Little Wilson and Big God

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

Readers familiar with the works of the prolific Anthony Burgess should not be surprised either to hear that he has written an autobiography or that the work, the first of two projected volumes, is among other things a prolonged and bitter attack on the British establishment and the class system. Since the publication of his first novel in 1953, Burgess has cast an unsentimental eye upon the follies of his countrymen and contemporaries, and there has never been any reason to believe that age would blur his vision or blunt his pen. The author of twenty-nine novels and nearly as many other assorted works of poetry and prose, Burgess has long been established as a social satirist of diverse talents, including the unlikely capacity to write best-selling fiction. Little Wilson and Big God, which he announces as his second-to-last book, has the wit, cleverness, and bite of the best of his ingenious works.

The title of the book derives from a scornful comment by an exasperated priest, directed against the adolescent hero (born John Burgess Wilson) when he doubted the Sacrament, and it is a reasonably accurate description of the book’s contents: The underlying preoccupation of the autobiography is the author’s loss of faith and what is presented as the morbid consequence of this infidelity. A lapsed Catholic, Burgess views his past from the comfortable perspective of his current worldly success, but he is from the beginning perfectly open about the fact that he has never found a point of view to replace the certainties of his youth and that, despite the absurdities of the institutional Church, he would believe in its doctrines if he could. The work is pervaded by a sense of loss and colored by guilt, for the morass of political mismanagement and military ineptitude in which the young hero flounders about after he leaves the church is muddier than the mysteries that drove him away from Catholicism. A secular misanthropist, Burgess is like Saint Augustine before his conversion. Little Wilson and Big God, an energetic and comic memoir, owes its underlying shape to the conventions of religious autobiography.

Burgess’ story, as described for the reader in this first volume, follows a long downward curve. Born in 1917 to a mother who died of influenza when he was less than a year old, John Burgess Wilson was reared in the provincial city of Manchester, England, by an unloving stepmother and a kind but alcoholic father who bequeathed him little but his musical talent. Burgess depicts a lonely and unprepossessing child. Bookish, without strong family ties, the child was alienated from his classmates by temperament and by choice. His Catholicism, which he took seriously, served to underline his position as an outsider in the Protestant working-class circles that dominated the town.

Young Wilson—he would not become Burgess until well into his fourth decade—was an above-average but not outstanding student who entertained himself with motion pictures, with books—especially the works of Gerard Manley Hopkins and James Joyce, whose religious preoccupations and linguistic intricacies reflected his own interests—and with music, which he taught himself to compose while still in his early teens. Failing repeatedly and perversely to win the scholarships to the Universities of Cambridge or Oxford that might have assured his acceptance into the privileged middle class, Wilson persuaded his family to help finance his education at Manchester University, where he took a degree in English literature. Academic music, his real interest, was closed to him because of his lack of conventional training.

Independence and adulthood brought neither freedom nor relief from the general grimness of a life of near-poverty. He wrote a thesis on Christopher Marlowe in 1943, with bombs falling in the streets around him, became engaged to a passionate Welsh student, and, after the usual unromantic agonies of basic training, was sent to Gibraltar as part of the Army Vocational and Cultural Corps, an educational unit designed to prepare enlisted men for the new society that was to await them when they returned to England to take up the strands of peacetime life. He was low in the military hierarchy, and since he could seldom take his duties seriously it seemed unlikely that he could rise. The task of spouting empty phrases to disgruntled workers who hated the war, the army, the Allies, and the British cause was ludicrous, particularly when he agreed with his audience. Lynne, by now his wife, wrote letters from England recounting her affairs and upbraiding him for his failure to progress. The local girls he took to bed for consolation were on the whole...

(The entire section is 1911 words.)