Sean Bell

TRYING to explain Anthony Burgess, even 23 years after his death, is an anxious exercise; there are too many books, so many legends, and no matter how much one analyses his career, it will always seem incomplete and inconclusive. Still, at the centenary of his birth, Burgess deserves reconsideration, even if Grub Street didn’t deserve him. This matador’s suit of lights, now dusty and somewhat unfashionable, was the improbable array of talents that illuminated English letters so wildly and promiscuously in the postwar decades, each reflected in the facets of the others.

Yet as dazzling as Burgess could be – and as the fearsome, chimerical bulk of his bibliography still is – much of his legacy awaits rediscovery in an age that, at best, remembers his dystopian Bildungsroman A Clockwork Orange, his century-spanning tragicomic blockbuster Earthly Powers (as Burgess described it, a novel “about a homosexual novelist and his brother-in-law, the Pope”), and only a few of his 33 novels. To make things harder, these lesser-known works never settle on a style beyond endless reinvention, and cover everything from the densest of avant garde experiments to whimsical satires of the human condition. Besides this, there was the work that poured out of him as a matter of professional discipline and his own perpetual restlessness: memoirs, essays, reviews, plays, translations, biographies, critical studies, film and TV scripts. “The whole of English Lit. at the moment is being written by Anthony Burgess. He reviews all new books except those by himself,” wrote Philip Larkin in a 1966 correspondence with poet Anthony Thwaite, evidently unaware of a minor scandal a few years before over a pseudonymous review Burgess had written for one of his own novels. “He must be a kind of Batman of contemporary letters. I hope he doesn’t take to poetry.”

In Manchester, where Burgess was born under the name John Wilson on February 25, 1917, the International Anthony Burgess Foundation is overseeing a range of events which may bring some much-deserved attention to one of the 20th century’s most significant if indefinable authors. BBC Radio 3 will present a season of Burgess-themed programmes, crowned by a new radio production of his play Oedipus the King, starring Christopher Ecclestone. In July, the foundation will hold a centenary conference, at which discussions will address his life (tricky), his work (overwhelming) and his reputation (maddeningly varied). Furthermore, the Anthony Burgess Memories Project has been proposed to gather new or obscure biographical material on its subject, an endeavour not unlike digging for treasure in an abandoned minefield.

In life, Burgess left behind almost as many stories as he did on the page, most of them as reliable as fiction. Teaching in Malaya during the twilight of British colonialism, Burgess was apparently diagnosed with a brain tumour – the most intractable deadline a writer could face. He was meant to be dead in a year. In that year, determined to turn writing into a means of supporting his soon-to-be-widow, he produced, by his estimation, “five and a half novels of very moderate size.” Or to put it another way: “very nearly E.M. Forster’s entire life’s work”.

Whether by means of misdiagnosis or his own incorrigible mythomania, Burgess survived his death sentence by 33 years. Having started writing, he never stopped. “Wedged as we are between two eternities of idleness,” he later wrote, “there is no excuse for being idle now.”

Amidst the endless work and the creative energies that fuelled it, other stories endure. This was a man who claimed to have eaten human flesh in the company of a Malaysian tribal leader, and sold illicit nylons to Soviet black marketeers during a research trip to Leningrad. When his wife sickened from the alcoholism they shared, which would eventually kill her, Williams Burroughs – who also knew a thing or two about difficult marriages – read Jane Austen to her at her bedside. Confronted by a gang of potential muggers in 1970s New York, Burgess drew a sword from his cane and yelled, “Fuck off, I’ve got cancer!”

All this may illuminate Burgess the human being. Some of it might even be true. Unlike other literary self-mythologisers such as Mark Twain or Arthur Rimbaud, Burgess’s own life, a lily he could never stop gilding with minor fabulisms, was not his most enduring creation, nor was it his most fascinating aspect. That was, and remains, his written legacy.

Historian Owen Dudley Edwards has his own, arguably more reliable recollections of Burgess, whom he met in the early 1980s. “We walked around Edinburgh for about three hours. He talked about what it was like to meet James Joyce. He said, ‘It was awful. He kept trying to get me to take him to the pub.’”

As a noted scholar of Joyce, in talking about him, Burgess “made him live,” say Edwards. “It’s one of the ways Burgess showed himself to be extraordinarily Irish – the fascination with language. It arises from the fact those of us from an Irish Catholic background were usually not too far away from a time when we were speaking a different language. The awareness of Gaelic behind you meant that you could play with it. Burgess, I think, knew how Joyce went about his craftsmanship.”

The nature of Burgess’s Catholicism, his periods of doubt and apostasy, and his invariable return to the Church, is much debated, not least by Burgess himself. In Edwards’ opinion, however, he was “a very close Biblical scholar. If I had ever seen Anthony Burgess in a Franciscan habit, I wouldn’t have been at all surprised.”

His faith, however it manifested itself, informed Burgess’s work, along with art and sex, and his writing was a continuous act of striving to perform for the benefit of all three, or at least to comprehend, with wry and reflective humour, when he failed to do so. Burgess never lacked self-regard – he was perhaps the only person who could match artistic egos with Stanley Kubrick, whose cinematic adaptation of A Clockwork Orange Burgess graded like a punitive schoolmaster – but when dissatisfied with himself or his standing within the literary world, he would occasionally take comfort from the knowledge that, really, he was a composer. After decades of disappointment in that arena, he would modestly describe his efforts in composition as his version of knitting, but this dual identity arguably allowed Burgess to appreciate the implicit musicality of literature as few other writers have.

Now, with most of his books out of print for years, Burgess’s reputation is gradually being revived, though mainly beyond the Anglophone nations, thanks to new translations. Hopefully, his favourite amongst his own works – sadly, one of the most obscure – will also garner fresh attention: M/F, Burgess’s update of Oedipus, the title of which is one of the funniest jokes in English literature.

New interpretations and reassessments will no doubt continue to arrive; Burgess scholarship has enough material to sustain it for another century yet. Both the quality and the quantity of his work await, as always, the judgement of a new generation of readers, and while that is true, discussions of ‘relevance’ are supremely irrelevant. However, it might be worth asking about the conditions that, against such strange and intimidating odds, allowed Burgess to flourish. His phenomenal productivity may be inspiring, but writers today gaze into the same abyss they always did, and feel the same pressures; they require no prodding into further self-admonition by old ghosts.

Today’s literary landscape might be marginally more forgiving of writers who stray from their familiar terrain as freely and mischievously as Burgess did. Yet forgiveness by the critical community – even when he was a part of it – was never a major concern for Burgess. The chief lesson of his life’s work may be that he held himself to no standards but his own; standards that, necessarily, even he could find intimidating. “Art is rare and sacred and hard work,” he wrote. “And there ought to be a wall of fire around it.”