Anthony Burgess

Anthony Burgess (1917-1993) was one of the most prolific literary figures of the 20th century, producing a large number of novels, plays, biographies, screenplays, criticism, and articles.

John Anthony Burgess Wilson was born on February 25, 1917, in Manchester, England. As a child he demonstrated talent as a writer, artist, and musician. He studied the violin and taught himself piano as well as musical notation. Though he regarded himself as a "failed composer," his efforts were not altogether unsuccessful. He created classical pieces and scores for television, film, and theater. His third symphony was performed in lowa City in 1975. In his lifetime, Burgess composed choral works, concertos, and even operas. Writing was initially a "hobby," then, after he recognized his gift and found it remunerative, a "full time job."

The experiences of Burgess' first 32 years provided inspiration for his novels. He was raised in an Irish Catholic family and attended Bishop Bilsborrow School and Xaverian College. Ironically, he lost his faith at Xaverian but considered himself "a lapsed Catholic," never completely free of his background. In 1940, after graduating from Manchester University with a degree in literature, he entered the Army Educational Corps. From 1943 to 1946 he was a training college lecturer in speech and drama on Gibraltar. Afterwards he held a variety of teaching positions including member of the Central Advisory Council for Adult Education in the Armed Forces, Birmingham, 1946-1948, teacher of phonetics, drama, and literature for the Ministry of Education, Preston, Lancashire, 1948-1950, and teacher of literature, phonetics, Spanish, and music, Banbury Grammar School, Oxfordshire, 1950-1954.

In 1954 he joined the Colonial Service as a lecturer in English in Malaya. In 1957 he became an educational officer and English language specialist in Borneo. It was as an observer of these politically and socially complex cultures that Burgess began his writing career. His first published novels, Time for a Tiger (1956), Enemy in the Blanket (1958), and Beds in the East (1959) are set in Malaya. Devil of a State (1961) is set in Borneo. He took the name Anthony Burgess because he thought his superiors would disapprove of his writing fiction.

In 1959 Burgess was ill and returned to England. He was told he probably had a brain tumor and would survive only a year. Luckily, this was a misdiagnosis. But the prospect of death prompted him to turn fulltime to writing, and during this "terminal year" he completed The Doctor Is Sick, Inside Mr. Enderby, The Wanting Seed and One Hand Clapping. Later, Burgess stated in The Economist that his objective during that year had been to provide an inheritance for his wife by writing ten novels. But, he said, "I couldn't do it. I did produce five and a half though … And some of them are still around. But it was too much. I don't think anybody should do quite as much as that." The five novels that Burgess completed during his "terminal year" proved a fitting overview of themes he would return to frequently throughout his career. Once recovered from his misdiagnosed illness, Burgess continued writing novels. Among the most acclaimed were three that followed F.X. Enderby, a poet misplaced in society who was introduced in 1963's Inside Mr. Enderby. Those three books were Enderby Outside (1968), The Clockwork Testament, or Enderby's End (1974), and Enderby's Dark Lady (1984). When Enderby died in The Clockwork Testament, or Enderby's End, readers were so dismayed that the author "resurrected" him in Enderby's Dark Lady.

Other of Burgess' well-regarded works include Nothing Like the Sun (1964), a story about William Shakespeare, and Napoleon Symphony (1974), a fictional biography of Napoleon structured to follow the form of Beethoven's Eroica. Burgess' most famous, though not his favorite, novel was A Clockwork Orange (1962), which was made into a movie. Its violent anti-hero, Alex, is subdued when he undergoes behavior modification treatment administered by the state. The novel haunted Burgess throughout his life because his publisher, W.W. Norton, dropped a final chapter in which Alex remained reformed. Instead, the book was published with Alex returning to a life of crime, and when Stanley Kubrick made the film version of the novel in 1971, he adhered to the publisher's ending. Burgess said in The Economist that he felt, " … when the film was made the theological element almost completely disappeared." The film was so violent that it was permanently banned in Britain.

