You’ve Had Your Time

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 456

In 1959, Anthony Burgess was diagnosed as having a brain tumor which would kill him within a year. Prior to becoming Anthony Burgess, author, he was John Anthony Burgess Wilson, British education officer. He had been stationed in Malaya (where he had written several novels) before he and his wife, Lynne, returned to England, only to find out that he had little time left to live. Burgess did not want to leave his alcoholic wife destitute; writing novels as fast as he could would be his solution. His wife refused to read any of the books that he completed. Through sheer will power, Burgess made himself into a full-time writer. He did not shrink from the task, and the medical diagnosis turned out to be completely wrong.

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In YOU’VE HAD YOUR TIME, Burgess presents the frantic pace at which he led his life. Ever-troubled by his wife’s drinking and promiscuity, he plunged into project after project. Burgess describes the nonglamorous routine necessary for a working writer. His early books brought little success, but he continued to push himself in a variety of writing endeavors, including reviews, translations, and critical works concerning James Joyce. He is probably best known for his novel A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1962) because of the 1971 film version directed by Stanley Kubrick. Lynne finally died in 1968 of cirrhosis. Burgess was a shattered man.

Nearly bankrupt after his wife’s death, Burgess pushed forward as best he could. Not long after, a woman from his past showed up and informed him that their sexual encounter a couple of years before had produced a child. Burgess proposed marriage to the mother—the respected translator Liana Macellari—of his child and they left England for the Continent. Burgess is always fascinating in his retelling of his nomadic life. Never one to pull his punches, he passionately takes on the critics who were scathing in their assessment of his writing. YOU’VE HAD YOUR TIME ends in 1982 with the celebrations of the centenary of James Joyce’s birth. Burgess is never still. He moves like a blur and he has opinions on the life and literature that are always thoughtful, as well as, frequently uproarious. Anthony Burgess is the consummate professional, and he has created a fine entertainment in YOU’VE HAD YOUR TIME by mining his own life’s rich vein.

Sources for Further Study

The Antioch Review. XLIX, Summer, 1991, p. 465.

Chicago Tribune. May 19, 1991, XIV, p. 4.

Choice. XXIX, October, 1991, p. 277.

London Review of Books. XII, November 8, 1990, p. 17.

Los Angeles Times. April 24, 1991, p. E2.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVI, April 28, 1991, p. 1.

The New Yorker. LXVII, May 20, 1991, p. 108.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, March 22, 1991, p. 64.

The Times Literary Supplement. October 26, 1990, p. 1143.

The Washington Post Book World. XXI, May 12, 1991, p. 1.

You’ve Had Your Time

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1995

In January, 1960, Anthony Burgess was diagnosed as having a terminal disease and informed that he had less than a year to live. Approaching his forty-third birthday, he decided to write six novels in his remaining time so as to leave some kind of legacy for his wife. This apparently instantaneous resolve to become a professional writer is not otherwise explained, and readers therefore must consult the first volume of Burgess’ life story, Little Wilson and Big God: The Autobiography (1987) for an account of his initial efforts as a novelist while teaching in Malaysia. Nevertheless, You’ve Had Your Time stands by itself, with Burgess’ race against the clock providing this second volume with a particularly swift beginning.

Although Burgess calls his “temperament essentially secretive and mendacious,” his memoir seems brutally frank, as befits a book that in Europe was titled Confessions. A lapsed Catholic, he observes that to confess is to seek forgiveness, and it is perhaps this apparent precision in admitting his faults that accounts for his narrative’s remarkable lack of rationalization. Not surprisingly, Burgess feels guilty about his misdeeds, and his narrative is a kind of atonement for them, the testimony of a man who believes in original sin—at least in its secular manifestation as a tragic flaw. His humor seems rooted in this recognition of the incongruity between his ability to be articulate (in his fiction he has invented languages) and his inability to lead a tidy life and to leave an organized estate for his family.

Midway through his terminal year, Burgess realizes that he has been misdiagnosed and probably will not die any time soon. He does not accomplish his goal of writing six novels, but he does produce four. He fails to observe that, even as he becomes certain of his reprieve, his wife is sliding deeper into alcoholism—in part provoked by his aloofness, his avoidance of the marital bed, and his long periods of isolated work on his novels.

