There is an awkward period in the lives of clothes, furniture and writers, when they become something more than dated but something less than a piece of history. We call things that have reached this state ‘unfashionable’, and usually throw such stuff away without thinking any more about it. Everyone sees a 1960s sideboard or a 1980s haircut as dated, and, beyond an embarrassed smile at our folly for ever having admired such cheesy horrors, these things rarely give rise to any thought. But unfashionable things are much more complicated and intriguing phenomena than they might appear. They open a gap in our ways of perceiving because they fall between our aesthetic and our historical sense. When we look at unfashionable objects our senses tell us that an age has passed, but we don’t yet have a means of giving those things the benefit of a historical perspective. The unfashionable embarrasses us – how can I have worn that? – but when the first blush is over it should challenge us to think about how our tastes are made and why they change.
Anthony Burgess is a 1960s sideboard of a writer. His range was improbable. He published 32 novels, composed symphonies, wrote two books on Joyce, a biography of Shakespeare and a study of the English language, as well as a large number of film scripts, most of which never entered production. He died in 1993, and is at the moment passing through the droop in reputation which most dead writers endure before they can become history. Four years ago he was the victim of what was generally regarded as a loathsome biography by Roger Lewis, who presented him as a pompous, psychologically damaged second-rater. Lewis’s biography was no fun to read, but it was interesting for what it revealed about responses to the unfashionable. It was written by a lapsed admirer, and showed exactly what happens when a reader realises that he no longer likes what he thought he liked, but hasn’t yet worked out how to detach himself from his former feeling. The result is rage and loathing, which is chiefly a warped form of embarrassment about one’s former admiration.
Andrew Biswell’s new biography, which generously allows Burgess’s friends and enemies to speak in their own voices, flushes out the worst aspects of Lewis. It presents Burgess’s life with a sobriety and care that are at once admirable and slightly chilling. Burgess’s life was always one of the main sources of his fiction, so much so that his two volumes of autobiography, Little Wilson and Big God (1987) and You’ve Had Your Time (1990), make it very hard to work out where life ends and art begins. Many of the central events of his life became stories, which were retold in different versions on talkshows and in novels. How much time did his father really devote to playing the piano in the local cinema in Manchester, as against his less glamorous day job as a tobacconist? Was his mother really a music-hall starlet known as the Beautiful Belle Burgess? Biswell kindly remarks that no lady of that name appears on any of the playbills he’s examined.
There are at least some facts about Burgess that are known and that matter to his writing. He was baptised a Catholic as John Burgess Wilson in Manchester in 1917, the offspring of a mother who did something on the stage and a father who did something with pianos and perhaps rather more with cigarettes. After his mother and sister died of the flu in 1918 he was brought up by a stepmother whom he profoundly disliked, representing her in fiction as an earwax-picking slut. After a grammar-school education (which, if we believe his autobiography, climaxed in his seduction by a radical librarienne), he went to Manchester University, where he studied English with L.C. Knights and H.B. Charlton, whom he liked to call H.B. Charlatan. As an undergraduate he was no more and no less of a poseur than most. He wore a floppy brimmed dark hat, and wrote a few bad poems, which he later published as the work of the not very good fictional poet F.X. Enderby.
In the 1940s and 1950s he was engaged in programmes of world education in Englishness which were supposed to take the edge off the British retreat from empire. In Gibraltar he served as an officer in the Education Corps, lecturing on ‘The British Way and Purpose’ scheme, which presented a loosely socialist outlook to the troops, while also envisioning a world of self-rule after the British had gone home.
