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Anthony Burgess was a prolific literary figure of the twentieth century, producing a large number of novels, plays, biographies, screenplays, critical essays, and articles on an extensive array of topics. Trained in music and interested in linguistics, Burgess frequently applied this knowledge to his writing; his fascination with language is apparent in his best-known novel, A Clockwork Orange. Burgess often examined the conflict between free will and determinism through fictional worlds that are in disarray. Although Burgess remained pessimistic about the state of modern society, critics generally agree that his inventive humor and wordplay tempered his cynicism.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
John Anthony Burgess Wilson was born in Manchester, England, on February 25, 1917. His father, Joseph Wilson, played piano in movie houses and pubs, and his mother, Elizabeth (nee Burgess), was a music hall singer who died in the influenza epidemic following World War I when Burgess was a toddler. He was raised Roman Catholic, attending Bishop Bilsborough Memorial School and Xavierian College, Manchester, but identified himself as a ”lapsed Catholic.” One unquestionable legacy from his Catholic upbringing was a fervent belief in Original Sin, or the idea that all humankind is marked by the sins committed by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
From Music to Literature
Although Burgess wrote poetry from an early age, he aspired to a career in music. Unable to earn a scholarship at the University of Manchester, he had to work to save enough money to continue his education, and then, having failed to pass an entrance examination in physics, Burgess had to resign himself to a degree in English literature and linguistics. Burgess was called into service by the British army in the fall of 1940. World War II had begun in Europe in 1939, after Nazi troops from Germany invaded Poland. England, as a key member of the Allied powers opposed to Germany’s actions, called upon all its able men to help repel the German forces. Burgess, after serving with a group of professional entertainers, was sent to Gibraltar, where he remained from 1943 to 1946 doing intelligence work.
At Manchester University, he met Llewela Jones, whom he married on January 23, 1942. While Burgess was in Gibraltar, his wife, pregnant with their first child, did volunteer work in England. At the time, many cities in England undertook nighttime blackouts in order to prevent German bombers from finding targets during night raids. Returning home in the dark of the blackouts one night, Llewela was attacked by four American soldiers intent on robbing her. This event planted the seed for A Clockwork Orange. Burgess’s wife was so badly shaken by the effort to keep her wedding ring that she miscarried. The miscarriage caused the chronic hemorrhaging that, as Burgess told C. Robert Jennings in Playboy, contributed to his wife’s alcoholism and her 1968 death from cirrhosis.
A Meager Living
Following his return to England in 1946, Burgess eked out a living by playing the piano and by teaching. In 1949, he drew upon his wartime experience to write A Vision of Battlements. Burgess sent his manuscript to Heinemann because of that publishing house’s affiliation with Graham Greene, a contemporary of Burgess’s. He was told, however, that A Vision of Battlements was a ”second novel” and that he needed to write a first. Heinemann also turned down the manuscript of what Burgess submitted as the ”first” novel, eventually published as The Worm and the Ring (1961).
Discouraged by his lack of money, Burgess accepted a teaching position in Malaya (which at the time was a protectorate of the United Kingdom). In Malaya he began to concentrate on fiction rather than music, although he never abandoned music completely. Burgess’s first three published novels comprise the Malayan Trilogy (published in the United States as The Long Day Wanes: A Malayan Trilogy in 1964). These novels often prove difficult for the Western reader, because, Burgess said, he had a Malayan audience in mind. Though his talent was acknowledged in the reviews of these first three books, he still considered himself a teacher.
In 1959, while giving a lecture in a Malaya classroom, Burgess collapsed and was flown to a hospital in London for examination and treatment. He was informed by British doctors that he had a brain tumor and would probably be dead within a year. Concerned about his wife’s financial security, Burgess began writing as fast as he could, hoping that his work would make enough profit to support her after his death. One year and five manuscripts later, Burgess was alive in Sussex and continuing to write. Burgess later regarded his collapse as a ”willed collapse out of sheer boredom and frustration” and claims to have found the year of his ”death sentence” one of exhilaration rather than depression. Certainly it was a year of creative productivity.
