Anthony Burgess Burgess (Wilson), (John) Anthony - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

(John) Anthony Burgess (Wilson) 1917–

English novelist, editor, translator, essayist, composer, and critic.

A remarkably prolific writer with a wide range of subjects. Burgess 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. With more than forty titles to his credit, Burgess has often been accused of having an uneven oeuvre. Most critics agree, however, that in Earthly Powers, which took him ten years to write, he regains the top of his form.

(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 4, 5, 8, 10, 13, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Geoffrey Aggeler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Burgess'] sensitivity to the comic potential of English is apparent throughout his novels, and presumably it was increased by his reading of Joyce. He does not use language, in precisely the same ways that Joyce does, but he makes it, along with situation and character, a principal vehicle of comedy. And, like Joyce,… he does not hesitate to go beyond English and devise a tongue suitable for his artistic purposes.

The influence of Joyce can also be seen in the portraiture of several of his protagonists and, to an extent, in the structure of some of his novels. Victor Crabbe in The Long Day Wanes, Paul Hussey in Honey for the Bears, Edwin Spindrift in The Doctor Is Sick, and Tristram Foxe in The Wanting Seed all share a great deal with Leopold Bloom. They are all sensitive, cultured, well-meaning but ineffectual, cuckolded non-heroes involved in non-heroic Odyssean quests which terminate in some sort of return to a mate who has proved herself to be an unfaithful Penelope. The return may or may not involve an actual reunion. In fact, more often than not, the wanderer merely arrives at a heightened understanding of his mate and his relationship to her. The enlightenment gained is usually a dismal and ironic epiphany. (pp. 235-36)

Intense sexual humiliation is an experience many of Burgess' heroes share with Bloom. Many of them, like Crabbe, are cuckolded. Some, such as Edwin Spindrift, Paul Hussey, and Mr. Enderby, are proven impotent. But whereas Bloom recovers from his sexual humiliation and is reunited with Molly in what promises to be a mutually gratifying relationship, Burgess' heroes usually suffer irreparable losses with their humiliations. Paul Hussey, the homosexual protagonist of Honey for the Bears, loses his wife to a lesbian Russian doctor. Mr. Enderby, a poet who has become impotent through prolonged adolescence, loses his lyric gift after a disastrous marriage. Edwin Spindrift, the philologist-hero of The Doctor Is Sick, after a Ulyssean quest through the seamier sections of London, is reunited with his wife only long enough to acknowledge that their marriage is hopeless. The Wanting Seed concludes more happily in this regard, but the reader still wonders how the hero and his wife will rebuild their marriage in the face of odds posed by their situation. (pp. 237-38)

Burgess' representation of human experience has not been universally admired among critics. Yet even among those who have little sympathy with his ideas there are few who would deny his brilliance as a prose stylist. As I have said, he appears to have learned much from Joyce, although he does not do precisely the same things with language that Joyce does. He seldom uses stream-of-consciousness or interior monologue. He rarely employs the Joycean device of juxtaposing radically differing literary styles for comic or ironic effect. But, like Joyce and Nabokov, he is keenly aware of the auditory value of words and is fond of onomatopoeia. A Clockwork Orange is narrated entirely in an invented language which is rich in onomatopoeic suggestion. Inside Mr. Enderby opens with a flatulent statement that is repeated, with modifications, frequently thereafter as a kind of gaseous chorus. And indeed all of his novels are full of gorgeous word play which is best appreciated when the passages are read aloud.

Also, like Joyce, he laces his prose heavily with literary allusion, and he has clearly revealed his impatience with those who feel that this device is not widely appreciated. In The Right to an Answer a dope-smuggling, woman-beating hoodlum justifies his philosophy of life with reference to Shakespeare, Francis Bacon, and Graham Greene. (pp. 238-39)

Burgess teases his readers. His allusive style is both flattering and vexing. A reader must be fairly well read and have some familiarity with classical music in order to fully enjoy his wit and word play. But even as he flatters his readers with the assumption that they have these prerequisites, Burgess play-fully reminds them that their cultural attainments are shared by the lowliest, most depraved dregs of humanity.