While he was stationed in Gibraltar, his first wife, Lynne, was assaulted by GIs, possibly miscarried, and certainly suffered a long-term gynaecological disorder as a result. She drank. He drank. They went to Malaya, where she drank more and slept with a range of people, while he taught at a variety of improbably English schools, and battled with headmasters as he had earlier battled with his superior officers in the army. He too may have slept with a few people, though his autobiography probably adds the odd fictional notch to his bedpost. Then in 1959 he either collapsed, or just lay down in the classroom and decided not to move in order to see what would happen. He was dashed home with a suspected brain tumour – though the story of the tumour may have been made up either by him or by his wife. Then (he claimed) he tried to escape from hospital and was chased down the street by his doctor, Roger Bannister, the four-minute-mile-running neurologist. (Again, Biswell gently pricks this little bubble of Burgessian fantasy.) Fear of death may have given him the impetus to write, or maybe a fictional fear of death gave him a desire to make himself the perfect simulacrum of a man of letters. He did not die, though he continued to devour gin and cigarettes (80 a day in his prime) with a more than mortal appetite. After the non-tumour incident he set to work writing a thousand words a day, seven days a week – a regime which, he said, with statistical justification only, would enable one to write War and Peace every year.
The drink and the misery of his first wife (who is with distressing regularity described as ‘awful’ by the witnesses Biswell quotes) ended with her death from liver failure in 1968: a crate of gin was, it’s said, delivered to their house each week, and Burgess would wake her with a glass of her preferred poison. After Lynne’s death, Burgess’s life begins to lose its early colour. He fled abroad in a camper van with his second wife, an Italian countess whom he married in September 1968. Stanley Kubrick’s film of A Clockwork Orange made him notorious in 1971, though Burgess groused throughout his later life that Kubrick distorted the novel and that anyway the book itself was peripheral to his output. His hyper-Tolstoyan verbal productivity made him rich, and one reason for packing his new wife and his typewriter into the camper van was to stop the beastly government, as he saw it, stealing his money. Film treatments, musicals based on Joyce’s Ulysses and on the life of Shakespeare, novels, cascades of reviews: all welled out of the various villas and tax-havens between which Burgess moved in his later years. Meanwhile the gin continued to flow in, though perhaps less copiously than before. With a second wife still alive, Burgess himself was reluctant to suggest in his autobiography that this period was enlivened by philandering (though he did once claim to have slept with women of almost every nationality but not with an Englishwoman), and even the diligent Biswell can’t find anything very exciting to say about his late period. He worked hard. He drank hard. He hated bad reviews. He died.
Biswell does almost too good a job of setting out these facts. He makes Burgess appear to be not just historically explicable, but almost historically determined. Burgess was by education a words man. He was at one point part of an organisation that aimed to free the world by teaching it. This disposed him to believe that words, and perhaps also education (at least if it emphasised individual autonomy), were potentially redemptive. But a relentless theme of his fiction is a directly contrary belief in the necessary fallibility of individuals and the impossibility of systematic reform. For the later Burgess, the socialist state, Communism in Russia and educational utopianism (not to mention the wicked levels of taxation required by all of these) were examples of what he called ‘neo-Pelagianism’. That is, all of them were founded on a belief that human beings were perfectible, and that salvation could be achieved by human endeavour alone. Original sin was for Burgess not just a human reality but a human good, or at least preferable to beliefs that mankind could be refashioned by system.
This configuration of conflicting beliefs looks now historical enough for it to seem that Burgess was a victim of circumstance rather than a free agent. A Catholic upbringing, a sense of sin; a wartime engaged in educationally disseminated reform; financial success; a desire to flee a form of socialism of which the most visible sign was a 90 per cent rate of income tax; a wish to retain the structurally conservative model of Englishness in which he had been educated, combined with a willingness to value linguistic experimentation as a substitute for systematic social reform: these are the intellectual foundations that give us A Clockwork Orange, which, with its wildly innovative vocabulary and its venomous hostility towards any kind of state-based attempts to reform the individual, is by no means as peripheral to the Burgess canon as he wanted it to be. These forces also generate the lonely, dyspeptic, unhappy, incapable poet F.X. Enderby, to whom Burgess came fictionally to ascribe many of his own poems and many of the incidents of his own life in a quartet of novels: Inside Mr Enderby (1963), Enderby Outside (1968), The Clockwork Testament (1974) and Enderby’s Dark Lady (1984). Enderby’s combination of emotional paralysis, uncontrolled rage, ill-timed erotic lunges and aggression is a joke self-portrait, but it isn’t just a joke. Within the body of preoccupations with which Burgess’s life equipped him, almost the only form that a writer could bear would be Enderby’s mix of unworldliness, wordiness and introverted aggression. Despite Burgess’s conviction that the fact of human free will mattered more than whether or not that agency was used to good or ill effect, he was in his view of the writer’s role entirely a victim of his times.
