Big John

Frank Kermode

  • Little Wilson and Big God by Anthony Burgess
    Heinemann, 448 pp, £12.95, February 1987, ISBN 0 434 09819 1

The subtitle claims that this is ‘the First Part of the Confessions of Anthony Burgess’, who is officially known as John Burgess Wilson; and the book appears on the author’s 70th birthday, as part of his preparation for the coming encounter with Big God. There is, however, to be a Second Part, provisionally entitled You’ve had your time; we are told it will probably be even longer than this one, which takes the younger Wilson from birth to a midlife illness, falsely diagnosed as fatal. This gave considerable impetus to Burgess’s subsequent career, as no doubt the sequel will demonstrate.

‘Confessions’, as the Preface observes, brings to mind St Augustine and Rousseau. There was a time when there were confessions as distinct from memoirs; Rousseau wrote the former, Benjamin Franklin the latter. After Southey gave currency to the word ‘autobiography’ the two tended to merge, though ‘confessions’ retained its rather more sensational quality and still makes one think of sinners, justified or not. Mr Burgess means us to take the word in its sensational sense, and is still apparently unsure whether he can justify his goings-on, and still unsure to whom he should do so if he can. He promises few spiritual revelations but is willing to be candid about carnality.

Almost all writers, and Burgess perhaps more than most, use disguised autobiography in fiction, and writers of memoirs and confessions use disguised fiction in autobiography. This is not mendacity, merely the way fiction, history and memory work together. The product must have a shape of sorts, and within that shape there must be an image of the writer that he can contemplate without feeling embarrassed by his conceit or ashamed at his self-indulgence. Rousseau is often accused of being self-indulgent even or especially when he is accusing himself of vile deeds: as when he tells how, to save his face, he lied about the theft of a ribbon and so got an honest and pretty young servant sacked. Burgess hasn’t a lot in common with Rousseau, apart from a natural musical talent and possibly a tendency to think of himself as a ‘victim of that malicious play of intrigue that has thwarted me all my life’ but some self-indulgence is inevitable: as Paul de Man, speaking of Jean-Jacques, neatly notes, qui s’accuse s’excuse.

Hence a detailed accounting of many amorous episodes in many parts of the world, all spiced, though not fiercely, by cradle-Catholic guilt. The most surprising revelations concern the author’s first marriage to a wife who obviously did a lot to justify his belief that the Welsh were vastly more libidinous than their neighbours. Burgess says he felt it proper to write this book, not because novelists generally, and he in particular, have especially interesting lives, but because any life is an allegory of all the others and ‘may serve to reassure, comfort, thwart ambition, reconcile the reader to the pain and frustration he has previously believed were reserved for him alone’. When we see this life as randy, bohemian, hung over, haunted by the pop songs of the epoch, plagued by early neglect and poverty, by nuns with straps and Jesuits with canes, by the absurdity of army service, by the whips and scorns of time, the oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, the pangs of despised love, the insolence of office, to name but a few of the more usual afflictions, then we may take from it, Burgess hopes, the comforts of recognition. But this is only half the story. The other half is different: it is not only the account of his marriage that persuades us this fellow is using his ordinariness as a background against which his extraordinariness is always declaring itself, or being declared.

Consequently there is a good deal of this sort of thing: ‘I had composed one Sunday, in the intervals of reading Hemingway’s Fiesta in German, a setting of a song by Lorca – La niña del bello rostro – for a singer named Merita’. The ostensible point is that a performance of the song by Merita led to a brawl in a Gibraltar bar, in which the author behaved with chivalrous vigour and escaped with impunity. Then there was Conchita, who employed the author as an English teacher. ‘She did not turn me into an expert on Spanish poetry. Rather, she learned about Spanish poetry for the first time when, in naked languor, she listened to my reading from the Oxford Book of Spanish Verse – Lorca, Gongora, St John of the Cross’. Gibraltar is not the only place, nor Spanish the only language, in which Burgess acquitted himself thus unusually.