Both as satire and linguistic tour de force, A Clockwork Orange is one of Burgess' most brilliant achievements. If one felt compelled to classify it among recognized sub-genres of the novel, he would probably say that Burgess has combined picaresque with Orwellian proleptic nightmare…. The novel's brilliance as a linguistic feat derives from Burgess' very considerable knowledge of languages and phonetics, as well as his keen musician's ear for the rhythmic potential of verbal patterns.

I should perhaps stress that A Clockwork Orange is much more than a linguistic tour de force. It is also probably the most devastating piece of anti-utopian satire since Zamiatin's We. The fact that its satiric direction has been either overlooked or misunderstood by most reviewers points to no fault in the novel. Like Zamiatin and Swift, Burgess satirizes more than one school of utopian thought. His most obvious target is the utopian dream spawned by the behavioral psychologists, such as B. F. Skinner. It may be pure coincidence, but A Clockwork Orange looks very much like a deliberate refutation of Skinner's Walden Two, a novel which is simply a blueprint for a utopia in which most human problems could be solved by a scientific technology of human behavior. The principles of this behavioral...

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L. J. Davis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The prolific and apparently inexhaustible Anthony Burgess writes like one of those glib and often fascinating Englishmen who are able to talk for hours at no risk of repeating themselves. When he is at the top of his form, as in Enderby, there are few writers who can touch him; when he is off, as in Nothing Like the Sun, he is a crashing bore; and, either on or off, he gives the impression of skating on perilously thin ice over a bottomless lake of utter balderdash, but he almost never falls in. He is not so much intoxicated with words as he is entranced with the phenomena of language, inflection, and his own considerable erudition. Narcissistic though this intoxication may be, it is also communicable through the medium of his prose. Burgess gives good value….

In an informative foreword [to The Eve of Saint Venus] that effectively spikes the guns of any critic who might either take him too seriously or miss some of his finer points, he describes it as a "commedia dell' Aldwych," after the old Aldwych Theatre in London. Breathes there a man with soul so dead who is not lovingly familiar with this hallowed type of British drama, as stylized as the Noh plays and American cowboy movies? Utterly good-hearted and as mechanical and amusing as a clever wind-up toy, the Aldwych drawing-room farces generally took place in the great country houses of a rural aristocracy which Burgess describes, perhaps too harshly, as "silly, ingrown, [and] mainly non-existent." Within this admittedly contrived dramatic frame, Burgess confines a number of...

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David Daiches

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

              [Moses] swings along rather well,
Genial, slack verse that is easy to read,
The rhythms loose and ambulatory,
  The line lengths uneven,
  The language now formal, now colloquial,
  Echoes of the Bible mingling with knowing modern diagnosis,
  Hesitant about miracles, but coming down on their side in the end,
  Perfunctory in scholarship, but showing signs of reasonable background reading,
  Narrating, explaining, interpreting, sympathizing, even one might say
  Empathizing with his hero, whom he admires, admires,
  And more than admires—likes. For he's on Moses' side all right
  And keeps him human while demonstrating his greatness….
  Whether this ambulatory verse, chatty (almost) pre-film-script narrative
  Tells more of the story, or tells it better
  Than the Authorized Version of the Bible
  Is not perhaps a tactful question to raise.
  For Burgess is sorting out his picture of Moses
  For himself, a modern self, not making a holy record
  For a people, a chosen people, a people made one by this very Moses.
  It's not a search for the historical Moses
  But a rendering from selected biblical clues
  Of those aspects of the biblical story he thinks he can handle.
  The rest he omits, or skips over, or compresses
  Because he and his verse must move on, move on,
  Seeking always "What next?"
  The great hymn of triumph after the crossing of the sea
  He does not give or render, but puts in odd bits of hymns
  At times, to give the proper early religious flavour.
  Many readers I think will see something engaging
  In this loose and lucid verse history of Moses.
  And if I say that for myself, myself, I prefer the Bible,
  The account in the Bible from the first Egyptian enslavement
  To the death of Moses on Mount Pisgah
  (And for that matter the Bible in its original language,
  For I too have my linguistic obsessions)
  —If I say that, Burgess cannot be offended,
  Not offended, because after all he knows the splendours
  Of that language as well as any of us
  And leavens his own story with it at critical moments.
  Interesting, then; commendable, even; a bit of sport
  In the garden of modern poetry. But none the worse for that.

David Daiches, "Ambulant Prophet," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1977; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3906, January 21, 1977, p. 50.

