Our book today is that horrendously-titled 1986 masterpiece But Do Blondes Prefer Gentlemen? – alternately known as Homage to QWERT YUIOP and Other Writings, a total loss either way and a prime example of why authors should never be allowed to pick the title of their books – especially authors as freakishly widely-read and as whimsical as Anthony Burgess.
But we mustn’t always judge a book by its title! Especially in a case like this, where the book is an enormous gift to the reading world: these are dozens and dozens of book reviews Burgess tossed off for the odd $200 over a span of just about eight years, from the late 1970s to the mid-’80s. The sheer range of books under consideration is staggering: famous novels but also totally forgotten novels, major works of history but also monographs so obscure their authors probably fainted dead away upon learning that Burgess had even heard of them, landmark biographies of fellow dough-faced ex-pat tobacco addicts like Joyce or Beckett but also bagatelles and miscellanies chosen for review solely so that Burgess, a master of bagatelles and miscellanies, could show off a little.
Or show off a lot. Because although the types of books under consideration spans virtually the whole spectrum of literature, there’s really only one subject in this book’s 600 pages, and that subject is Anthony Burgess. No book-critic ever wrote faster entries to reviews (a piece on a collection of Dickens letters opens with “The energy of the man!”; a review of some forgotten compendium begins with “This is not the kind of book you can borrow from the library”), the speed comes partly from jettisoning baggage: Burgess’s “reviews” are often nothing of the kind, since they dispense with the context that readers require. No, the great majority of these great pieces are more like recorded snatches of literary chat, and there’s always only one chatter, and his voice is both fascinating and boorishly certain of its own fascination.
This usually produces a weird kind of double-vision while reading the pieces themselves. The focus is always shifting, foreground to background and back, but the object of the focus is likewise always moving, and it’s always Burgess. And since Anthony Burgess was an old-style Johnsonian man of letters, his fixation on the million hues of his own stained glass genius actually unifies his occasional prose rather than fracturing it into monochrome solipsism. So when he reviews a work that naturally feels like it might have been written by himself, such as John Gardner’s The Life and Times of Chaucer, he can ruminate on its innovations with an insider’s intimacy:
Enough or too much? I see no harm in it. I would go further and say this kind of colour is essential if anything like a book is to be made of Chaucer’s life. When biographical materials are so scanty, as with Shakespeare even more than Chaucer (Chaucer is our Bach, says Gardner, and Shakespeare is our Beethoven: I’m not too happy about that), only a novelist – with his vocational intuition about all people laughing when they’re tickled – can be trusted to make something out of little. And as much as the ‘times’ is made up of Black Prince, Black Death, Lollards, Peasants’ Revolt, the only way in which the biographer can sound like something more than a rehash of Warner and Martin is to make soldiers sneeze in the rain or John of Gaunt grow pale when he discovers there is a bubonic rat in the palace.
And when he reflects on the parlous words-to-screen trade, with which he was likewise first-hand familiar, he can shift an (always idealized) version of himself into the persona of other veterans of the trade, like poor old fellow polymath Robert Graves:
Graves as too old to express much satisfaction in the BBC’s televisual adaptation of I, Claudius, and an earlier contractual screwing ensured that he got no money out of it. It is nearly every writer’s sad story, but Graves has kept his primary vocation inviolate – or rather the very nature of that vocation has not tempted the world’s bemerding fingers.
Of course, the danger of writing always about yourself is that sometimes you slip up and write only about yourself. Burgess drank Kingsley Amis-amounts of alcohol every single day of the period during which these reviews were being dashed off, and maybe that much lubricant made some slipping up inevitable. More than one colleague in his life associated his prose with the word “gibberish” (he joked about it in precisely the tone he always reserved for things he didn’t consider even remotely funny), and it’s one of the first words that springs to mind when confronting, for instance, passages like this:
I have been living in Monaco, which is as much as to say France, for the last two years. French is my language of daily intercourse with shopkeepers and bureaucrats and police, but I avoid the language, and hence the intercourse, as much as I can. I huddle over my typewriter, which, though German, disgorges only English., as I would over a Sussex fire of pearwood or a gasfire in Camberwell. And yet French is my second language; I have known it for forty-five years. I try to explain to myself my seemingly volitional rejection of part of my culture and communicative equipment, a rejection expressed not only in avoiding its use but also refusing to understand it when others speak it. I watch French television and reduce its voices to an unintelligible nasal babble. Why?
Why indeed? And also what, and who, and especially where. But even as gibberish, it’s rakishly grand, and that’s why we come back to the nonfiction of Anthony Burgess (so much of which is scandalously out of print, including this volume – it’s unlikely anybody will ever reprint this terribly-titled tome). As a point-by-point critic, he’s blowzy and frequently incurious, and as a dissector of literature he can be maddeningly indirect; when he thinks something is stupid, he calls it “useful,” and when he likes a book he ignores it and talks about its author instead. But as a reader, nakedly showing us the actual process of reading with all its random associations, embarrassing prejudices, and sudden gasps of wonder, capturing that symphonic mental phenomenon, Burgess is a maestro.
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