Traveler at his Desk
Anthony Burgess was one of the most prolific, uneven, and brilliant writers (and musicians, and hack journalists) of his generation. He wrote enough in his life to make comprehensive reading all but impossible, but those who’ve made their often happy way through the scores of books and the reams of uncollected essays and reviews often cite both volumes of the Confessions as the best thing there is. He published these pot-boiling biographies, Little Wilson and Big God and You’ve Had Your Time in the late 1980s when he was already an old man, claiming at the time that they were as sort of farewell to literary art. Then he wrote ten more books.
Burgess’s nonfiction—with notable exceptions—is generally superior to his fiction, and he is at his very best in those essays and reviews where he is able to move from idea to idea, to digress, and let his mind bound. As he wrote of an alter-ego in an early novel, “for such a rich mind, everything rhymed.” That is the power and pleasure of these volumes. Here, for example, as when Burgess describes the accent he was born with:
The northern dialects have a sound – represented phonetically by an inverted m – which serves for both the u in ‘ush and the o in ‘mother. They are historically right (Shakespeare pronounced ‘love’ like a Lancastrian) but history cut no ice when my generation sought jobs outside the native province.
We’re already learning things (I had no idea Shakespeare spoke thus), but we’re to learn more, and to be taught to hear those sounds, and see their visual representations, as if anew:
I have lived long enough in Italy to know the power of the Roman and Venetian and to admire the pertinacity of the poets who continue to publish in them. They are lucky to have a traditional orthography; we can only represent our dialects in deformed and inadequate versions of the standard language, which makes them automatically comic.
There is a method to all of this: Burgess is telling the story of his life. He knew little of his family before his parents (just a couple of anecdotes and dirty jokes, which we’re treated to on page 12) and so he falls back, like many a biographer, on milieu: Mancunian speech, Mancunian food, snatches of old songs. Boredom never threatens. Burgess, being Burgess, is incapable of boring us when his mind has room to wander:
I have, in the long voyage from childhood … tackled most of the cuisines of the world, but, as Lin Yu Tang said, we are finally loyal to the food of our youth, and this is perhaps what patriotism means. In exile I can cook dishes like hotpot, meat and potato pie, steak pie with cowheel (a Bolton specialty, as Jeanne Moreau, who has Bolton blood, reminded me). I cannot get Eccles cakes, nor the port sausages sold by Seymour Meads on Princess Road, Manchester. Graham Greene, exiled in Antibes, feels as I do about the British pork sausage, which the French scorn as a mere ungarlicky boudin. Fish and chips are everywhere now, but they are essentially a Lancashire matter, not even a national one. There are none like those that come out of the huge square seething vats of the Manchester chip-shops. Lancashire used to be famous for shops which provided an instant meal to take home – meat pies with gravy poured in hot from a jug, tripe and cowheels, above all fish and chips. Lancashire housewives worked in the cotton mills, where their delicate fingers were preferred to the clumsier, and more expensive, digits of men. They had no time to cook, except on Sundays, the great day of the roast with potatoes under, rice pudding with brown skin on it, rhubarb and custard. The shops stood in for them.
If you’re not put off by the eccentricities in the prose (like the histrionic language – Greene was not “exiled” except by taxes; and then there’s the name dropping – Lin Yu Tang and Jeanne Moreau?) there’s everything to admire here. We are presented with a series of steaming dishes, but Burgess does not just want to make our stomachs growl. They’re a way of looking at the socioeconomics of the place. This is Frederick Engels’ Manchester, where cost-benefit analyses regulate everything, even and especially dinnertime. “I remember a Manchester of frightful slums and hard-headed magnates and cotton brokers gorging red meat in chophouses.” Even so, there is power in size and at the time Burgess was born, Manchester had a major newspaper, a major orchestra, “fine colliery brass bands and beefy choirs.”
Volume one of these memoirs, Little Wilson and Big God, features less God than you may suspect from the title. And Little Wilson is the author himself. Burgess was his mother’s maiden name and he was confirmed an Anthony in the church. Before this he was John Wilson, or Jackie Wilson, or Jackie Eagle, as his stepmother ran the Golden Eagle pub and the other boys (when they came to collect him, to read—and deliberately misread—the captions in the silent films) couldn’t be bothered to learn his name.
His was an angry childhood. His mother and only sister died in the influenza pandemic of 1918 and Burgess never knew where they were buried. Irish Catholic, his maternal family (and a portion of his paternal family as well) had come from a theatrical and music-hall tradition. For a while, young Wilson lived with an aunt whom he called “Mother.” His father’s new wife, whom Burgess called “Stepmother,” ran the household thriftily and treated the upbringing of young John Wilson as an unfortunate concession to married life. “My stepmother,” he wrote, “fulfilled a stepmother’s duties, which did not include the bestowal of love.” The surviving photograph of Burgess’s natural mother (“Beautiful Belle Burgess” on the stage) shows a handsome woman with her hands locked firmly around young John’s waist and her gaze directed lovingly at the boy. Beside them in the picture, shortly before her death, the sister he barely knew smiles wryly with intelligent eyes. “I read of family relationships in other people’s books,” he writes, “and I envy equally the tranquility and the turbulence. Sons and Lovers and Fathers and Sons are from an alien planet which I can visit only by stretching my imagination.”
