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Real Full Rich Rank

By (December 1, 2012) 2 Comments

In the second volume of his blarney-filled autobiography, Anthony Burgess relates the start and temporary end of his prolific side career as a book reviewer. He had already embarked in mid-life on the profession of novelist, and he was producing books with such speed that some had to be published under pseudonyms. Still, fiction writing was unremunerative, and when, in the early 1960s, he was offered the job of fiction editor of the Yorkshire Post—a conservative newspaper “much read in the dales and the clubs of wool and steel magnates”—he jumped at the position.

Burgess took to the work with a kind of self-flagellatory zeal for which a lifetime of Catholicism had trained him. He was immediately astonished by the sheer volume of review copies sent to him each week (which he promptly resold to pad his income). The job was thankless beyond the small paycheck—he read endlessly from that cataract of books in order to write short, capsule reviews to a largely indifferent audience. He began inserting extravagant assertions to test whether anyone was paying attention—that the prose of Barbara Cartland’s drugstore romances, for instance, was influenced by Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in Ulysses.

Then one day he received in the mail a novel called Inside Mr. Enderby, by Joseph Kell, about a slovenly Hove poetaster named F.X. Enderby. Burgess duly reviewed it, and his judgment was mixed:

This is, in many ways, a dirty book. It is full of bowel-blasts and flatulent borborygms, emetic meals (“thin but over-savory stews,” Enderby calls them) and halitosis. It may well make some people sick, and those of my readers with tender stomachs are advised to let it alone. It turns sex, religion, the state into a series of laughing-stocks. The book itself is a laughing-stock.

The review seemed to disappear in that void into which virtually all deadline writing is destined, until The Daily Mail ran an indignant editorial. For Joseph Kell was a pen-name: Anthony Burgess had reviewed his own book.

Burgess was summarily axed as fiction editor; he learned of his dismissal in the paper. Another review he had written for The Observer, of a V.S. Naipaul novel, was pulled and payment canceled. After all, Burgess wryly remarked, how could anyone be sure that he hadn’t written the Naipaul book, too?

Anyone who spends time reading Burgess is likely to form a cheerful picture of the author—rakish, seedy, genially erudite, as quick to recite a limerick as quote a passage from Chaucer, a Falstaff with a work ethic. By the time Burgess told this story for his memoir, however, a certain bitterness had crept into his reminiscences. He was 73 years old, an undoubtedly great writer in querulous, decades-long exile from a country that had never recognized him and was not going to do so while he lived. (His magnum opus Earthly Powers had lost the 1980 Booker Prize, and the decision could only feel like the establishment’s verdict on his life’s output.) England was a country of snobs and hypocrites. It valued wan obedience to forms above the sweat and grime of genuine labor. It had villainized him for a playful prank and cost him a needed job. It had sneered at him for “overproduction.” And it had looked down on him for earning his bread by writing newspaper book reviews, the sort of hackwork clearly beneath the proper man of letters.

In truth, Burgess was always a consummately English writer, even as he moved to various Mediterranean tax havens. But his England had been squeezed into unconsciousness by the whalebone corsets of the Victorian Era, and, in the urbane literary centers, at least, had yet to wake up. His was the Elizabethan England of hard-drinking Cheapside habitués like Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. Most of all, his was the sewage-choked 18th-century England of the Great Cham, a period T.H. White called the Age of Gossip. (White was another genius who wrote as though it were a different century, and was egregiously ignored in his lifetime.) The grim pleasure of writing for Grub Street, Burgess said, was that “one touched the grubby paw of Samuel Johnson.”

It was an attitude rooted in class. Burgess grew up living above his stepmother’s Manchester pub where his father, a bookkeeper by day, made extra money as a piano player. His childhood was unhappy, but it gave him an ear for the élan vital of ordinary speech and a striver’s respect for daily toil. He esteemed noisiness and abundance, which made him seem, by the fussy standards of the time, unforgivably uncultivated. Reviewing a companion to popular literature he once mordantly parroted the elitist notion of high art:

If you write much, you do not give yourself time to meditate; without meditation there is no Literature, only the lower-case variety…. God save us from churning out prolefodder; let us be decently costive like the late T.S. Eliot and E.M. Forster and thus prove that, being gentlemen, we are also Creators of Literature.

Burgess was no gentleman. He wrote book reviews on commission and he wrote them for money; and then, when he no longer needed the money, he continued reviewing anyhow. Writing was a trade, like bookkeeping and piano playing. He once compared himself to a “carpenter commissioned to make a table or cupboard of a specified size.” He prided himself on writing clean copy exactly to length and on deadline, as any good craftsman should. And this ethos extended into his reviews, which demonstrate a deep understanding of those writers who instinctively conflated art with work, and considered both noble enterprises.

