John Bayley

  • Byrne by Anthony Burgess
    Hutchinson, 150 pp, £14.99, October 1995, ISBN 0 09 179204 5

Many years ago, before soundbites and even before That Was the Week that Was, I found myself pushed by the late Brigid Brophy into taking part in an early TV quiz show. In those days such things were done in a touchingly amateurish way, with make-up persons fussing about and everyone, even the cameramen, looking highly nervous. It was a literary guessing-game, done almost like charades used to be at a country weekend. An actor read out a bit of poetry or prose, and sitting in a semicircle we attempted in turn to give it a date, a context, the name of an author. By today’s standards the whole thing was élitist to a suicidal degree. We were lemmings of literature, evidently bent on the destruction of all we stood for. The idea was to show off by not showing off, to be languidly erudite, wittily and unobtrusively learned. High culture, wide culture, men of letters, like Aldous Huxley, who indeed was then still alive ... It was the exact opposite of Brain of Britain.

And Anthony Burgess was brilliant at it. Easy, smiling, courteous, uncompetitive, he was absolutely deadly when it came to the details of name and place. Dryden? Yes, we all got that, more or less: a well-known piece, but where from exactly? Burgess had the answer, down to the act and scene, in the play Aurung-Zebe. It was the famous passage which begins ‘when I consider life, ’tis all a cheat,’ and ends with each of us hoping to receive from the last drops of life ‘what the first sprightly running could not give’. I barely knew then who Burgess was (this was well before A Clockwork Orange) and I was deeply impressed. So was everyone else. He had great charm and – more surprisingly in view of what was to come – a modest sobriety. The comprehensive expertise which was to intrude oppressively in his later work, and often weigh down the reader’s patience, was here as light as a feather. He belonged, in fact, to the old dispensation, in which he was not only at home but as happy as a sandboy. I could have imagined him swapping jests and odd bits of learning with Logan Pearsall Smith, the author of Trivia, and spellbinding the old dilettante with the tale, told tongue in cheek, of how a misdiagnosis giving him only a few more months to live had set him writing a few light novels to help support the missus after he’d gone ... Droll – what?

But culture today has lost amateur status and must be taken seriously, as Brain of Britain shows. No longer diffused lightly throughout the media, it has become, like sport, a specialised affair, and Burgess himself is taken seriously along with it. George Walden, chairman of this year’s Booker Prize, quoted Burgess as a contemporary sage, whose dictum on what a good novel should be like was given as a guideline to his judging panel. Such a novel should leave in the mind ‘a sort of philosophical residue, and a view of life, indirectly propounded, that should seem new, even surprising’.

As good a criterion as one could find no doubt, but its particular interest where Burgess is concerned is how little it has to do with his own work. He would have wished it had; and with all the insight and brilliance he possessed he tried very hard in his own way to be new, and surprising. Too hard perhaps. He must have known that true originality is a dispensation, and not something to be got by trying. You can only make it new if you’ve got it in you. Or if you can fake it. Burgess’s dislike (not envy) of Graham Greene, on these grounds, emerges in a couplet from Byrne:

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