On the 25th of February, BBC Radio 3 Saturday Classic celebrated life and music of Anthony Burgess through a programme hosted by Andrew Biswell, author of The Real Life of Anthony Burgess. Anthony Burgess was born in Manchester one hundred years ago, but it was only recently that we found out more about this famous author’s plural artistic interests beyond writing. To understand Burgess more fully, it is important that we examine his more obscure novels, which reveal a whole new world beyond Catholicism and violence. The BBC and the International Anthony Burgess Foundation, among others, commemorated the 25th of February, and this centenary year as a whole, with a twist: for them it is time, in 2017, to celebrate Burgess’s talent for music as a composer, for linguistics as a translator, writer and language creator, for film as a script writer, and for journalism as a critic and reviewer – even of himself. It’s time not only to appreciate Burgess as an artist rather than just as an author, but also to examine his broad body of written texts more carefully in order to gain a fuller understanding of this wonderfully enigmatic figure.
The UK has not given sufficient recognition to Burgess’s nature as an artist in all these areas. Indeed, Burgess’s fame is still based largely on A Clockwork Orange, just as it has been since the film adaptation was first screened in 1971. Even now, most of the commemorations of his centenary have some relation to the story of Alex Delarge. In contrast BBC Radio 3’s special programme took a different and more expansive angle. It was recorded at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation, which has been the store of Burgess’s records, notes, unpublished and published books, and many unfinished projects of various genres that speak of how much he wanted to do, but was unable to complete because of monetary urgencies at the time. I am sure that this situation sounds familiar for many readers and aspiring writers in the present. The Foundation, furthermore, hosts regular expositions with a variety of themes on Anthony Burgess’s work and has served as a platform for new writers and composers to present their art: it has been a driving force for culture in Manchester. This year, for the centenary, there is going to be an international academic congress in July, which will include screenings and stage presentations not only in the Foundation, but all around the city.
One thing of which all the incomplete projects and rough ideas resting in these archives speak is Burgess’s restless fascination with music and how it could be incorporated into literature. Every chapter from A Clockwork Orange denotes a musical movement, and these hints at his interest in music are only the tip of the iceberg: there is much more to see in the Foundation’s collection. But Burgess’s intriguing artistic tastes, including his musical interests, can be found by reading his novels carefully; these texts come alive once we relate them and reveal the complexity of their author on every page. Ironically, while I am trying to take the emphasis away from literature to give importance to Burgess’s other works, reading and interpreting his novels is still the most accessible way to explore this intriguing author.
Let’s consider, for example, that Burgess wrote lots of short and straightforward novels that he needed to be quick best sellers to make some money. He did not live the life of the bourgeois artist. Instead, he produced novels with the hope that that would give him economic stability. He often disregarded music because it was not financially secure, but, as has been acknowledged by Burgess’s biographers Roger Lewis and Andrew Biswell, it certainly appears to have been his primary obsession. Through writing his novels using almost phonological symbols, Burgess demonstrated his fascination with language and sound, and also his desperation to break free of traditional narrative styles; for example, in the Enderby novels, he combines drama and prose. He was often criticised because his characters were alleged to be all somehow the same, with the same frustrations and the same cunning linguistic expressions. The literary world was harsh, and he was equally harsh on himself. He retreated into a life of academia as a visiting professor in few American universities because that was thought to be sensible and perhaps more stable than churning out novels. It appears to me that this story of trying to fit into literary society sounds all too familiar to artists’ survival in 2017.
Burgess’s struggle for recognition and financial remuneration is common to the general stereotype of the struggling artist, and particularly relevant to the present day. He is even being mapped directly onto the contemporary landscape: articles have appeared such as such as Will Carr’s June 2016 entry in the Anthony Burgess Foundation blog, “Chunnel Vision: Anthony Burgess and Europe”, which ponders what Burgess’s position on Brexit would have been. I think we have to be careful not to be too cavalier in this regard though: Burgess was not attached to overt political discourse, and his political positions certainly did not define him. What is more valuable from articles such as Will Carr’s, is the way that Carr examines Burgess’s position on Europe, painting a clearer picture of how Burgess considered himself more as a European than a British citizen. In fact, Burgess did not even consider himself English: he said so explicitly in his autobiography You’ve Had Your Time. This is another aspect that we lose when we think of him only as the author of the novel on which Stanley Kubrick’s film was based, A Clockwork Orange.
Art and its role in Burgess’s life seems to have been equally neglected in the popular image of him. He knew how art could change lives; it is certainly what gave his life purpose. I would invite interested readers to examine The Enderby Novels – three novels that can be found under the name The Complete Enderby – through which Burgess creates a form of fictionalised autobiographical novel. Enderby, a poet who physically looks like Burgess and shares many other similarities with the author, lives a number of adventures trying to look for his role – if he has any –in contemporary society. This narrative gestures again to Burgess as self-reflexive artist, and can even be seen to hint at his musical expertise beyond literature: the movements within the narrative of The Enderby Novels feel almost akin to a classical composition. If we want to commemorate in 2017 what he accomplished, we have to consider Burgess the artist, the man who thought globally about humanities and who imbued his work with subtle nuance. He plays with art but we have to learn how to read him, and read him more widely. His centenary is an appropriate time to begin to consider his work more broadly.
This task is not easy. Burgess himself made sure readers cannot trust him, or his characters, or even his own art at some points. Innumerable transitions of his own name as an author and writer enforce the difficulty that has helped define Burgess, for so long, as the author known for only one novel – and even then an author predominantly known only for that novel’s film adaptation. Burgess was unreliable, but we can use his uncertain authorship as an advantage for interpretation. Burgess lived to see his novels – and the rest of his works – overshadowed by his one blockbuster success. He knew his lifetime was not enough to make up for this, so in his works he made the concept of authorship a puzzle to be pondered over later. Perhaps the most obvious example of Burgess playing with ideas of authorship is when he wrote a review of One Hand Clapping by Joseph Kell. Joseph Kell was in fact a pseudonym disguising the real author of the novel: Anthony Burgess.
Burgess did not only play with the presence of an author, but he disregarded the label in his autobiographies, interrelating fiction and reality; his literary persona and the known facts about his life, as it is in The Enderby novels and even in his autobiographies You’ve Had your Time and Little Wilson Big God, were outrageously and deliberately confusing. If we consider his legacy, then, we must treat his work cautiously but completely, because the clues are in all his work taken as a collection, not just one or two examples. The irony is that this approach might lead us to attempt to reach the truth about Burgess, to uncover the “real” Burgess, but that is both impossible and misses the point. The point is that as readers, we should draw lines between the authorial trickery and see what we find. The joy is in the question, not the answer. Only when in attempting to decipher these, can the “real” enigmatic Burgess be, perhaps, understood. Seeing him under only one light would be unworthy of his centenary.
Andrew Biswell, The Real Life of Anthony Burgess(London: Picador, 2005).
Roger Lewis, Anthony Burgess (London: Faber&Faber, 2002).
Andrew Biswell, The Real Life of Anthony Burgess (London: Picador, 2005).
Anthony Burgess, You’ve Had Your Time: Being the Second Part of the Confessions of Anthony Burgess, (London: Vintage, 2002).
Burgess, Anthony. One Hand Clapping. (London: Da Capo Press,1999).
 As accounted by Biswell, The Real Life of Anthony Burgess (273); Burgess, You’ve Had Your Time (73), and Lewis, Anthony Burgess (33).