Life and works of fiction

The Real Life of Anthony Burgess
January 20, 2006

It was drummed into us as under-graduates that the author was dead. No chance of bumping into the Brontës on Clacton seafront, then. Did our tutors really believe that we thought Shakespeare and Co were still alive? Indeed, wasn't the fact that Wordsworth had ceased to be the main reason for studying him? Like the lady in T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock", they shook their head. That is not what they meant at all. We must listen more carefully. It is not necessary, they intoned, to consider a writer's life when explaining his or her work. In fact, that can often be a distraction from its real significance. Which was? How it perpetuated capitalist ideology, of course. Ah, so this is what it meant to study English.

Andrew Biswell's magnificent and meticulously researched life of Anthony Burgess is a reminder of just what riches are lost if we ignore those creative individuals who actually write the literature. And they do not come much more creative than Burgess: linguist, composer and writer, whose enormous outpouring of translations, librettos, scores, novels, adaptations, TV dramas, screenplays, criticism, reviews and journalism shows just what can be achieved on a diet of alcohol and nicotine.

At one level biography is simply a matter of human interest, and this has it aplenty - from Burgess's being sexually molested by a housekeeper at the age of seven, to his time in Malaya, to reviewing his own work for the Yorkshire Post . Burgess's father, Joseph, played piano accompaniment to silent films, and was once ticked off for banging out, while intoxicated, "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow" to The Last Supper . His son's career as a pub pianist came to an abrupt end when he played the entire "Jupiter"

sequence from Gustav Holst's The Planets . Biswell claims that Burgess's attachment to high culture was partly because of his being the "product of Lord Reith's BBC", but he also notes that Burgess "is possibly the only person ever to have been a university professor and a Broadway lyricist at the same time".

Beyond the personal revelations - Burgess's troubled relationship with Catholicism, his womanising, Graham Greene's apparently using him as an unwitting drug mule - is the question posed by all literary biographies: what is the relation of life to art? Burgess mixes up the two so thoroughly that it is almost impossible to tell them apart. He took little trouble to disguise real people in his fiction, with the result that he "attracted writs in much the same way that magnets attract iron filings". One novel, The Worm and the Ring , based on Burgess's time as a teacher at Banbury Grammar School, has practically been out of print since the publishers, Heinemann, admitted that the school secretary had been libelled in the work.

And then there was Burgess's habit of turning his own life into fiction; he invented a family tree that took in Jack Wilson, a singer in the Lord Chamberlain's Company, and Bonnie Prince Charlie. In 1959, Burgess was told he had a brain tumour. Believing he had only a short time to live concentrated his mind wonderfully. The rest is literature. Or so the story goes. In fact, there are at least four versions of it, one of which has him escaping from hospital and being chased and brought back by the four-minute miler Roger Bannister, who was a junior neurologist there. Such episodes, and there are quite a number of them, make the title, The Real Life of Anthony Burgess , something of a tease.

Burgess was driven by the conflict between Saint Augustine's view of man as a fallen creature who depended on divine grace to achieve salvation and that of the 5th-century monk Pelagius, who argued that salvation came from within. A Clockwork Orange illustrates this dilemma. Burgess's best-known book originally had two endings. The 1962 UK edition has an extra chapter that admits the possibility of the anti-hero Alex, having recovered from his violence-aversion therapy, choosing a quiet life. The 1963 US addition, by contrast, ends with Alex opting to return to his old "ultra-violent" ways.

Although not afraid to tackle the "big" themes, Burgess's achievement may lie more in the exploration of technique than the realisation of a particular vision. There is something cold about his use of language. The psychiatrist Anthony Clare said Burgess had "difficulty talking of affection and love", perhaps because his mother died when he was only one. Despite his belief that the written word "was a source of consolation and possible deliverance from the 'mess' of late 20th-century culture", Burgess finally sided with Saint Augustine. Human beings were wicked - during the Second World War, his first wife Lynne was badly beaten up by American deserters and lost the child she was carrying. But Burgess mitigated his philosophical despair with humour. Even when it was painful, life was farcical; not more so when the author lost four teeth in a fight in a pub "with a bald Irishman who had insulted his dog". This is a wonderful book. Biswell made me want to go and read Burgess. You cannot ask more of a biography than that.

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English, De Montfort University.

The Real Life of Anthony Burgess

Author - Andrew Biswell
Publisher - Picador
Pages - 434
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 0 330 48170 3

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