Occasionally the exploits strike one as a little implausible, the put-downs too pat, as in the account of his time in the English Department at Manchester University. But there is no doubt that he deserves the benefit of all such doubts, being so obviously an extraordinary person. A Manchester Catholic, he feels a little alien among his countrymen; never wholly apostate, he was never fully naturalised. Colour-blind (and willing to include a learned essay on the condition), he sees the world differently from most of us; motherless, he complains of emotional coldness. But what distinguishes him most is a just sense of his own worth. Turning rather belatedly from music to writing (‘In the winter of 1953, stricken with mumps but not emasculated, I wrote a brief novel on a typewriter borrowed from a builder who had designs on my wife’), he says how easy it seemed, for one accustomed to the self-taught rigours of symphonic composition, to produce the monody of fiction. ‘This was not art as I had known it. It seemed cheating not to be able to give the reader chord and counterpoint. It was like pretending that there could be such a thing as a concerto for unaccompanied flute.’

His idea was to build his novel, A Vision of Battlements, on a groundbass, as Joyce had built on the groundbass of Homer, so he chose the Aeneid, and called his hero Sergeant Richard Ennis, the name based on Virgil’s hero, the rank on that of J.B. Wilson. (Much later an American researcher pointed out to him that ‘R. Ennis’ was ‘sinner’ spelt backwards, and Burgess is willing to admit that novels may be ‘about’ matters that didn’t enter the conscious consideration of their authors.) That this is not at all a bad way to plan a novel we may infer from the example of Joyce, and also that of Fielding, who had Virgil in mind when he wrote Amelia. However, Burgess, who admires Joyce tremendously, also thinks him deficient in ‘genuine narrative urge’, as he himself is not. He has used the groundbass idea in later works (M/F is a notable instance), but so far as I can tell he doesn’t unduly depend on it, and his fiction is a tribute to the variousness of his imagination as well as to his extraordinary facility.

He has certainly read a lot, and he certainly knows a lot, especially a lot of learned and out-of-the-way words; and he is never shy about showing it. In this book he shows it continually, but he also demonstrates a remarkable memory for the commonplace. His exam results (not marvellous), his wartime postings (neither bizarre nor dangerous), are recorded with evident fidelity, and so are the circumstances of his extreme youth, the huge pub he lived in, his stepmother’s foibles, Owbridge’s cough mixture, the Kensitas cigarettes with a little packet of four attached to the twenty, ‘for your friends’, and dozens of other details, like the hit songs, which will please his coevals because it is pleasant to be reminded of such things, and his juniors because odd archaeological bric-à-brac of that sort fosters their ignoble and evanescent satisfaction at being younger than the author.

Like others of his generation, Burgess found himself travelling a lot in youth, for the most part uncomfortably and in company he wouldn’t have chosen. His confessions have therefore a variety of topographical and social settings. They include his post-war spell of teaching in a training college and a school, moonlighting as a pub pianist, and, more exotically, working for the Empire in Malaya (‘The Sultan ... wanted me to translate his Mein Kampf – Perang Yang Akan Dutang – a good clanging title meaning The Coming Battle – into Macaulayan English’). Drinking, fornicating and complaining, his conduct like his language alternating between the demotic and the mandarin, he had much the same sort of time there as he had everywhere, and of course also laid the foundations of his Malayan trilogy. After Malaya, home, job-hunting, and the premature death sentence that started him writing with prodigious application in order to provide for his widow. It must have been a more anguished time than he here lets on.

I’ve read this book twice and with pleasure, but the purpose of the second reading was to check an obscure sense that it was a more depressed performance than it might have been, given the pleasures, both demotic and mandarin, to which the author confesses. The sense remained. It may have something to do with Manchester, a city Burgess is proud of, though he prefers to live in Rome; perhaps the climate leaves its mark, or the hard times, and the not too distant folk-memories of harder times. The memory of all that (as the song said), of a dead mother, of strap-brandishing nuns, of a father’s deathbed, recorded with much intellectual energy and some emotional coldness, might be expected to give such an impression, especially when a man is 70 and talking, though implausibly, about writing his last book, and thinking quite hard – as some feel obliged to do at this, the moment of the canonical end – about Big God.