Who they think they are

Julian Symons

  • You’ve had your time by Anthony Burgess
    Heinemann, 391 pp, £17.50, October 1990, ISBN 0 434 09821 3
  • An Immaculate Mistake: Scenes from Childhood and Beyond by Paul Bailey
    Bloomsbury, 167 pp, £14.99, October 1990, ISBN 0 7475 0630 2

Volume One of Anthony Burgess’s autobiography, Little Wilson and Big God, left our hero in January 1960 under sentence of death, no more than a few months to live. With one bound, or at least one letter from the Neurological Institute, he is free. ‘The protein content of my spinal liquor had gone down dramatically’: the death sentence is cancelled. Too late: he is already writing at express speed to provide for his widow, and can’t stop. He is not quite the equal of my friend John Creasey, who once told me he tried to keep himself down to writing a dozen crime stories a year but found he wrote 14. The Burgess production rate worked out at five and a half novels in the pseudo-terminal year. And eight years later it was his wife who died.

There are very likable things about Anthony Burgess: his openness regarding things most people don’t mention (‘sexual relations between my wife and myself had practically ceased in 1959 ... it was probable that I soaked myself in gin in order to evade it’), and the casualness with which he calls himself ‘a kind of comic novelist playing with a few ideas’. He comes across as a genial back-slapper, a good man to argue with over two, three or preferably a dozen drinks:

A better man was Aristotle
Pulling steadily at the bottle,

wrote John Crowe Ransom comparing Aristotle with Plato, but he pulled no more steadily than Anthony Burgess. His wife Lynne knocked back two bottles of white wine and a pint of gin daily, and his intake seems to have been equal though not identical. The wonder is not that Lynne died but that her husband survived. When suffering from dyspepsia he tried to reach crisis point via a midnight supper of cold pork, mixed pickles and potato salad, followed by cheddar cheese, beetroot and pickled walnuts, all washed down with inferior claret. ‘I slept like a baby and woke eager for breakfast.’

The first and most interesting part of the book ends with Lynne’s death. The portrait of her is ruthless, describing in detail her drinking, unfaithfulness, attempts at suicide, frequent collapses when travelling, accompanied by haemorrhages. It is also tender, particularly in the passages about her final illness and death, followed by the realisation that he had ‘condoned her slow suicide’ by persuading the former abstainer to drink with him until drink and sex had become her only refuges. Yet finally Burgess seems to be describing two desperate people rather than an unhappy marriage.

Throughout the book there are descriptions of the writings, the ideas played with, how they came out in practice, their critical reception. He seems to have kept reviews of every book, and clearly resented cool or unfriendly criticism. English reviewers have apparently been less kind than Americans, and are rebuked accordingly. To one he sends a postcard of shitting camels with the message ‘Thinking of you here,’ and a joke of Jonathan Raban’s about a Burgess fiction brings the comment: ‘This is what British criticism has descended to.’ Geoffrey Grigson’s dislike of his ‘coarse and unattractive personality’ is mentioned, repeated, finally repaid by a feeble satirical sonnet. A look at Grigson on Alvarez would have shown him how it should be done.

‘Coarse and unattractive’: there are certainly dislikable things about Anthony Burgess. A minor one is an insistent showing-off in the use of words. He tells us half a dozen times that Lynne was suffering from ascites without bothering to define the word, writes of his own claudication instead of saying he limped, teases us with the cosmesis of a wig and an onomastic coincidence. He is a word-intoxicated man, full of philological ingenuities, but it’s a pity he presses superior knowledge on us so hard. And more seriously, modesty in Burgess turns into a kind of boasting. When he tells us that Lynne trounced his literary pretensions by a catechism about Jane Austen, he gives some examples from which he emerges very creditably. What is the play put on in Mansfield Park, she asks. ‘Something by Kotzebue, I think.’ He thinks rightly.

The last two-thirds of the book are concerned with his second marriage, to Liana Ma-cellari from whom he learns that he already has a four-year-old son sired at their single previous sexual encounter, his production of books at a reduced but still impressive rate, and his work on a variety of film and musical works. Their problems in making a home in Malta, Rome (where Liana is a bigamist according to Italian law) and Monaco are described in detail. So are dozens of Hollywood and other film assignments, which emphasise the zany side of Burgess’s character in a way both entertaining and dismaying. In conversation with Stanley Kubrick he talks about the ‘notion of writing a Regency novel, a sort of Jane Austen parody’ with a plot dictated by symphonic form. Kubrick is interested, but in a flash the idea has turned into a film about Napoleon. ‘If the battle of Waterloo came with Beethoven’s scherzo, then the cinematic narrative would be justified in speeding up the action to an almost comic degree.’ This idea ends up as his ‘musical novel’ Napoleon Symphony, which got a better hand than usual from English critics.

