Anthony Burgess

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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

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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 conceives the idea of a long poem in sonnet stanzas about the eternal common Roman, the 'ordinary soul' through the ages, but for obvious reasons the undertaking is not for him. He may have the necessary lack of identity, but he also lacks the dialect and the necessary time.

The muddied cloak passes to Belli, who loses his 'taste for grandiloquence' and in due course (or coarse) writes 2,279 sonnets in the Roman dialect, vulgar and obscene and blasphemous, 'stuff for tavern recitation with the doors closed'….

Part Two introduces us to Joseph Joachim Wilson, great-grandson of the Giovanni Gulielmi who was friend of and intermediary between Keats and Belli. J. J. Wilson was born in 1916—one wonders whether he could be related to John Burgess Wilson, another Mancunian writer—and died in New York in 1959 of injuries received in a mugging. But not before he had translated into Mancunian English a selection of G. G. Belli's sonnets on biblical subjects. Of these translations, printed here, it must suffice to say that they impress more by the ingenuity of their rhyming than by anything else: CD in the extreme, they are miracles of ABBA ABBA…. There can be small doubt that Anthony Burgess is the father of this enlivening and distressing little book. (p. 730)

D. J. Enright, "Junkets," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1977; reprinted by permission of D. J. Enright), Vol. 97, No. 2511, June 2, 1977, pp. 729-30.

Edwin Morgan

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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

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[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 pleasure Alex takes in beautifully executed acts of violence is a manifestation of art for art's sake, heedless as he is of both financial recompense and the opinion of the world. Self-expression and self-assertion are his fundamental attitudes, sufficient unto themselves as long as he is able to impose upon the flux and variety of human experience his own control and order. His narration has the quality of a lyric poem that evokes profound emotional responses to its imagery and impresses deeply upon the reader the personality of the poet.

It is a consummate act of perverse creation that compels readers to delight in the violence that man commits upon man and to respond positively, even with elation, to the desecration of human values that man presumably cherishes. It invites one to celebrate his own worst self.

The final chapter, then, exposes a profoundly disturbing juxtaposition, the resonance and ramifications of which are vastly different from those of the melodramatic false climax of the preceding chapter. The Alex who believes he has put violence and evil behind him, who sentimentally and romantically envisions himself at one with the flowers, earth, stars, and moon, and who is in search of a woman with whom he can lead a peaceful, fruitful life, unwittingly reveals his true, unalterably evil self. Alex has grown up, all right, but he is oblivious to the evil that he will never outgrow. (p. 29)

For in the final chapter Alex reveals an inability to grasp the implications of the content of his story as surely as he is unable to grasp the implications of his style of narration. The content I refer to includes the two major subjects of his story, his own acts of violence—the tolchocking, the dratsing, the old in-out, and every other manifestation of evil behavior—and the acts of violence committed by others, largely adults in positions of responsibility and authority, which as well must be characterized as manifestations of evil.

Alex's story contains numerous instances of the violence and evil of the adult world that he is subjected to…. [There] is in the content of Alex's story an extensive range and variety of violence, both individual and institutional, that establishes it as typical adult behavior. The content conveys the theme that adult man is a creature of violence.

And that is what the eighteen-year-old Alex of the final chapter fails to understand. Alex sincerely attributes his own evil to his youth … and expects only good in the future, in his adult life. He stresses the sincerity of that conviction by "realistically" recognizing that his son and his son's son will behave in their youth just as he did in his. The truth established by the content of his own story and reinforced by its style and by the very fact that he writes it all is that the inherent evil of man will manifest itself no matter who he is or how old he is.

The author of the novel, in his early forties at the time of writing, realized this truth. He did participate in evil as the writer ultimately responsible for the celebration of evil created by Alex. Or, to be more accurate, he knew that he had to participate in evil, to give expression to his Alex-self, to revel imaginatively in savagery, in order to compel readers to revel in it. Since his ultimate purpose was to compel readers to delight in violence and thus to seduce them into giving expression to their own worst selves, so that they would have to confront the worst in themselves, their capacity for savagery, Burgess had to delight in savagery himself. (pp. 30-1)

