: 'Ewing in Italy … hewing so prettily'. The quips and cranks range over several languages. (p. 729)

Whether or not it has only one father, this book has many elder brethren: a comic scene between Keats and a drunken Lieutenant Elton reminds one of the early pleasures of Time for a Tiger; Napoleon is also dying, on St. Helena; the excremental shade of Enderby is loose; while much more than Gregory Gregson (a ghost made flesh?) emanates from Beard's Roman Women. Many a by-blow blows by….

But there is a poet in reserve, Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli (1791–1863), amateur actor and minor papal officer, who believes that poetry should be about serious things like 'eternal truths, impressive spiritual essences, God and country'. Keats himself...

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Edwin Morgan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Historical fiction? Biography? Poetic theory? Translation? Spoofs and fakes (if there is such a category)? [Abba Abba] is an entertaining and thought-provoking production (let us play safe), based on the rather nice speculative idea that John Keats might have met, during the last months of his life in Rome, the Roman dialect poet Giuseppe Belli. The first half of the book describes this imaginary encounter and how it might have affected both writers….

Keats himself, in a not unsympathetic but not wholly convincing characterization, appears as an aggressive atheist, sex-tormented, witty, Hamletlike, as pun-prone as Joyce, driven to hysteria by the clucking ministrations of Sabrina fair (as he calls Severn). The growling, talented, self-doubting Belli, writer of thousands of vivid, obscene, blasphemous, satirical sonnets ironically (iron-ically, Mr Burgess's Keats might add) armoured in strict Petrarchan form (hence the abba abba of the title, though it also refers to Christ's call to his father), learns to like and admire Keats, and after his death defends him to a supercilious cardinal as having "more light in his little toe than you have in your entire fat carcase".

The fiction, however, concerns ideas rather than characters. Belli tells Keats that the nature-loving English poets of the Romantic movement have forgotten how to think. A second point, not unconnected, is that they could do with more of the down-to-earth immediacy Keats himself showed in his Petrarchan sonnet "To Mrs Reynolds's Cat"—a comic poem, but as Belli says, "on the right lines" because its subject is a battered old asthmatic tomcat….

There is no doubt that Mr Burgess sets off some very interesting trains of thought here, though he does not pursue them as far as he might. Keats certainly had a realist and a satirist in him, struggling to get out….

What Belli did makes up the second part of the book, where a sequence of seventy-one sonnets is presented in English translation, the English tinged here and there with Manchester dialect. The translations are pungent and ingenious; fairly free as regards added detail, or local or modern analogy, but very properly sticking to the Petrarchan rhyme scheme which permits some finely strained and inventive collocations.

Edwin Morgan, "The Thing's the Thing," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1977; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3925, June 3, 1977, p. 669.

John W. Tilton

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The American edition of A Clockwork Orange] contains no word whatsoever to inform its readers that the last chapter has been deleted…. (p. 21)

My analysis of the technical-satiric patterns of the complete novel constitutes a low-keyed argument that the complete novel is superior to the truncated version….

The major contention of my argument—fair warning—is that the last chapter makes of A Clockwork Orange a better novel than Burgess may realize he has written. (p. 22)

[The ethical premise that "A man who cannot choose ceases to be a man"] can be taken as both the explicit and implicit thematic content of the novel only if one assumes, as Burgess's comments lead one to assume, that A Clockwork Orange is merely a didactic novel with conventional satiric aims, a piece of conventional-formula satire whose explicitly enunciated norm provides the standard by which the satirist condemns the denial of free choice. Other assumptions are possible, assumptions that evolve from within the novel when one responds to its techniques and form, resisting both Burgess's stated intentions and the apparent confirmation of those intentions in the surface content.

The final chapter heightens one's awareness that more is going on in the novel than Burgess's stated intentions embrace, primarily because in the final chapter the integral techniques of the novel and its organic form are fully realized—and not until then. Only with the final chapter can one respond to the total conception and execution. One is stimulated to engage in the re-creation, in all of its subtlety and complexity, of the total imaginative act that the novelist's commitment to technique has realized.

Consider the point of view. Beyond a doubt, it commands great attention, since Alex as first-person narrator controls the novel. Though anyone reading the truncated version can hardly fail to respond to the vividly pervasive presence of Alex as actor and narrator, particularly to the egocentrism manifested in his behavior and commentary as well as in the self-conscious artistry of his narrative style, the deletion of the last chapter deprives readers of clarification of the inner springs of his act of artistic creation. Why does he tell his story? What does the compulsion to tell it reveal about his character? What meaning inheres in his mode of narration? Without the last chapter, readers are likewise left without the evidence needed to confirm or refute the impression made by his egocentrism that he is not a reliable observer of or commentator on his own behavior or that of others. Deprived of any indication of Alex's state of mind at the time of creation, one is denied the possibility of reflecting on the implications of the first-person narration, denied, in other words, the true import and impact of the organic whole.