Burgess was never close to Joseph Wilson. He attempts in his memoir to sympathize with the shocked soldier who came upon a scene of carnage in his own home: wife and daughter dead of the Spanish influenza, infant Jackie clucking in his cradle:
My father’s attitude to his son must now have become too complicated for articulation. It would have been neater if all three in that room had been obliterated. When I was old enough to appreciate his mingled resentment and factitious gratitude at my survival, I was able to understand his qualified affection, his lack of interest in any future I might have, the ill-considered second marriage which was a way of getting me off his hands.
Burgess did not love his new stepmother. Despite his attempts to paint her as a monster (who looks down her nose at art and culture, picks her teeth with tram tickets, breaks wind and begs no forgiveness), she doesn’t emerge as a horror, just a misunderstood and unfortunate woman. Though the patroness of the Golden Eagle was clearly no intellectual match for little Jackie, her major sin seems to have been being little Jackie’s third mother figure in a very short time; he had had enough of being passed from arms to arms. He slapped a tray of cookies out of her hands the moment they met, and their relationship did not change until her death.
Though his father, as the memoir progresses, increasingly dissolves into “an absence who homed to the smoky sodality of the pubs,” he does remain corporeal enough to teach his son the rudiments of music. And the BBC of the 1930s—combined with a remarkable autodidacticism —taught little Wilson the rest. A shy, less-than-vigorous boy, he grew increasingly attracted to art in all its forms. He drew comic strips, wrote poetry, attempted paintings, edited several student magazines, and composed a journeyman symphony. He read Hopkins and Ulysses as a teenager and went to the movies as often as he could. After completing his Master’s thesis on Christopher Marlowe at Manchester University, he married the “philosophically unfaithful” Lynne Jones shortly before the war, and was soon conscripted and dispatched for training. He felt stifled in the army. He had hated the stupidity of authority before the war, and he really hated it thereafter. We find in his novels nasty headmasters, blinkered publishers, brainwashing bureaucrats, and a sinister pope. Here’s where he met them:
The regular army regarded its conscript educated as the enemy, barrack room lawyer stuff, feared articulacy and tried to humiliate it. I remember cleaning out the latrines at Newbattle Abbey and being asked by a visiting general what I had done in civilian life. I told him and he said: ‘At last you’re doing something useful’.
The prose of these reflections – like that of Earthly Powers – is repeatedly broken with poetry and song. Encountering Nazi enthusiasts while backpacking in Luxembourg, he plays them Elgar and tells them it is Mendelssohn. They hear Jewishness in every note. “It was a dirtying experience.” He describes an attitude toward war refreshingly different from the drum-thumping Greatest Generation mythos. Burgess was cynical: “We knew that this new war would be all about bombing civilians. Picasso’s Guernica had been on exhibition in Manchester, and it was all the war art anyone needed. It was the damnable waste of time in prospect that wearied us.” Like most writers he was useless at making with his hands anything other than art and was soon transferred to the Entertainment Division as a piano player and music director. Finally, “I had a home and I was composing verse as well as music.” His fellow musicians, however, grew “sick of my providing atonal surprises in my improvised solo passages: they were far from ready for progressive jazz.”
Appropriate to an ex-showman, Burgess constantly strives to provoke, challenge, and amuse. His paragraphs are long and dense; each is filled with jokes, philosophical conundrums, and the color and smell of a vanished world. Gradually, the inhospitable world outside Burgess’s head begins to yield to the inventive one within. More of his own conceits and tales emerge in the second half of the book as he becomes a writer. When presented his military ID number (7388026), Burgess converted it “into a tune on the Chinese principle of notation.” When played on that scale (the zero standing for a rest) it is a haunting theme but also (thanks to that rest) a rollicking one. In this way it proves to be, quite by chance, of a piece with Burgess’s work.
After the war, he drifted through England, teaching at various small academies, directing student productions, and writing his first novels. A Vision of Battlements and The Worm and the Ring were rejected by English publishers, and he could not manage to finish the libretto he had begun. After Burgess had been writing professionally for several years, A Vision of Battlements was published as a journeyman work with illustrations; The Worm and the Ring was published then immediately pulled from stores following a successful libel suit. The book had been Burgess’ first attempt at autobiography, and not one warmly welcomed by his thinly-fictionalized fellow teachers at Banbury Grammar School. Then he and Lynne moved to Malaya (where he was an education officer) and he published his first books, multiracial fantasias and satires of British incompetence.