The novel provides ample internal evidence that Burgess was fully aware of the necessity for and the implications of his participation in evil. I refer to the striking pertinence of the aesthetic-ethical issues that he has incorporated in part two, in those scenes dealing with the role of the artist in an artistic medium analogous to fiction—the film—and analogous to the content of Burgess's own novel—the films of violence used by Dr. Brodsky in his application of Ludovico's Technique. (p. 31)

Burgess knows that healthy human beings, that is, those who are aware of their capacity for evil, do contemplate the "actions of the forces of evil" and "the workings of the principle of destruction" every day of their lives. They need only contemplate themselves, as Burgess has, to understand that evil is immanent in the nature of man. To grasp this profound implication is to penetrate to the deep thematic heart of A Clockwork Orange, to its tragic vision of humanity…. The novel that helps one retain a grasp on the reality of human nature is itself a deeply moving documentation of its author's struggle to maintain his grasp.

Such contemplation of one's true self, however, is rare. A Clockwork Orange conveys Burgess's conviction that few know and even fewer care to know and face the truth of their evil nature, that man constructs illusions to hide from this truth. The novel introduces illusion after illusion representative of universal conceptions of human nature and ideals of conduct, and the satirist Burgess strips away each one, typically by revealing in traditional satiric manner the discrepancy between the illusory conceptions and ideals and the real nature of man manifested in his actual behavior.

Nowhere is this satiric process better illustrated than in Burgess's relentless undercutting of F. Alexander…. In an excerpt from F. Alexander's manuscript that Alex reads at the time of the brutal attack on the Alexanders, one reads in essence what Burgess has publicly proclaimed as his intention in writing the novel: F. Alexander opposes "The attempt to impose upon man, a creature of growth and capable of sweetness,… laws and conditions appropriate to a mechanical creation …"…. Later when Alex reads the published book, he summarizes its content as "that all lewdies nowadays were being turned into machines and that they were really … more like a natural growth like a fruit."… And in conversation with Alex, reacting to Alex's account of Ludovico's Technique and its effect, F. Alexander speaks of the conditioned Alex as "a little machine capable only of good" and adds in words almost identical to Burgess's, "But the essential intention [of the conditioning] is the real sin. A man who cannot choose ceases to be a man."… (pp. 33-5)

Alexander's beliefs are revealed as self-delusions, sharply in contrast to his actual behavior. (p. 35)

The ultimate irony is that the man who willfully, albeit unconsciously, denies freedom of choice to others is himself not free to choose. The animal imagery in the Minister's report to Alex that F. Alexander is "howling for your blood" is apt: possessed by his lust for blood vengeance against Alex, F. Alexander is a beast driven by his instincts, not a man at all according to his own formulation that "A man who cannot choose ceases to be a man."

In contrast to F. Alexander, the Prison Chaplain, who expresses the existential tenet in almost precisely the same words ("When a man cannot choose he ceases to be a man" …, devoutly believes in it and is agonizingly aware that he can not choose what he thinks he ought—goodness. He is pathetic in his inability to realize his ideal; yet the pity one feels toward him, one comes to realize, is self-pity, for in his anguish one sees one's own human frailty reflected. (p. 36)

The characterization of the Chaplain as too weak to live up to his convictions, drinking and lying to deaden his conscience, taken together with the depiction of F. Alexander's unconscious hypocrisy, gives Burgess's satire a range from the sympathetically mild satire on man's inability consistently to face the truth about himself, to incisively severe satirical exposure of the inevitable hypocrisy of man totally ignorant of the truth of his human nature.

And what is this truth, the conception of the nature of man that permeates the novel? Burgess has Alex and the Chaplain each introduce half of the truth, and depends upon the reader to form the whole truth. Alex believes, self-deceptively as shall be seen, that he has freely chosen evil because he likes it—"what I do I do because I like to do"—and attributes the origin of evil to God: "badness is of the self …, and that self is made by old Bog or God and is his great pride and radosty."… The Chaplain, less confident than Alex, asks rather than pronounces, "What does God want? Does God want goodness or the choice of goodness?"… He attributes the origin of goodness to God and in effect says of goodness what Alex has said of evil: "Goodness comes from within …"…, which is to say that goodness is of the self. Together their separate statements form the essential truth: good and evil are of the self. Man is both good and evil in and of himself.