It is difficult to determine whether it is Burgess or his wife who is to blame for their troubles. Does she seek the love of other men because he is indifferent, or is he indifferent because, as he says, he does not choose to compete with her other lovers? Burgess allows the ambiguity of the marriage to stand, seeing its comic side: Lynne refuses to read his novels and then claims to have written them. It is still a marriage, as in those moments when she consents to have him read passages from his novels when they are in bed together. They are two of a kind when it comes to drink, except that Lynne’s alcoholism is more desperate because she has no outlet for her creativity or her frustrations.

It is painful to watch Lynne drink herself to death (she dies six years after the misdiagnosis of Burgess), yet she is accorded a kind of tribute in her husband’s depictions of her outspokenness, denouncing Russians in their Leningrad tour and sometimes giving Burgess ideas for novels. When he takes up painting, she notices his shaking hand bringing brush to canvas and remarks on “the tremor of intent,” a phrase that becomes the title of a Burgess novel. There is no sentimentality in Burgess—not even for this woman who obviously hurt and entertained him, regaling him with accounts of her lovers and gauging his own sexual prowess on the scale of her extramarital experience. What gives his humor bite is that he is both amused and depressed by his life’s contradictions.

Burgess, then, is extraordinarily candid on the relationship between life and art, never indulging in the coy denials of other novelists who claim a rigid separation between their biographies and their fiction. Of course, he takes liberties with facts, and his novels are not merely disguised autobiographies, but their basis in biography is recognized and profoundly probed. Virtually every novel Burgess has written, and much of his nonfiction as well, receives at least an insightful paragraph in his memoir, so that the development of his career is clearly set out and critiqued.

Burgess makes no apology for writing for money. Words have been his livelihood, and if he has sometimes written too much to support himself, he has always taken care with every project, recognizing its flaws but persevering nevertheless. He often cites negative reviews of his novels, agreeing in one case that his work has been “half-baked” and should have been in the oven longer. Reviewers bother Burgess—sometimes because they fail to understand his work, but more often because they seem needlessly cruel and do not offer the writer any assistance in correcting his defects. He almost never defends himself, except to say that with certain novels—Napoleon Symphony (1974), for example—he knew that he was bound to fail in trying to fuse musical and novelistic form and that it was his intention to present a splendid failure. In other words, he is not afraid of attempting what he suspects cannot be done. Thus he has continued to stretch himself even while accepting commercial assignments that demand skill, not innovation.

A great many characters put in an appearance in Burgess’ autobiography: Frank Sinatra (sometimes behaving like a gangster and sometimes like a musical scholar), Grace Kelly (the perfect princess), William Conrad (the actor turned producer of a musical on Shakespeare’s life), Norman Mailer (telling Burgess his last book is bad), countless book reviewers (usually assuming a superior attitude toward the working novelist Burgess), William Burroughs (reading Jane Austen to Lynne in Tangiers), Stanley Kubrick (the withdrawn director of A Clockwork Orange (1962), who expects Burgess to promote the movie based on his novel even though Burgess has to go to court to reap a modest profit from the film). There are great scenes with the less celebrated, but all these characters seem tangential, putting in cameos in Burgess’ peripatetic career. He admits, in a single sentence, that he has really had no friends; the principal personages in his life have been his two wives and his son.

Burgess does not lament his isolation; indeed, he does not treat his detachment from others as such, although there is a horrid scene in the hospital when doctors question him about Lynne. Her liver is deteriorating and they are obviously concerned about her drinking. They ask Burgess how well he knows his wife, implying that he should have done something about her condition. His only reply is that he has known her for twenty-six years. When she dies, he momentarily questions his refusal to stop her drinking, but his actions clearly indicate he does not feel he can or should take responsibility for someone else’s life—although on more than one occasion he foils Lynne’s suicide attempts.

Burgess’ depression after his wife’s death is relieved by Liana, an Italian woman with whom he had had a brief affair and a son, Andrea; Burgess is not told of the boy until he is four. Marrying Liana gives Burgess a new lease on life, a cliché he finds hard to believe himself. This new source of stability—Liana is strong and sophisticated with a literary bent—keeps Burgess faithful and ambitious, sometimes working on three projects—a screenplay, a novel, and a musical composition—at once.