In 1960 Burgess published The Doctor Is Sick, in which his movement toward fantasy is evident, and The Right to an Answer. In 1961 he published two more novels—Devil of a State and One Hand Clapping, a black comedy about the debilitating effects of television, published under the pseudonym Joseph Kell because his publisher was concerned that the novels would be under-valued if he were to acquire the reputation of being too prolific. The ”Joseph Kell” books got few reviews and sold poorly, however, until they were republished under Burgess’s name.
Also in the early 1960s he fell in love with translator Liliana Marcellari, and in August 1964 their son, Andreas, was born (though Burgess was still married to Llewela Jones at the time). In October 1968, after the death of Llewela, Burgess and Marcellari were married. After he changed publishers from Heinemann to Jonathan Cape, Burgess and his family left England for Malta, then Italy and Monaco.
The book that brought him the greatest fame—and, according to its author, the greatest irritation— was the 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange. Burgess indicated several events that led to his writing the now classic work. First was a report he had read about American prisons using ”behaviorist methods of reforming criminals .. .with the avowed purpose of limiting the subjects’ freedom of choice to what society called ‘goodness,”’ according to Aggeler. Second was a trip he and his wife had taken to the Soviet Union, during which they had encountered a group of marauding thugs who maintained a kind of honor code. Last was the 1943 attack on his wife when she was pregnant.
Besides the shocking portrayal of violence, A Clockwork Orange garnered immediate attention for its use of the language Nadsat, a construction in which he combined Cockney slang and Russian. Notoriety of the work increased when celebrated filmmaker Stanley Kubrick directed the motion picture A Clockwork Orange from a screenplay he adapted in 1971. The film was a stylish and deeply disturbing depiction of gang violence and moral depravity that quickly brought the novel millions of new readers but also brought Burgess the reputation of seeming to “celebrate” violence. This impression is exacerbated by the truncated ending of both the film and the American printing of the book, in which the final chapter— which shows the main character Alex growing weary of violence as he begins to mature—was left out completely. When actual acts of violence were traced back to the movie—for instance, Arthur Bremer’s attempt on presidential candidate George Wallace’s life in 1972—Burgess tried to disown the novel, in part because it had become associated with the adaptation but also because he had become known only as the author of A Clockwork Orange.
New Literary Directions
Burgess’s frustration with being accused of triggering acts of violence resulted in his writing the novel The Clockwork Testament, or, Enderby’s End (1974). In addition to attacking such targets as American academics and their students, television talk show hosts, and feminists, the novel rebukes the critics who blamed his art for precipitating violence.
In his last years, Burgess continued writing prolifically, his output including two volumes of his autobiography, Little Wilson and Big God (1986) and You’ve Had Your Time (1990). The first volume covers his life until his ”death sentence.” The second volume covers his life until 1982. After publishing three more novels and a short-story collection, he died of cancer on November 22, 1993.
Works in Literary Context
A New Take on Science Fiction
Burgess’s fiction does not fit comfortably in the fantasy and science fiction genre. With the possible exception of The End of the World News, his science fiction is not the science fiction ofArthur C. Clarke or Isaac Asimov, who had designs for a futuristic world brought into being by science and technology. Unlike Asimov, Burgess had little background in science, and like Doris Lessing, he had little inclination to read about it.
Burgess himself consistently rejected such a designation and played down the science fiction aspects of his novels. He argued that A Clockwork Orange, for example, is set in an England ofa quite near future, not the distant one of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), or perhaps even George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). Furthermore, in a work such as The End of the World News, part of which is unarguably science fiction, Burgess offers a highly ambivalent characterization of Valentine Brodie, who teaches and writes in the genre. Nevertheless, Burgess has been considered a writer of science fiction for A Clockwork Orange, a contemporary classic, and for The Wanting Seed (1962), 1985, and The End of the World News.
The Artist’s Role in Society
Geoffrey Aggeler, writing in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, considered the novels Burgess wrote during his ”terminal year” representative of the ”themes which he was to develop again and again in the course of the next twenty years—the role and situation of the artist vis-a-vis an impinging world, love and decay in the West, the quest for a darker culture.. . .”