There are two big questions about Burgess that Biswell scrupulously fails to answer. The first is the big aesthetic question: how good was he? The second is more local: why don’t most readers today either read him or like him? The big one is hard to answer at the moment because the answers to the second are so evident. Burgess’s writings are for a variety of reasons likely to make people of my generation feel uncomfortable. It’s not quite a matter of class or tone or age, though it’s partly that. Larkin and Amis, born five years after him, make it easy for bien pensant readers to whip themselves into a froth of self-righteous horror because they are so much manipulators of indignation, sorrow and revulsion, and they took a positive delight in being shocking. Burgess, though, is politically unsituated, or politically confused, in ways that can cloud literary judgments and perhaps even disturb them.
There is a residue in his work of the civic socialism of Manchester, and even of the Labour government of 1945. As someone who was present in Malaya in the final years of the British presence there, he was, historically speaking, post-colonial. His fiction is full of contempt for expats who can’t be bothered to learn languages other than English, but it now seems undercharged with post-colonial unease, and can be unsettlingly bipolar in its colonial attitudes. In the early Malayan novels, most of the British characters are nutcases, some of them perverted nutcases; indigenous people tend to be classic embodiments of the exotic – homosexual Malayan servants, axe-murdering rebels, or Eastern queens of amorphous beauty who aspire to speak perfect Bloomsbury English. Right up until Earthly Powers (1980), Malayans are associated with a mephitic, vengeful magic, and with petty acts of exploitation to win cash. There is an aspiration towards a world language and a world literature in Burgess which is uncomfortably yoked with a jingoism over which he seems to have less than perfect control.
By the 1960s, Burgess had developed a posture of opposition to the age that was not quite the viciously funny conservatism of Kingsley Amis, nor the affable nobbishness of Anthony Powell. He retained the defiant awkwardness of someone who wanted it to be known that he was a grammar-school boy made good, but he became in many of his attitudes the least attractive kind of creature in the world: a tax exile (in Malta and elsewhere) whose opinions were admired by Auberon Waugh. As he put it in one of the more self-hating passages of his autobiography, ‘I suppose I was dour about the new sexuality because no ageing man likes to see the young doing better than he did . . . I hungered for those girls in miniskirts, but they were not for me. Long-haired louts in pubs called me “dad”.’ He hated hairy people like the Beatles, and even presented a fictional version of John Lennon as a jumped-up oik who thinks he is the liberator of the world but is in fact so completely dominated by egoism and greed that he fakes his own assassination as a publicity stunt.
Burgess in the 1970s too often sounded like somebody’s dad who has spent too long drinking gin with other expats in Malta. But that tone of voice is never steady enough or quite credible enough for you to hate him. The Clockwork Testament, third of the Enderby novels, is based on Burgess’s experience as a visiting professor at City College, New York during a period when that university had a completely open admissions policy. Biswell’s biography includes an affectionate description of Burgess’s time there by Joseph Heller, who remembers that Burgess would listen to and take seriously all his pupils: ‘His desire to teach, to bring about a positive change in what were sometimes rather deranged minds, exceeded by far his need for self-preservation.’ The version of City College that comes out of The Clockwork Testament, though, is of crazed, mostly black undergraduates who insist on their freedom of expression, when as far as Enderby can see they have no knowledge and no emotions worth expressing. In the description of his time at CCNY in his autobiography, Burgess was even keener to lock himself into a persona of grumpy conservatism: ‘Poetry, said the black man, hating me with hot eyes, was essentially emotion, but I said it was essentially words.’ In these works he wants you not to like him. The would-be educational liberator becomes the despairing believer in the viciousness and intractable sinfulness of mankind, especially the bit of mankind that is young and black.