Fortified with Liana’s help, Burgess embarks on several speaking tours in the United States and on brief stints as a writer in residence at universities. He is often caustic about American education, decrying open admissions at City College in New York City and the idea that students have democratic rights. Given student evaluation forms of his teaching and pencils, he throws away the forms and keeps the pencils.

Burgess is, by almost any measure, a conservative, believing in the teacher as authority figure and in such traditions as the Latin mass. Yet he is also a working-class writer, comfortable with the world of commerce and scornful of the snobbery of Bloomsbury types such as Virginia Woolf. Angry that she once called James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) “the book of a self-taught working man…of a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples,” Burgess answers: “It would have done her good to be seduced in a Manchester back-alley.” Such comments have always outraged feminists and liberals. For “seduced” some have read “raped,” which is not a fair characterization of his attack on a writer whom he feels never saw life at ground level and who was insulated from insults that Burgess, D. H. Lawrence, and other working-class writers have had to overcome.

Until the mid-1980’s, Burgess, in his quest for a living, does not stay in one place very long. On a trip with Lynne to the Soviet Union in the early 1960’s, he takes along polyester dresses to sell to Russians in Leningrad lavatories; in Hollywood he becomes involved in various improbable projects; in Italy he writes screenplays for low- budget biblical epics; and he moves to Malta to escape British taxes only to find that the stipulation of his residence is that he must retire from his main employment as a writer. Burgess realizes the comic richness of these episodes, deploring his incapacity to read contracts rightly and the cupidity of his agents. Unlike many serious novelists, however, he has often transformed his commercial work into first-rate fiction, preferring to write short novels rather than the traditional Hollywood “treatments” so that he has something to show for his labor just in case (as often happens) the movie is not made.

Eventually, Burgess amasses enough capital to settle in Monaco and in Lugano, with his trips to earn income becoming less frequent. Compared to his many years as an itinerant professional writer, life in Monaco with Liana and Andrea seems almost idyllic. Befriending Princess Grace, Burgess becomes something of a local fixture and celebrity, discharging minor public responsibilities and producing an ambitious novel, Earthly Powers (1980), a European bestseller. Burgess admits that his writer’s life has not benefited his son Andrea, who has never had the luxury of living in one place for long and has been buffeted from one language to another—not such a handicap in childhood but definitely a liability to an adolescent who longs to identify with a home and country of his own. To Burgess’ surprise, Andrea picks Scotland, Burgess’ own ancestral seat. Although Liana and Andrea figure throughout the second half of Burgess’ narrative, they do not seem nearly as vivid as the self-destructive yet comic Lynne, who served as the problematic muse of her husband’s early fiction. Yet the solid second marriage not only provides Burgess with more material for fiction, it is also strengthened by Liana’s work as translator and promoter of her husband’s novels—so much so that he regards Italian as his second language.

Although some readers may be put off by Burgess’ confessions—his life has at times a squalid quality—his humor and honesty are compelling, and he has vividly recreated himself as author and human being, a writer who also wished to be a composer and who late in life has increasingly turned to musical composition and performance, delighting in the opportunity, for example, to accompany on the piano a screening of a silent film.

You’ve Had Your Time has the religious intensity of a confession, even though Burgess makes no claim to be a believer. His Catholicism, he confides, is vestigial, yet his guilt drives him to render his errors accurately and to use the memoir form as a kind of expiation.

Sources for Further Study

The Antioch Review. XLIX, Summer, 1991, p. 465.

Chicago Tribune. May 19, 1991, XIV, p. 4.

Choice. XXIX, October, 1991, p. 277.

London Review of Books. XII, November 8, 1990, p. 17.

Los Angeles Times. April 24, 1991, p. E2.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVI, April 28, 1991, p. 1.

The New Yorker. LXVII, May 20, 1991, p. 108.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, March 22, 1991, p. 64.

The Times Literary Supplement. October 26, 1990, p. 1143.

The Washington Post Book World. XXI, May 12, 1991, p. 1.

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