Andrew Biswell – The Real Life of Anthony Burgess

Why does Andrew Biswell title his book ‘The Real life of Anthony Burgess’? Probably because the man himself, whose name was not Anthony Burgess, but John Burgess Wilson, seems to mix scenes and characters from his novels with his own life and come up with conflicting versions. He is described as a ‘fabulist’ and ‘self-contradictory’, and Biswell has followed a mazy path in his efforts to unearth the truth about Burgess’ real life. His biography is a fascinating account of a wildly, almost excessively talented man who had something of a gift for getting on the wrong side of authority. Biswell analyses all of Burgess’ writing and communicates with almost everyone still living who had any significant contact with the writer. Letters, interviews, newspaper articles, television interviews; he leaves no stone unturned. It is a huge work, but one worthy of its subject.

John Burgess Wilson was born in Manchester in 1917. His father was a piano player. That’s not a ‘pianist’ but a man who plays the piano in pubs and cinemas, always after sinking many pints of beer. The only musical education he gave his son was to point to middle C on the piano and then to show him on a sheet of printed music what it looked like. From that Burgess was able to teach himself to play the piano and to develop his musical knowledge to the point where he often preferred to refer to himself as a composer rather than a writer. In later life he wrote symphonies, operas, and set poems to music. All with very little success. He once said

‘I wish people would think of me as a musician who writes novels, instead of a novelist who writes music on the side.’

On leaving school, at the age of seventeen he wrote a poem in homage to Gerard Manley Hopkins whose work had only been published a few years earlier. The flavour of Hopkins is very strong here, almost too much so, but quite extraordinary for a teenage boy.

Whether windowed a greycold welkin or a dawn that mounts and breaks.

In a roseflush wave each day arises this working man,

Heavy maybe but never for a thwarted life’s plan…

But in spite of his great facility with words (and a massive vocabulary) Burgess went on believing his true calling was to be a composer. It wasn’t until his first book was published in 1956 he realised that was where he would make his living.

After the Army and duty in Gibraltar Burgess spent time as English Master at Banbury College Grammar. Of course, he fell foul of the Head, and later books he wrote based around characters he knew there caused him to be sued for libel. But at this time too he was reunited with his wife Lynne.

Lynne made a vivid impression in Adderbury… her behaviour is still the subject of local gossip…the back garden of their cottage on Water Lane was full of empty bottles…a rumour Lynne was in the habit of cavorting naked in the garden persists to this day…she once got hopelessly drunk and disappeared for a few hours. A search party was sent out, and she was finally discovered sleeping in an empty field behind the village petrol garage.

They moved to live in Malaya (as it was called then) and Burgess wrote his first three books about life there. But always Lynne was with him, becoming more drunken and more indiscreet as time went by. Burgess had his own amours, but usually quietly. He did however, begin to drink every day. Not as much as Lynne but still far more than was wise.

It is extraordinary to realise how much work he did. Writing novels, book reviews, screen plays newspaper articles. Always writing; always drunk. And smoking eighty cigarettes a day.

Burgess was a polymath, a linguist, a worker. He could be kind and he could be insufferable. One aspect of his life that affected his views on the world was the loss of his Catholic faith. He referred to himself as a ‘Lapsed Catholic’ but would not countenance divorce as it was against Catholic law. He was also consumed with the question of Original Sin. As Biswell explains it, the idea that all humans are born in a state of sin and have to be redeemed by a Saviour or they will go to hell comes from the theology of Augustin of Hippo. The Roman Pelagius on the other hand taught that all humans are born in a state of grace; this became known as the Pelagian heresy. Burgess subscribed to Augustin’s theory.

Burgess’ most famous book A Clockwork Orange tangles with these ideas. The violent juvenile delinquent Alex, in one version of the book is capable of redemption, but the film version leaves off Burgess’ last chapter and Alex, the Beethoven loving sadistic Droog is still intent on his violent ways. Like all Burgess’ novels this is both funny and shocking but essentially a novel of ideas. It drew a storm of protest when it as first published as did the film.

There is so much in this book about the life of a brilliant writer who is slowly sinking from view. It is salutary to realise how quickly even the most talented of us can disappear.

This book is a sympathetic but honest account of one’s man’s tortured life and career.

If I were to read Burgess again, I would probably read The Doctor is Sick, The Malayan Trilogy and Inside Mr Enderby, the first of four books about the horrendous poet. Don’t read Burgess if you are shocked by things like this

This is in many ways, a dirty book. It is full of bowel-blasts and flatulent borborygms, emetic meals…and halitosis. It may well make some people sick, and those of my readers with tender stomachs are advised to let it alone.

And this is from the author’s review of his own book, written under the name of Joseph Kell.

24 thoughts on “Andrew Biswell – The Real Life of Anthony Burgess

    1. I find it so interesting how writers who were super popular only a few years back can sink without a trace. Of course his views on women would be considered very incorrect now.

      1. I think that in the US, Clockwork Orange is considered a “classic” of its era, although I don’t know how many people read it any more. Don’t know that his attitudes towards women were that exceptional –more a part of his dystopia? But you are right; they would not be considered acceptable by most people to the left of Rush Limbaugh (I don’t know who is the comparable person in Australia).

        1. He was always annoyed that he was best know for Clockwork Orange because of the film. I am reading Beard’s Roman Women in October (don’t ask why) and that reflects his views. The Enderby books also quite scurrilous. His Malayan trilogy is some of his best work, I think.

  1. I’ve had a copy, unread, of Burgess’s The Fisher King, acquired when I was heavily into Arthuriana but never opened. Maybe it’s time I should, especially after this enlightening post. Other than A Clockwork Orange I was aware he’d written a novel about Napoleon, the structure of which was based on that of Beethoven’s Eroica symphony — a neat idea but a bit too cerebral for me at the time.

        1. No no, not at all. I just think you have a slight brain fever from reading too many books. A few months of quiet and no reading and you’ll be tickety boo.

  2. He sounds like an interesting man, but having seen the movie Clock Work Orange, there’s just a little too much reality in it.

      1. Wait — another Anthony! This is beginning to have a very Shakesperean mixed-identities quality to it. I do like the thought of Anthony Trollope and Anthony Burgess co-writing a novel . . .

        1. I wish Anthony Burgess had written a book called The Fisher King. I think he would have done a better job than Anthony Powell judging by the reviews. May I suggest Napoleon Symphony: A novel in Four Movements following the structure of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. Now that’s what I call and ambitious project.

      2. I do not like to carp or reprove Mr Guy but I do remember another challenge that was not fulfilled by you. You will have to go first. If you can prove to my satisfaction you have read anything at all by Anthony Burgess I will read Barchester Towers.

          1. It wasn’t one of THOSE challenges. If you cast your mind back to December 2015 we both had a copy of Guiseppe Pontiggia’s The Invisible Player which I read but I don’t think you did.

  3. I remembered it was a mano-a-mano type of thing but didn’t recall the book. Perhaps deliberately. But I meant I havel earned to generally avoid those book challenges. They seem like fun at the time….

  4. I suppose It was 6 years ago. No generally they don’t appeal to me; I just make my own personal challenges. Next year I might read Proust. (Of course Other Gert has read it already, and in French.)

  5. I went through an Anthony Burgess decade and remember Enderby wearing pajamas under his trousers and tucking the ends into his socks. Seemed like an eminently sensible move on cold days. And then of course the outrageous opening of “Earthly Powers;”

    “It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.”t

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