The assignments and possibilities multiply. At one point he is simultaneously involved in writing a series on Freud’s life for Canadian TV, a musical about Trotsky’s 1917 stay in New York and an end-of-the-world disaster movie. A little earlier he worked on Jesus of Nazareth for RAI and ITC. After telling us of all his advance reading (including ‘the New Testament in Greek ... to get a fresh look at it’) he tells us: ‘I had to remake Judas from scratch. I remade him first as a decent American college boy ...’ Coarse? Undoubtedly, not just in style but in the vulgarity of his imagination. Unattractive? Yes, especially when he is telling us that ‘Europe accepts me – as the winner of the Prix Europa, as a Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres’, and writing about the plethora of prizes he has received in Italy, adding with a fine command of cliché: ‘I list them in no spirit of boastfulness.’ Yet the boasting is disarmingly naive, there are good ideas among the dotty ones, and such an air of innocence about this man unwilling to admit that anything in the way of writing or musical composition is beyond him, that – well, that he would be a good companion for an evening’s drinking. A touch aggressive perhaps, so that one might have to go easy on saying that he has not just a few but far too many ideas, and often tries to pack the material for half a dozen novels into a single one of three or occasionally six hundred pages.

Paul Bailey was the immaculate mistake of his title, born in Battersea in 1937, the third and unintended child of a roadsweeper and a domestic help. ‘Unintended’ hence a mistake, ‘immaculate’ because that was a word often on his mother’s lips. The Baileys had no bathroom, the lavatory was in the yard, but immaculacy could be achieved through conscientious washing back and front with Lifebuoy soap, not scented stuff. Neat, tidy, careful with his clothes and above all clean, Mrs Bailey’s boy was generally immaculate.

I should mention a particular interest in Paul Bailey’s book, in the sense that I spent my childhood in Battersea rather more than two decades earlier, like him looked eagerly for books in the Lavender Hill library, saw Music Hall (Little Tich and George Robey to his Kate Carney) at the Grand Theatre, Clapham Junction, in adolescence ate sometimes at Maggie Brown’s eel and pie shop in the High Street. But this account of growing up is written with such elegance and dulcet charm that Bromley or Bermondsey could have been substituted for Battersea, and I should still have admired it. Everything is understated, a three-year drama scholarship barely mentioned, the realisation of homosexuality mockingly set down. How could Paul Bailey (still known then by his given name of Peter) admit to being what his family called a pansy, or an Oscar Wilde. ‘I was a Battersea pansy, wary of displaying his true colours in the sunlight,’ since it was well known to the Baileys and their friends that there were no pansies in a decent working-class area like Battersea.

The basis of Bailey’s book is his relationship with his parents, the father who brought home a tattered copy of Nicholas Nickleby thrown out by its owner, began to read it aloud to his bookish son and faltered at the word ‘sequestered’, and the indomitable, formidable mother. The close but needling relationship between mother and son is beautifully done, nagging passages alternating with loving ones. There are one or two questionable statements and interpretations. ‘Airyated’, as in ‘he was very airyated,’ is not, as Bailey suggests, a word unique to his mother, since it was used by mine, and ‘Who’s she when she’s out?’ is surely a put-down of snobbery, a variant of ‘Who does she think she is?’, rather than ‘out’ meaning ‘out of the lunatic asylum’.

Burgess’s book is subtitled ‘the confession of’. Bailey’s is a work of deliberate artifice, much of it in the form of dialogues emotionally truthful rather than literally accurate, and sedate even when he is describing periods of frequent and intense masturbation, or sleeping three in a bed at the age of 11 with two girls older than himself. Yet, curiously, Bailey’s revelations have the effect of great candour, while Burgess’s ‘confessions’ somehow sound like self-congratulation even when he is showing himself a loser. A fight with a young bald-headed Irish navvy ends with him seeming a kind of hero, though it eventually costs him his four bottom incisors. When he is invited to spend a year at CCNY as Distinguished Professor and says the title ‘soothed my regret at being an extinguished novelist’, we know he doesn’t really mean it. I was reminded when reading the story of this gusty, gutsy Manchester tobacconist’s son of Norman Cameron’s

When you confess your sins before a parson
You find it no great effort to disclose
Your crimes of murder, bigamy and arson,
But can you tell him that you pick your nose?