His reviews (or, more likely, a small fraction of them) were collected in Urgent Copy (1968), Homage to Qwert Yuiop (1987; retitled, for skittish Americans, to But Do Blondes Prefer Gentlemen?), and the posthumous One Man’s Chorus (1989). These out-of-prints books—particularly Homage to Qwert Yuiop, a dense wedge of text that contains his literary journalism between 1978 and 1985—are giddily polymath, covering subjects from biblical scholarship to linguistics to classical music to Hollywood starlets to, of course, belles lettres. In the introductions to both, Burgess cautions that the reader may find him an overly sympathetic reviewer—he is primarily a novelist and is therefore reluctant to pulverize his peers. But the pleasure of these reviews is the subjectivity of Burgess’ sympathies and his inability to assume the Olympian dispassion of a literary critic. His likes and dislikes are everywhere on the page.

Can you guess who he thought was the best English novelist of the 20th century? That would be Ford Madox Ford, sloppy and mockable, “poor, pounding away at the keys,” building huge, risk-taking monuments of modernism, and eventually being forced to expatriate to the obscure American Midwest. About England’s cynosures Burgess was at best ambivalent and often irascible. His opinion of the Bloomsbury Group is nearly as resentful as D.H. Lawrence’s, another of his heroes. He thought they were, at heart, prigs:

the thick rich cream of Edwardian liberalism—clever but godless, disdainful of the children of the abyss, desirous of experiment but scared of the whole hog, discreetly passionate but shamefully sterile.

He couldn’t stand T.S. Eliot’s chilly pedantry. Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh were persistent bugbears, too, not least because they had converted to Catholicism in demure, contemplative late-life, while Burgess had been raised with it. Reviewing Waugh’s memoir, A Little Learning, he admitted finding it difficult to like a man who, “with calm 18th-century logic, can sail into the Church after a sort of echt English upbringing” of boarding schools and summer homes. They practiced the dainty, self-satisfied Catholicism of Oxbridge intellectuals. Greene picked and chose a convenient cosmological schema that did not include Hell—or rather, as he put it, “Hell may be necessary, but I don’t believe there’s anybody in it.” (At least, Greene may have said that. The line appears in a notorious interview included in Homage to Qwert Yuiop that Greene denounced as being full of fabrications.)

Burgess could be equally reactionary against academia, which seemed to want to insulate literature from its rowdy origins. He esteemed corporeality in art, and writers who paid attention to the glands and bodily functions. “Nothing human alien,” he reminds us: “that was what humanism meant.” About a biography of Cervantes he approvingly comments, “the smells of the age steam from the page, and the prose rumbles like an empty stomach.” Cervantes is one of his lodestars, a writer who knew firsthand physical suffering yet wrote, like Shakespeare, with great-hearted humor and compassion. He wrote marvelous encomia of Rabelais, Sterne, Jane Austen (“no one more charitable, more chaste, more vital, more civilized ever existed”), Oscar Wilde (martyred by the prudish English to the “Jehovah of dullness”), Whitman, and Beckett (especially his novels, where you find the “real full rich rank Beckett”).

A ferocious autodidact, Burgess made learning a lifelong pursuit, and both his scope and fixations testify to a preternatural curiosity about the written word. An incredible number of his reviews are of reference books—dictionaries of quotations, proverbs, slang, foreign languages, and good old English. I can think of no other newspaper reviewer able to pronounce so entertainingly on the worth of writing guides. Both a novelist and a trained linguist, Burgess gained added authority from the fact that these books frequently cited him, as in this review of the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins:

William and Mary Morris are both fine professional lexicographers. I have myself, as the sole British member of their usage panel, been happy to assist them with another dictionary. In this one I appear as the apparent inventor of the term dogmerd—“a felicitous blend of ‘dog’ and the common French vulgarism for excrement.” That does not go far enough. Merd, surely, is to be found in Sir Thomas Urqhart; Webster gives it as a native word, though obsolete. But, more important to me, where did I introduce dogmerd? Not in a book, I’m sure. In an article then. When and where? It is one of the limitations of a dictionary like this that it has to substitute amiable chattiness for dry documentation. The Morrises are desperate to make etymology fun, but fun means vagueness, chirpiness, a disavowal of scholarship.

Dogmerd did appear in a book, incidentally—the final Enderby volume, The Clockwork Testament (1974)—but Burgess’ lexical inventions were so profuse we easily forgive the oversight. It’s a source of great regret that we can’t know what he would have thought of Google searches and the digitization of books and information. To Burgess, reference material was a serious matter, as it had been to other self-made men like Samuel Johnson and the creator of the OED, the “godfearing teetotal non-smoking philoprogenitive bizarrely polymath dominie” James Murray.