In a series of humorous novels featuring F. X. Enderby, a moderately successful poet whom some critics view as Burgess’s alter ego, Burgess seriously examines the role of the artist in contemporary society. While the middle-aged Enderby is portrayed as an immature individual who can write only in the privacy of his bathroom, the poetry he produces is regarded highly by those few people who still read poetry. Burgess intended for Inside Mr. Enderby to be ”a kind of trumpet blast on behalf of the besieged poet of today—the man who tries to be independent, tries to write his poetry not on the campus, but in the smallest room in the house where he can have some privacy,” wrote Aggeler. When two Enderby books were released in America as a single volume, Burgess considered it ”the book in which I say most, mean most to myself about the situation of the artist.”
The Nature of Good, Evil, and Free Will
In Earthly Powers, a novel dense with themes relating to philosophy and theology, Burgess examines the nature of good and evil and the concept of free will. This novel follows the destinies of a homosexual British novelist and a charismatic Italian cleric through world events spanning fifty years of the twentieth century. As participants and observers of human cruelty and degradation, both characters conclude that God has created evil to preserve humanity’s freedom of choice. This same theme lies at the core of A Clockwork Orange. Alex, the hoodlum who joyously partakes in violent criminal outbursts, has his free will taken away by the Ludovico treatment he undergoes. The question the author poses is this: Can someone be considered “good” simply because he is no longer physically able to do bad things?
Works in Critical Context
A London Times obituarist commented on Burgess’s literary impact:
When some future Burgess a century from now comes to write the cultural history of the second half of the 20th century, Burgess will be recognised as a giant in his tattered humanity and his intolerable wrestle with words and meanings…. He enriched his generation more than most, and left a body of work to keep readers arguing and delighted as long as reading survives, and civilization does not fall into one of his own nightmare visions.
Critical assessment of Burgess ranges from the ecstatic to the offended, for Burgess pulled few punches as a writer. The American writer Gore Vidal observed in the New York Review of Books that Burgess was ”easily the most interesting English writer of the last half century.” In a review of a later collection of essays, critic Michael Dirda observed in Washington Post Book World that Burgess’s ”knowledge of literary, linguistic and musical arcana rivals that of any Oxford don; he writes with a lyrical verve; and he seems willing to turn his hand to anything whatever.”
Despite the commercial success of other novels, it is Earthly Powers that is considered Burgess’s masterpiece. The novel is an autobiography of the octogenarian playwright Kenneth M. Toomey, an amalgam of the writers Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, W. Somerset Maugham, and Burgess himself. Though it is a long book, many critics found its message undiluted by its length. ”The book is ruthlessly well organized—there is no point at which the reader feels [Burgess] is not getting on with it and no incident or character not in place by design,” lauded London Times reviewer Michael Ratcliffe. ”[It] is a hellfire tract thrown down by a novelist at the peak of his powers who cannot forbear to invent, divert, embellish and dazzle us the entire length of the way.” Geoffrey Aggeler, too, found Earthly Powers unhindered by its length. ”Enormous in scope, encompassing much of twentieth-century social, literary, and political history, it inevitably has some flaws…. [They] are, however, minor and unavoidable in a work so large and ambitious. Overall it is a magnificent performance.”
- Aggeler, Geoffrey. ”Anthony Burgess,” vol. 14 of Dictionary ofLiterary Biography: British Novelists Since 1960. Detroit: Gale, 1983.
- Biswell, Andrew. The Real Anthony Burgess. London: MacMillan UK, 2007.
- Bloom, Harold, ed. Anthony Burgess. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.
- Burgess, Anthony. Little Wilson and BigGod. London: Heinemann, 1987.
- Burgess, Anthony. Paris Review (Spring 1973).
- Dirda, Michael. Washington Post Book World (June 13, 1982): 4.
- Jennings, C. Robert. Playboy (September 1974): 69-86.
- Ratcliffe, Michael. London Times (November 26, 1993):23.
- Vidal, Gore. New York Review of Books (May 7, 1987): 3, 6, 8; (October 5, 1995): 47.
- Books and Writers. Anthony Burgess (1917-1993). Retrieved February 14, 2008, from http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/burgess.htm.
- International Anthony Burgess Foundation (IABF).1ABF Website. Retrieved February 14, 2008, fromhttp://www.anthonyburgess.org/. Last updated in December 2007.
- com. Anthony Burgess (1917-1993). Retrieved February 14, 2008, from http://www.levity.com/corduroy/burgess.htm.
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