If Burgess’s political philosophy is difficult to classify, his religious ideas are even more so. Raised Catholic, Burgess gradually grew away from the church in his young adulthood. English Catholicism taught him to feel like an outsider from his country. “In the bigger family of the nation,” he wrote, “I belonged to a gang of orphans, kids who could play in the yard so long as they kept quiet but were not admitted to the drawing-room. We were asked to be loyal to the disloyal. I was right to wipe my nose on the Union Jack.” He writes of no catalyst to his loss of faith, only a series of contributing factors. A man who valued unruly works of art above restrictive abstracts, Burgess confesses his estrangement “had more to do with aesthetics than with doctrine.” He writes of hearing a “highly intellectual Jesuit [preach] about the value of Liszt and Wagner and the incapacity of the glory of their music to redeem their habitual sinfulness.” The music at his early churches was not sufficiently ecstatic, and the ecstatic composers were not sufficiently Catholic. When his concerns with that and other aspects of his faith were met with rebukes from his local clergymen, he reports beginning—at first unconsciously—to consider the church as an enemy of free thought.
“I say that I lost my faith,” he writes:
but really I was no more than a lapsed Catholic, as boring a figure as the stage Irishman and sometimes the same figure. What makes him a bore is his lachrymosity, especially in drink, about being a bad son who has struck his mother and dare not go home.
You’ve Had Your Time, the second and final volume of the Confessions, is in many ways the story of a man who never rises from his desk. As Burgess admits in the preface:
In Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies a film on the life of the reformer Wesley is being made, and there is a five-minute segment which shows him writing a sermon. This volume is like that, only much longer.
Indeed, it contains so many incidents of world travel, so many books written (all of their stories briefly and delightfully glossed), so many encounters with the famous (he and Borges, when they met, conversed in Anglo-Saxon; he and Sinatra discussed the orchestration of Stravinsky’s L’Oiseau de Feu) that an enthusiast could be forgiven for neglecting to praise the beautiful prose style in which the story is narrated and from which it never strays.
If there is only darkness after death, then that darkness is the ultimate reality and that love of life which I intermittently possess is no preparation for it … It is not only a question of works never to be written, it is a matter of things unlearned. I have started to learn Japanese, but it is too late; I have started to read Hebrew, but my eyes will not take in the jots and tittles. How can one fade out in peace, carrying vast ignorance into a state of total ignorance?
We do get incident and plot, some of it harrowing. Lynne drinks herself to death a third of the way in, dying of a portal cirrhosis (“there were not enough pots and pans in the kitchen to hold the tides of blood”). He marries again, to one of his translators Liana who had given him a son several years prior, Paolo Andrea. Burgess claims to have been wholly ignorant of Palo’s existence (“I am not sure if every detail is meant to stand up in court,” wrote Gore Vidal in his review of the first volume). But Burgess, perhaps for the first time, found someone he could be comfortable with, and with whom he felt mutual love.
Then we’re told of journeys (“I travelled far, wide and crazily”) to Australia, Los Angeles, Russia, lecturing and teaching and arriving in person to collect royalties. He lives in several countries, or on the road, writing in the back of a Bedford Dormobile while Liana drives. There are page-long descriptions of the hundreds of projects he assayed, often (particularly as regards his work from the 1970s) more satisfying to read than their much longer originals. He makes a novel in symphonic structure based on the life of Napoleon (that was Stanley Kubrick’s idea). He writes a musical film about Shakespeare that’s never filmed (The Bawdy Bard, later Will!) but much of the material finds its way into an excellent biography. There are novels about Keats and Freud and the mysteries of incest. He is briefly commissioned to write, and he writes a James Bond screenplay (“He finds out that people who have had appendectomies in a particular German clinic have been, unknowingly, fitted with a nuclear explosive device”). He mounts a Broadway production of Cyrano de Bergerac starring Christopher Plummer and a translation of Oedipus Rex in which the hero’s blinding occurs onstage. He teaches at City College and Princeton, has a number of affairs (which he gallantly describes), and he writes a huge amount of music, almost every note of it unperformed. Then there is Clockwork Orange — suddenly he is invited to opine on ethics. Then there is the movie about Jesus, a TimeLife guide to New York, and a musical composition, an epic poem, and another film, all about Moses. Yes, he is a man at a desk, but his mind is everywhere.
His tone is less sentimental and precious than Nabokov’s in Speak, Memory and both more humble and more substantive than Vidal’s in Palimpsest. They are great memoirs (the non-fictional correlates of Earthy Powers) and deserve a permanent place in print. The character of Burgess, as created by Burgess, for so long spiritually and emotionally homeless, finds his place and his calling as a teller of tales, a guide to great works, and a composer of music. He allows himself a victorious chord—the traditional “home” chord in Western music: “to survive at all as a writer excuses the raising of the bells of the three unison trumpets in C.”
John Cotter is a founding editor at Open Letters Monthly. His criticism has appeared in The Quarterly Conversation, Brooklyn Rail, and Bookforum. His novel Under the Small Lights is available from Miami University Press and his short story “The Arcadia Project” about the painter Thomas Eakins appears in the current issue of Puerto Del Sol.