These days when you speak of Anthony Burgess the first reaction you are likely to get is “Anthony Who?”, which opens the way to the usual gloss, “the author of A Clockwork Orange“, so common, so often repeated that by now it is almost an epithet that rolls out immediately after the writer’s name. We have Alexander the Great, Pieter Brueghel the Elder and Anthony Burgess from A Clockwork Orange. Considering how fickle reputation can be, this comes not so much as a surprise but rather as a particularly cruel irony, for Burgess himself fought hard to try to revert this situation, even if towards the end of his life he must have been able to glimpse the futility of his effort—there was nothing to do, Anthony Burgess, like Arthur Conan Doyle or his friend Joseph Heller, would be outshone by his book’s fame.
Born in Manchester to a family of low-middle class entertainers in 1917, Burgess’ centennial has been celebrated all week in the United Kingdom with a torrent of essays, tributes and talk shows that haven’t simply sought to highlight the most important aspects of his literary and indeed private life, but that have almost managed to physically transport us half a century back in time. For in the late 1960s and through the 1970s Burgess had perhaps not a monopoly over the British cultural scene but he certainly was one of its dons. Eclectic, immensely knowledgeable and prolific like very few writers could be, Burgess read with gluttonous voracity, reviewed just about anything that landed on his lap (regardless of the subject) and wrote (and wrote, and wrote) like there was no tomorrow. Quite literally: while in the British Colonial Service as a teacher in Brunei in 1959, he was mistakenly diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, sent home and told he would live no longer than another year. Instead of spending his last days enjoying to the full his share of earthly pleasures, though, he decided he would work tirelessly until he dropped dead in an effort to complete several works that would provide his wife with some financial backup. Faced with the imminent arrival of death, Burgess rushed to build his legacy, and his patrimony.
By the time his moratorium on death had expired he had finished five and a half novels, almost the entire body of work E. M. Forster managed to complete in a whole lifetime of writing, as Burgess used to like to remind others. Among the works produced during this unbelievable rut are One Hand Clapping and Inside Mr. Enderby, one of his most highly reputed novels which he published in 1963 under the pseudonym of Joseph Kell. At the time Burgess kept a fortnightly column at the Yorkshire Post, reviewing books sent to him by his editor Kenneth Young. When Young sent Burgess Inside Mr. Enderby for review he apparently thought it was a literary joke, writing a rather negative critic of his own “dirty book … full of bowel-blasts and flatulent borborygms.” Young published it and that was the end of that—until he discovered Kell and Burgess were the same person, upon which he summarily dismissed his reliable reviewer.
A man of many talents, Burgess studied English at Victoria University of Manchester only because he was rejected by the music department. His musical inclination was perhaps ingrained in his DNA, his father, Joseph Wilson, often playing the piano for a bit of extra cash, and his mother, Elizabeth Burgess, being a singer and dancer. Though Elizabeth died from influenza in 1918, when her son was but a year of age, Burgess (who grew up as John Wilson) was passionate, as well as immensely knowledgeable, about music. He wrote hundreds of scores over the course of his life, and took musical composition as seriously as his literary work.
This adeptness to music also flourished in the third of Burgess’ great vocations: languages. Curious about the world and its ways, Burgess traveled extensively both before and after turning to literature: having joined the education department of the Colonial Service in 1954, he spent five years teaching in Malaysia (at the time the Federated Malay States) where he not only learned Malay language but also wrote three novels. Known together as the Malaysian trilogy and gathered in a single volume titled The Long Day Wanes, Burgess is bold and unorthodox in his choice of subject not because of its exotic setting—after all, from Kipling to Conrad there is a long tradition of colonial fiction—but because instead of focusing on the experiences of the white colonist officer deployed in foreign lands Burgess is equally or perhaps even more interested in depicting the everyday life of the indigenous population.
Burgess’ sensitive ear picked up the nuances of both his native English and foreign languages, and indeed his experiments with language and dialect are central to his literary work. In One Hand Clapping, a bitter account of the decline of culture in Western society, the author dilutes the depth of language to the extreme of using a minimal pool of words throughout the novel; in Nothing Like the Sun: A Story of Shakespeare’s Love Life (1964) he is intrigued by the sounds of English in the sixteenth century but rather than reverting to an archaic form of the language, uninteresting because in its written form it would shed no light on pronunciation and remain stale and distant, he explores the shapes that a modern version of Elizabethan language might have taken; in Napoleon Symphony: A Novel in Four Movements (1974) he weaves the life of Napoleon Bonaparte into Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony No. 3 deliberately manipulating language to recreate the swings and moods of the music. And yet, it is again in A Clockwork Orange that his fascination for language is most celebrated, as he infiltrates the adolescent speech of his protagonist, Alex, with invented Nasdat terms, many of them inspired in Russian words.
A Clockwork Orange is short, gritty and unequivocally disturbing. Burgess first set to work on the novella during his year of forced labor to provide for his wife after his assured decease in 1960, though he would not finish it before the end of 1961, by which time he must have harbored suspicions things weren’t going to end quite so suddenly after all. The story at the core of the book, however, that of a gang of four ruffians reeking havoc and instilling fear in the population at large, had been with him for a long time. In fact, it stems from a horrendous episode during the 1944 blackout in London when his first wife Lynne Isherwood Jones was viciously attacked and gang raped by a group of four deserting American soldiers. Burgess was stationed at the time in Gibraltar, serving in the Army Educational Corps, though the couple were expecting a child. Lynne later suffered a miscarriage, but unlike her alter ego in the novel she survived the attack.
In view of this close encounter with violence, Burgess’ approach to it in A Clockwork Orange is both courageous and generous, for rather than adopting the victims’ perspective he gets inside his wife’s assailants’ frame of mind. Not only that, but in the process he builds a profound apology in favor of living in a society where humans can behave so cruelly. For if Alex’s bouts of violence and destruction provide the hinge on which the plot is fixed, the argument revolves round the question of choice: in a fully controlled system which is capable of forcibly taming Alex his imposed temperance becomes even less morally acceptable than his natural wantonness.
It is often claimed that Alex is a likable character full of the charm that attracts us to, for instance, Milton’s Satan ahead of the paleness of good but if Alex is portrayed in a positive light in A Clockwork Orange it is only because the indictment on the system to which he belongs is so much worse than the critic on his individual behavior. This, of course, lies at the center of dystopia as a genre, and is perhaps what makes it so difficult to achieve successfully. But there might be something else attracting us to Alex: Malcolm McDowell’s inspired interpretation of the character in Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation. And this would irk Burgess, because he sold the rights to the novel for little, and his script proposal was later rejected by Kubrick. Released to a world of controversy in 1972 the film was banned from Britain and talked about everywhere else, to the point where today it enjoys cult status regardless of its merits. The billing read “Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange“, and Burgess, suddenly a celebrity with a book that had previously sold but a few thousand copies, didn’t really know how to react—after so much application, so much inventiveness, to be crowned at last by the workings of a mere filmmaker.
Burgess tried to change this circumstance until his death in 1993. His 1980 mock-mainstream Earthly Powers proved immensely popular, and even earned him a nomination to the Booker Prize. But it isn’t even close: Anthony Burgess is still, might remain forever, the author of A Clockwork Orange. And yet, after all is said and done, I get the feeling he would amply choose this ahead of oblivion—even if means having to thank Stanley Kubrick for eternity.
Published in the WEEKender supplement of Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald newspaper on Saturday March 4, 2017.