Burgess’s confused and not quite nasty response to his times (it is not quite nasty because it is so clearly a pose) makes it extremely hard to assess how good he is. There are those who think he was a miracle of style. Others regard him as a verbalist, someone who could perceive no reality beyond words, who liked the bigger ones the best, and who wanted his readers to cry out with ‘ahs’ and ‘ohs’ as they reached for their dictionaries. Geoffrey Grigson, in a review that Burgess seems to have learned by heart, said that his journalism was driven by a desire to convince himself that ‘an insatiable liking for words amounts to an ability to use them well and to distinct purpose.’ The look-at-me cleverness is certainly there throughout his fiction. His novel about Shakespeare, Nothing like the Sun (1964), is particularly full of misfiring bits of attention-seeking. When Will laments his sickness, while the ‘mobbled queen’ Elizabeth I is on progress, there is a classic piece of Burgessian talent abuse: ‘I can hardly move, sick not in my body but only in my soul, centre of my sinful earth. I lie on my unmade bed listening to time’s ruin, threats of Antichrist, new galleons on the sea, the queen’s grand climacteric, portents in the heavens, a horse eating its foal, ghosts gliding as on a buttered pavement.’ This is a terrible piece of writing, but not unrepresentative. The little glances at obvious bits of Shakespeare, from Hamlet, through The Rape of Lucrece and the Sonnets, make it seem as though Will thought only in Famous Quotations, and those Famous Quotations are syntactically redundant in a way that makes them audibly no more than add-ons. By the time the sentence arrives at the hideously un-Shakespearean ‘buttered pavement’ it is all too ready to slip over. The overlay of learning – misguided showing-off rather than postmodern self-consciousness – blows away any intimacy with Shakespeare. You wind up watching Burgess mechanically anatomising Shakespeare’s words.
But despite all the show there can be a kind of brilliance in his work. Burgess is at his best, and his funniest, when he is a grammarian and a phonologist. He has a good ear for social register, and is happiest representing the voices of people who have moved just outside their natural idiom or social class. He is particularly good at learnedly foul, demobbed English-student soldier-speak. In Time for a Tiger (1956), the beanpole hero acquires a stray dog:
‘Her name’s Cough,’ said Nabby Adams apologetically. ‘That’s all she’ll answer to. I suppose the other bloke was always telling her to get from under his feet, or something like that.’
‘I don’t quite see that,’ said Fenella.
This gets its readers thinking inside the phonics and social proprieties of language in a way that’s genuinely funny: the unuttered sound of what the previous owner was always shouting at the dog becomes a name and a summons to the poor animal. The music of cursing was particularly important to Burgess, largely because swear words are non-literal, grammatically transposable, and sound-centred. He was delighted when he heard an army engineer say of a broken-down truck: ‘Fuck it. The fucking fucker’s fucking fucked.’ His book on the English language, A Mouthful of Air (1992), used this as an example of how the same English stem could function as an imperative, adjective, noun, adverb and past participle. He liked a word that was made to carry a particular sense and a particular grammatical form purely by its position within the syntax of a sentence, and he liked, too, the indecorum of using ‘fuck’ as an example of the versatility of English.
His fascination with syntax and sound comes from his experience as a teacher of English as a foreign language, but it can enable him to make his readers do more than watch him write. The ‘Nadsat’ spoken by Alex and his droogs in A Clockwork Orange doesn’t force its readers to admire the trickiness of Anthony Burgess; rather it makes them look inside the mechanics of their own understanding, and use their grasp of syntax and whatever ghosts of etymological knowledge they might have as a means of construing the sense of individual words from their context. It also becomes funny and sinister by being combined with the stylised over-formality and periodic bathos of Alex’s voice: ‘I was told to take off my horrible prison platties and I was given a really beautiful set of pyjamas, O my brothers, in plain green, the heighth of bedwear fashion.’ Burgess wanted to be remembered as a thinker about freedom, an analyst of empire, a writer of Joycean dazzles who was as prolific as Dickens and as panoptic as Tolstoy. He was and perhaps will come to be valued chiefly as a state-of-English novelist, a game-player in phonology and sociolinguistics. His was a sharp but minor talent: he had an ear for idiolect, register, and the interplay of word and grammatical structure, and what that ear heard and reproduced just about compensates for his self-presentations as a grumpy old man.