To read chapter seven of part three is to become aware of profoundly disturbing implications and on reflection ultimately to realize that the novel is its telling. The final chapter allows one to discover that, unconsciously, Alex's creative act is an act of evil, an expression of immanent evil more frightening and more powerfully affective than the whole series of violent acts that he has overtly committed. And there is potent irony in this indulgence in evil at the precise point in his life when he believes he is finally opting for the good, an irony that delivers an emotional and intellectual impact far more provocative and stimulating than the end of chapter six, never intended by Burgess to be the climax of the novel. The ending of chapter six is a piece of deliberately contrived melodrama, and it is wrong as the climax of the novel…. The true climax, in chapter seven, does what I think Burgess intended to do: precluding both self-congratulation and the simplistic formulation of isolable themes, it distresses the reader into disturbing reflections on the nature of man.

In the final chapter, Alex is eighteen years old, the oldest and the leader of his new droogs. Only in minor ways has Alex's life-style changed: the droogs peet moloko with knives in it and the old violent in-out, in-out and tolchocking and dratsing are the usual evening's entertainment. But Alex feels bored and hopeless; he is growing mean, selfish, and soft, and can not understand why…. A chance meeting with his former droog Pete helps him understand his malaise and inarticulated yearnings…. Alex realizes that he is growing too old for the sort of life he has been leading, and visions of a wife and son to come home to fill the hollow he feels inside. (pp. 23-5)

There seems little doubt that Alex's desires to produce a son and to write his story are analogous manifestations of creativity. To see that natural reproduction is a good is not difficult; to see that artistic creation is an expression of Alex's evil self, one of many acts of evil that he will very likely commit as a responsible, domesticated adult and good citizen, requires of one only the imaginative response demanded by the style and content of the story he has written. (p. 25)

The integral functioning of the style he created for Alex reveals a great deal about Alex and Burgess, and ultimately oneself.

Burgess says that the language he invented for Alex to speak has a triple function: to assure the survival of the novel by creating a slang idiom for Alex that would not grow stale or outmoded as real slang does; to brainwash the reader so that he emerges from the novel with a minimal knowledge of Russian; and—of the greatest significance, it seems to me—"to distance the violence, to cushion the reader from the violence because the violence would not be presented directly [but rather] through a filmy curtain of an alien language that the reader would have to fight through before he could get to the violence." (pp. 25-6)

One of the implications becomes clear when the paradoxical meaning of Burgess's intention "to cushion the reader from the violence" is grasped. He appears to be saying that the reader is protected from the violence; and in a superficial and deliberately deceptive sense he speaks truthfully: to read of Dim's swinging his oozy beautiful in the glazzies is not to visualize Dim's chain striking his victim's eyes. The language does appear to keep one at a distance from the gruesome brutality of the action. But rather than protect one from the violence, the "filmy curtain of an alien language" in effect leaves one defenseless against it. Were one to read in standard English of Alex's smashing Billyboy's face with a razor, one would be protected from the violence, distanced from it by his horror at Alex's savagery, complacent in his moral superiority and self-congratulatory in the knowledge that he could never do anything so savage. But readers have no such ego defenses against violence if they read of Alex's making this like veck creech when he viddies a nozh razrezing his litso and sending curtains of krovvy down his plott. Readers are seduced by the alien language to participate in the violence, to delight in the savagery of the scene, without being aware that they are giving expression to their own savagery. Awareness comes upon reflection: to see faintly through that filmy curtain has been, one realizes, to look into a mirror in which one sees one's own worst self. (p. 26)

Burgess consciously created for Alex a poetic language: from the Russian he invented groodies, he has said, because the word better suggests fullness and roundness than does the English breasts; and the word plott for body sounds like a body being hit. This onomatopoetic quality of Alex's language, precisely because it does seductively invite readers to respond to its sound, is the major reason for my assertion that rather than protecting one from the violence, the style Burgess created for Alex immerses one in it.

By creating for Alex a poetic language, Burgess has endowed Alex with all of the resources of a vividly affective mode of expression. He has created in Alex a poet of violence. (p. 27)

And this emotionally stimulating poetic expression is only one of the forces that engage one in the violence of the novel, for Burgess has endowed Alex with more than just the style of a poet: he has consistently characterized Alex as a poet, an artist. The style is the man. It is to the creative artist and his vision of the world that one continuously responds. Alex is thrillingly alive, acting in and reacting to the human world with supercharged sensibilities. He is repulsed by the reduction of a human being to a thing, whether it be his own refusal to be treated as if he were a thing or his intense dislike of human beings who turn themselves into things, although his language, to one's pleasure, reduces his victims to senseless objects…. To be sure, Alex's love of Mozart and Beethoven is a thematic device of Burgess's designed to link the heaven of music with the hell of violence; but it is rooted in Alex's character: it is a convincing manifestation of Alex's aesthetic response to life. And that is not a mere passive response to beauty: his ability actively to create beauty is evident in his re-creation in words of the sound of music…. (p. 28)

His own acts of violence are like works of art, planned with exquisite care and attention to detail, executed with conscious style…. His disapproval of the greed of his droogs who want to go after the big money suggests that the...

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