Burgess's belief that psychically man inhabits a "dualverse" of good and evil is well known. But it is imperative to establish its organic functioning in A Clockwork Orange if one is to delve beneath the surface content and conventional satiric aims of the novel to realize the sophistication and complexity of Burgess's probing of the human condition, to grasp the full dimensions of his cosmic satire. The meaning inherent in the title itself is a good illustration.

The title has a dual significance, one an ironic commentary on the other. Clearly, and I think superficially, Burgess intends to imply the accepted meaning, as derived from the Cockney expression, "Queer as a clockwork orange," referring to the aberrant and the unnatural. (pp. 37-8)

But to keep in mind Burgess's conception of man's dual nature is to grasp another, more profound significance, one that complements the conception of clockwork-orange man as a queer, unnatural product of conditioning and deepens the cosmic themes of the novel. Man is and always has been a clockwork orange, by nature. Man is the orange, the natural fruit, and one can infer that the epithet "clockwork" refers to the delicately balanced psychic mechanism of man's dual nature. Man's clockwork is the steady, rhythmic heartbeat of his psychic life, the tick and the tock of his good and evil urges. This internal mechanism operates without man's conscious awareness or control. His clockwork will malfunction if tampered with; it will stop if the tension of its psychic springs is relaxed.

The condition of Alex before and after being subjected to Ludovico's Technique well illustrates the implications of this alternate significance of the title. The Alex the reader sees at the beginning is a natural clockwork orange whose psychic mechanism is malfunctioning because it has been radically tampered with. Alex's inherent capacity for evil has been intensified into overt acts of destructive violence by the severity of the repressive conditions imposed upon him. The social conditions that Burgess depicts are but satirically heightened versions of those actual repressive conditions that exacerbate man's inherent capacity for evil by forcing it to break out in monstrously perverse ways. The state has regulated everyone's life; it has subjected the masses to dehumanizing flatblock living; it represses free speech and free expression of individuality; it deadens the mind. Moreover the state has enforced its repressive measures with a police brutality that borders on savagery. (pp. 38-9)

By tampering with Alex's natural clockwork, the state, considered collectively as the repressive forces of society, has rendered him incapable of normal behavior. The subjection of Alex to Ludovico's Technique is then ironically an attempt by the state to eliminate the monstrously unnatural evil that it is responsible for having created. The result of the conditioning process is the destruction of the clockwork altogether: almost literally, it renders Alex incapable of life. The elimination of his capacity for evil necessarily entails the elimination of his capacity for good. In its ignorance of the psychic symbiosis of good and evil, the state has murdered Alex.

With consummate satirical skill, Burgess has the murderer himself, Dr. Brodsky, the agent of the state, unwittingly convey to the reader the principle that explains why the elimination of evil constitutes the killing of the psychic life. In response to Alex's revelation that the conditioning has deprived him of the enjoyment of music, Dr. Brodsky states:

Delimitation is always difficult. The world is one, life is one. The sweetest and most heavenly of activities partake in some measure of violence—the act of love, for instance; music for instance….

His statement is perfectly true, but Brodsky does not realize in the slightest how accurate an account he has given of the inextricable meshing of the good he wants to enforce and the evil he wants to eliminate.

The elimination of evil has effectively denied Alex any participation in the good and necessarily, therefore, of participation in life. (pp. 39-40)

Burgess sees no hope and allows the reader to see no hope that the Brodskys and the Alexanders of this world will ever comprehend their own behavior. They will continue to tamper with the clockwork of others and not only intensify and exacerbate man's naturally evil tendencies but also concomitantly obstruct the functioning of the good. They will never look inside and see themselves as clockwork oranges…. They are human beings, clockwork oranges all, destined to commit ultimate evils because they have no awareness of their own capacity for evil.

Recognition of this conception of man as a natural clockwork orange enables one to grasp the full, profoundly disturbing pessimism that gives the novel its terrifying power. And now one can understand why the final chapter of the novel is essential. It is the culmination of Burgess's exposure of the illusions men live by and the completion of the expression of his pessimistic awareness of the difficulty or the impossibility of man's coming to realize and accept the truth that good and evil emanate from within the self. (pp. 40-1)

John W. Tilton, "'A Clockwork Orange': Awareness Is All," in his Cosmic Satire in the Contemporary Novel (© 1977 by Associated University Presses, Inc.), Bucknell University Press, 1977, pp. 21-42.

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Burgess, Anthony (Vol. 13)


Burgess, Anthony (Vol. 2)