Burgess’ artistic-everyman declarations would seem to mark him as a proponent of traditional storytelling, yet no postwar novelist had a keener appreciation for the innovations of modernism. Foremost of those, he felt, was the discovery that language is itself a character. There was not any contradiction here. What may appear high-flown and literary in the experimental novels of the early 20th century is often a writer’s attempt to capture the soul of demotic speech, which is animated by a music of wordplay, compounds, contractions, solecisms, and redundancies. There was nothing abstruse or theoretical about bringing the vernacular to the forefront of a book. Usage and meaning were always in flux. As he wrote while reviewing a work of linguistics, “New rules have to be made almost hourly for new problems of expression.”

It was Burgess’ ultimate good fortune to have come of age in the shadow of a writer who seemed to embody every one of his chief artistic virtues. This was another exile, Jesuit-haunted, musically-trained, pun-spinning, coprophiliac James Joyce. Burgess became, it was said, a one-man cottage industry of Joyce studies. (Some of his readers were nonplussed by the constancy of his devotion: “I think he was rather a better writer than Joyce,” Gore Vidal lamented.) Of the numerous books and articles on the Irishman, Re Joyce (1965) is the finest, and is indeed one of the greatest fan’s notes ever written from one novelist to another.

The general public looks at Joyce’s masterworks and, not unreasonably, feels daunted. Burgess’ aim was to guide the average reader through them, stressing all the while that the books are built from ordinary material and intended above all to amuse and entertainment. Joyce, he writes, reveals “the numinous in the commonplace.” His novels are essentially about “the exaltation of the common man.” They delight in broad comedy, bawdy jokes, and rhetorical prank-pulling (and they’re preoccupied with bodily fluids). The very title of Finnegans Wake come from a vulgar pub song.

Re Joyce, Burgess was the first to admit, is not a work of criticism. (He preferred to call it “exegesis,” but then, he loved Latinate locutions. This was a man who regularly used words like “omnifutuant” and “exophthalmic.”) He felt an awed respect for Edmund Wilson, whose essay on Ulysses in Axel’s Castle may be the preeminent piece of critical analysis the novel has ever received. Wilson celebrated the book, too, but found crucial weaknesses. The scenes that follow the mighty Dionysian Nighttown chapter, Wilson contended, are particularly disappointing. The book’s two heroes, Stephen and Bloom, have finally been brought together, but the importance of their unification is clouded by Joyce’s obsessive technical gadgetry. The novel becomes oddly muted and anticlimactic.

Burgess does not contest the argument, but neither does it worry him. The novel’s Odyssean homecoming, he says, is intentionally bland: “it holds us with its lackluster eye. The muscularity of imagination is spent and only the nerves function now.” This is the writing of a man in love, who finds beauty even in imperfections.

Burgess was at his best in his reviews when they came from this place of passionate affection. A spirit of chatty bonhomie courses through his collections, making his deep, often esoteric, learning go down easily. Some autumnal crankiness begins to pop up in Homage to Qwert Yuiop, of course. By the end of his life, Burgess had become entirely disenchanted with youth culture, and grumblings about rock music and moral relativism worked their way into more and more of his writing. He had run against a conundrum that was hard to navigate. Burgess extolled the democracy or art; but now the stoned demos liked The Rolling Stones and Andy Warhol. Whereas once he had criticized an austere, hidebound figure like John Ruskin—“a man unmoveable by anything except copies of life and abstract stone artefacts”—now he needed some “Ruskinian pundit to frighten everybody with near impossible conditions for true creativity.” Burgess was right in his main objection to the ephemeral spawnings of pop culture—“art begins with craft,” he admonished, “and there is no art until craft has been mastered”—but the role of Jeremiah never suited him.

No, the Anthony Burgess we will always want to read is the mussed, ink-stained enemy of prescriptivism. In Re Joyce, he reminds us of Joyce’s defense of the low art of wordplay. Jesus Christ founded the Catholic Church on a pun (Peter=petros; rock=petra), and if it was good enough for the Lord, it was good enough for Joyce. And if puns were good enough for James Joyce, by God, who was Anthony Burgess to turn down a few quid to hack out a newspaper column?

So there we find him in these great collections, joyfully indecent, irreverent, ungentlemanly—proudly and boisterously toiling in a disreputable venue.

Sam Sacks writes the Fiction Chronicle for The Wall Street Journal and is a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly