Anthony Burgess Biography

Start Your Free Trial


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Download Anthony Burgess Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Anthony Burgess, born John Anthony Burgess Wilson, was one of the most prolific and by many accounts one of the most important British novelists of the later twentieth century. There is no question of his productivity: In a publishing career of some thirty years that began when he was nearly forty years old, he had more than sixty books published, including novels, criticism, essays, translations, plays, screenplays, short stories, children’s books, and poems. He also wrote, late in his career, a two-volume autobiography. Moreover, under the name John Wilson he gained wide respect as a composer of music. This prodigality of production ironically worked to his disadvantage, some critics and reviewers finding it hard to associate great quality with great quantity. Yet the entertainment quotient of his fiction is high, as is his control of the technical bases of narrative writing. His themes are characteristically deep and significant.{$S[A]Wilson, John Burgess;Burgess, Anthony}{$S[A]Kell, Joseph;Burgess, Anthony}

Educated in local schools and at the University of Manchester, Burgess did not start out to be a writer. From Manchester he obtained a degree in musical composition in 1940, though he did also develop an avid interest in English language and literature as a student. Upon graduation he joined the army, serving during World War II first as a musician and then in intelligence in Gibraltar. Discharged in 1946, he held a number of jobs over the next seven years, including playing jazz piano and teaching in a grammar school. In 1954, he went to Malaya as an education commissioner in the British Colonial Service, and there he began writing and assembling the materials for his early trilogy The Long Day Wanes. In these three novels, Burgess uses the experiences of a young British teacher to illustrate the decline of British imperial prestige and the conflicts between European values and local traditions and practices.

One event in Malaya confirmed Burgess in his decision to write professionally. In 1959, following a lengthy illness, colonial physicians detected a brain tumor, remanding him to England for specialist treatment. There he was told he had one year to live. Deciding that he wanted to produce as much as he could in the time he had left, he began to write furiously. He finished five novels that year, and he left the hospital cured. He hardly slowed that furious pace during his lifetime.

Those five novels, all published astonishingly within a twenty-month period, marked the advent of a serious voice and an eye for piercing satiric detail. All relatively short, they resemble the early novels of Evelyn Waugh, rivaling Waugh in ease of characterization, sprightly dialogue, stylistic control, and appreciation of the absurd in modern life. Like early Waugh, they also combine skillful entertainment with serious implicit themes. Though all hold up well, The Right to an Answer and Devil of a State remain particularly attractive, and The Worm and the Ring anticipates the technical triumphs to come. Following these novels, Burgess began experimenting with the various kinds of fiction, producing futurist fantasy, science fiction, travel fiction, portrait-of-the-artist fiction, historical fiction, romantic fiction, and espionage fiction. The resulting group of novels established his critical reputation.

Burgess is best known for one of these experimental novels, A Clockwork Orange, which, though impressive, is hardly more distinguished or brilliant than his other works. Still, it combines topical problems with linguistic bravura, centering on juvenile gangs that speak an invented jargon called “Nadsat,” made up of elements of crude Russian and Cockney slang. Alex, the protagonist , revels in senseless violence, for which he is arrested and sentenced to forced behavior modification. Burgess raises questions about the ethics of such compulsory reformation. The novel’s disturbing visions of a violent future world and its profound themes...

(The entire section is 2,409 words.)