Richard Mathews

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The metaphor of the clockwork universe provides a useful touchstone for considering [some of Burgess's novels] …, and it is a motif extended and developed throughout his work; but Burgess has already beaten clock time as he has transcended national borders through fiction which constantly breaks beyond imposed and conventional thinking. (p. 3)

Burgess doesn't "think that the job of literature is to teach us how to behave," but he does "think it can make clearer the whole business of moral choice by showing what the nature of life's problems is." In other words, he must first define the clockwork enemy; once we see the situation clearly, then perhaps it can be controlled. For Burgess personally and...

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D. J. Enright

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

By the time I had reached the end of [Earthly Powers] I had accumulated enough notes to make a modest book: a fact that bears witness to the sheer density of the writing, as well as the seriousness of its concern. It is unwise to skim. Only in retrospect can you identify what could safely have been skipped as supererogatory or duplicate. Since complaints will follow—grave matters incur grave complaint—let me say at the outset that Earthly Powers carries greater intellectual substance, more power and grim humour, more knowledge, than ten average novels put together.

[Why has Burgess created his hero, Toomey, homosexual?] Burgess is hardly an author whom one would suppose to be in...

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Jeremy Treglown

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Earthly Powers is a novel which engages twentieth-century personalities, events, ideas and problems in a way that makes David Lodge's How Far Can You Go? look like a parish magazine. In the process, it explores the dealings of fiction with the actual: fiction's kaleidoscopic scramblings and refractions of real bits and pieces into a vivid pattern, a pattern made in Earthly Powers out of the combination of an intellectual, witty scheme with the narrative shapings of a more traditional sequential novel.

This scheme is both intensely grim and, in the end, unexpectedly consoling. To write about it intelligibly, it is necessary to give away some of what come in the story as appalling...

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John Leonard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mr. Burgess, who has in "Earthly Powers" made a remarkable recovery from a series of indifferent fictions that began with "MF," chooses to write entirely from the point of view of an octogenarian homosexual….

To be sure, the heterosexuals in "Earthly Powers" fare almost as poorly as the homosexuals, once Mr. Burgess punches the total bar on his adding machine, but the homosexuals range from the opportunistic to the nasty and seem, in the scheme of the novel, to deserve their misery.

As if this moralizing were not sufficiently scandalous, Mr. Burgess invents a twin moon for Toomey, Don Carlo Campanati, a fat priest and exorcist who becomes the people's Pope. Carlo, with the changes...

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Robert Towers

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The phenomena of demonic possession and exorcism seem to be taken seriously in Anthony Burgess's new novel [Earthly Powers]. Has Burgess himself been possessed by a scribbling demon? More than 20 novels in as many years, together with more than 20 titles in a variety of other genres—the record suggests that some agency not quite human might have been at work. Demons traditionally speak in many tongues, as does the polyglot Burgess, who is also capable of making up languages of his own (A Clockwork Orange and other novels, passim). The range of his productions, from children's books to studies of Joyce, hints at multiple possession, at the possibility that the name of Burgess's demon may be...

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Pearl K. Bell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Anthony Burgess's] twenty-odd volumes of fiction range over vast immensities of time and space, and are full of flashy erudition and restless experiments with language and form.

In one of his early novels, The Right to an Answer (1960), Burgess proved himself a mordantly funny satirist, expert at the outraged snarl against society that has been a staple of postwar British fiction and that reached comic perfection in the work of Kingsley Amis. In Davil of a State and the trilogy, The Long Day Wanes, drawing upon his colonial years in Malaya, Burgess was a canny and unsentimental chronicler of the death rattle of empire, perceiving it as a tragicomedy of misconception and fatally...

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George Steiner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Burgess bibliography lists twenty-one novels. (There are rumors of esoterica under a pen name.) "The Long Day Wanes," an autobiographical trilogy set in Malaya, launched the Burgess canon. It remains perhaps his most poignant, unguarded performance. "A Clockwork Orange" brought celebrity when it was made into a striking movie. But the fiction is subtler than Stanley Kubrick's package and points to that in Burgess's politics and alertness to science-fiction which connects his writings to those of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. "Honey for the Bears" is both a political fable and an ingenious meditation on language. It is one of a cluster of works, fiction and nonfiction, in which Burgess seeks an imaginative grip...

(The entire section is 962 words.)