Anthony Burgess Profile
John Burgess Wilson (later to become Anthony Burgess), writer, literary critic and
musical composer and was born on 25 February 1917, the penultimate year of the
‘Great War’. Two years later his mother and sister both died from so called Spanish
influenza. This was a hard start to life; for some years to come it would remain hard.
Asked about his childhood in an Anthony Clare interview in 1988, Burgess would
look back and say, ‘I had to grow up without something I envied in others – you
know, the mother’. Although his father would marry another woman by the name of
Margaret Dwyer, Burgess and Dwyer were never to be anything close to mother and
son. When asked about his relationship with Dwyer, Burgess would spit in
indignation, ‘hate … you’ve no idea’.
But, unlike the character in a Roald Dahl story, Burgess would not meet a friendly
giant, or be magically transported to another time and place. His escape came in the
worlds of music and literature.
At the age of seven Burgess’s father gave him a piano lesson, which he would later
call the most important musical lesson of his life – ‘find middle C and you have
found everything’. Although Burgess would later talk of his father’s wishing that it
had been his son and not his wife taken by the influenza, the young Burgess would be
forever indebted to his father for his introduction to classical music.
He went on to compose a number of musical pieces and in an interview with The
Economist (1991) he said, ‘I wish people would think of me as a musician who writes
novels instead of a novelist who writes music on the side’. Just one of the many
paradoxes in the life of Anthony Burgess.
His other love, the one for which he received the most acclaim, was his writing. In
1937 Burgess started a course in English literature at the University of Manchester.
English had always been one of Burgess’s favourite subjects and it was a natural
progression to begin at Manchester University. It was here that Burgess began to
study those writers that would have a formative effect on his own writings.
He began to write short stories for the student newspaper, The Serpent. In a revealing
short story about the death of Burgess’s father (1938), he would adopt the perspective
of Joyce’s Ulysses. ‘Frayed cords to untwist. A gasping pump’, in a cold detached
account, which may or may not have been representative of Burgess’s own
Joyce would continue to play an important role in Burgess’s life. In a 1966 review for
The Times, Burgess said of Ulysses, ‘from the average reader it demands an
exorbitant interest in language’, something which Burgess himself possessed.
Inspired by Joyce’s writing, he began to adopt similar techniques in his own work.
Upon reading Joyce’s, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Burgess would
remark, ‘the modernism did not deter me … I … was not likely to be put off by
Just as Joyce before him had considered themes of religious damnation, and the
inherent evil of mankind, so too did Burgess. Earthly Powers, the novel for which he
received a Booker nomination, was an ambitious look at evil in the 20th century.
Burgess said that this book was, ‘an attempt to deal with the damnable mystery of
good and evil as manifested in the worst century that history has ever known’. While
not an easy read, this book provides a fascinating insight into Burgess’s inner
It was Burgess’s contention that the best writing provided some essence of the
writer’s character. Writing in the Times 1964, Burgess said, ‘the personality of the
novelist is important to us’. As long as the writer had something interesting to say
about society, the reader would be keen to listen.
The preoccupation and what Burgess would call the obsession with good and evil,
would be an ongoing theme. In one commentary on his novels he said, ‘they are
probably all about the same thing - man is a sinner, but not sufficiently a sinner to
deserve the calamities that are heaped upon him. I suppose I try to make comic novels
about man's tragic lot’.
In 1959 Burgess believed that he had met his own ‘tragic lot’ when he was diagnosed
with a brain tumour and given one year to live. It was in this year that he began to
take up writing ‘seriously’, writing five books in one year. He had been determined to
leave his wife Lynn with some sort of inheritance. By the end of the year Burgess was
still alive and the diagnosis proved to be false. It was this event that acted as the
springboard for Burgess’s literary career.
It was in 1959 that Burgess began writing his most famous novel, A Clockwork
Orange. The book adopted a dystopian image of the future where youth roamed the
streets beating up the ‘doddery starry schoolmaster’ or female ‘devotchkas’.
It remains a fine example of 20th century literature and was recently recognized
among Time Magazine's 100 best novels from 1923 to the present. Ironically it was
the one novel which Burgess wished he'd never written. In an introduction to the 1986
edition of A Clockwork Orange Burgess wrote, ‘I should myself be glad to disown it
for various reasons’.
One of the main factors behind the success of A Clockwork Orange novel was the
impact of Stanley Kubrick’s filmic adaptation. Controversy erupted when the film hit
the big screen in 1971. The subtlety of Anthony Burgess’s approach was thought to be
lacking in the film version; it was an overtly brutal depiction.
It was responsible for raising the profile of Stanley Kubrick and a good many books
were sold off the back of it. But Burgess was never keen to celebrate the success of A
Clockwork Orange. He made attempts later on in his career to dispel the myth that he
was a ‘one novel author’. In an interview with American journalist Don Swain (1985)
Burgess said, ‘what we want is for people to if not read then at least to be aware of the
Burgess had an insatiable appetite for the writing of literature. In the same interview
with Swaim, Burgess exclaimed, ‘it’s blagardly thing to write too much and that’s
what I’ve got to live with’.
Upon the request of a Mr James Michie, Burgess adopted the pseudonym of Joseph
Kell to write his Enderby books. They were a charming take on the life of a poet who
would compose his works while on the lavatory. Mr Michie was worried that the
speed with which Burgess produced his novels would lead literary reviewers to accuse
him of carelessness.
David Lodge, a literary reviewer for the Spectator (1963), said of Inside Mr Enderby
‘A sad story, but from first page to last it is absurdly, outrageously funny’. Joseph
Kell had a promising literary career.
It was cut short when it was discovered that Burgess had reviewed his own work in
the Yorkshire Post. Burgess said of Inside Mr Enderby ‘How thin and under-savoury
everything seems after Enderby’s gross richness’. Burgess was subsequently given the
sack for favourably reviewing his own work.
Despite this sacking Burgess would continue to write literary reviews and articles for
different newspapers. He was always happiest when in the act of creation. In an
interview with Thomas Churchill (1968) he said, ‘I can stay at the table or a long
stretch, smoking a lot … I get a thousand words a day down’.
When not holding a pen, Burgess would be found with either a smoke or an alcoholic
beverage in his hand. Burgess was to write about a favourite cocktail for the Guardian
(1993), ‘Into a pint beer-glass doubles of the following are poured: gin, whisky, rum
port and brandy. A small bottle of stout is added and the whole topped up with
champagne’. A bohemian in all senses of the word, he was still puffing away on
cigars in 1993, the year that he died from lung cancer.
11th January 2009