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.