Burgess also published other books during this time, including The Novel Now (1967), Shakespeare (1970), and two studies of James Joyce: ReJoyce (1965) and Joysprick (1973).

Burgess married twice. In 1968 his first wife died of pscerosis of the liver as a result of severe alcoholism, and he married Liliana Macelli, a linguist. Discontent with life in England, and particularly with excessive taxation, they moved with their son to Malta and then lived in Italy and Monaco. Burgess visited the United States and taught at the University of North Carolina, Princeton, and City College, New York.

Burgess was acutely sensitive to evil in modern life. He called himself a "Manichee," a believer in the duality, the inter-connection of good and evil, of reality. Typically, his protagonists represent relatively decent people caught in the conflicts and absurdities of their environments. They confront chaos, as in the Malayan trilogy, espionage, as in Tremor of Intent (1966), and authoritarian institutions, as in The Wanting Seed, A Clockwork Orange, and Honey for the Bears (1963). Burgess distrusted government. The socialized state which "cures" Alex destroys his free will. Other novels, such as the Enderby books, The Right to an Answer (1960), One Hand Clapping (1961), and Beard's Roman Women (1976)—about Hollywood—satirized materialism, corruption, and vacuousness in contemporary culture.

People, too, are seen as evil. One of Burgess' interests was the conflict between Pelagias, who believed man is ultimately perfectible, and Augustine, who believed man is irredeemably sinful. In novels such as Earthly Powers (1980), Augustine generally prevails. There are characters, however, who learn and grow and artistic ones who create order from chaos and suggest hope.

Burgess' comic style softened his pessimism. Characters lurch from outlandish adventure to adventure. Farcical figures, surreal coincidences, and inventive allusions to history and fiction supplement his novels. Language—puns, poetic images, distorted syntax—distance one from the gloom. Nothing Like the Sun was written in Elizabethan style. For A Clockwork Orange Burgess invented a dialect. Some books are considered more intellectually than emotionally stimulating, rendering illustrations of theses and complicated reading puzzles. Consequently, Burgess' vitality and originality were widely admired.

Burgess published two volumes of memoirs, Little Wilson and Big God (1987) and You've Had Your Time (1990). While both volumes were generally well-received by critics, some complained that they spent too much time on abstract thought, and not enough on the author's life. In his review of You've Had Your Time, William F. Buckley, Jr. remarked in The New York Times Book Review, " … is there a human narrative under this truckload of cultural petit point? Not a whole lot, to tell the truth, but some."

Although Burgess did not begin writing until age 32, publishing his first novel at 39, he became one of the busiest authors of his time. In addition to over 25 novels, he produced biographies, plays, screenplays, criticism, and articles. His translation of Cyrano de Bergerac had a successful run at the Guthrie Theatre, Minneapolis, in 1971 and on Broadway in 1984. For television he wrote Jesus of Nazareth, based on his novel Man of Nazareth (1979), and AD. Even in 1993, when he was suffering from a long illness, Burgess published two works: Dead Man in Deptford and A Mouthful of Air: Languages, Languages—Especially English. He was also a regular contributor to periodicals, such as Atlantic Monthly and The New York Times Book Review. Burgess died on November 25, 1993 after a long battle with cancer.


Further Reading on Anthony Burgess

Geoffrey Aggeler, Anthony Burgess: The Artist as Novelist (1979) and Samuel Coale, Anthony Burgess (1981) contain biographies and criticism. Coale included a bibliography. His selected checklist of Anthony Burgess criticism also appeared in Modern Fiction Studies (Autumn 1981). Burgess' autobiography, This Man and His Music (1982), examined music in his life and writing. Richard Mathews, The Clockwork Universe of Anthony Burgess (1978) and Robert Morris, The Consolations of Ambiguity (1971) discussed themes in the novels.