Titan of letters or tourist-trail waxwork? Critical opinion on Anthony Burgess is far from unanimous. The late Chethams librarian Michael Powell would roll his eyes at mention of the prolific typewriter-for-hire whose renown rests heavily on a short sci-fi novel which was made into a film.
With the author highly visible on Manchester’s literature scene – his Cambridge Street foundation is not merely a landmark but a popular venue; he’s memorialised in awards, public lectures and exhibitions – there is a body of work still largely unknown to the public.
It’s natural to wonder, then…is Anthony Burgess all he’s bigged up to be?
Now seemed as good a time as any for Danny Moran to lob a few friendly curveballs in the direction of any passing Burgess experts and see how they deal with them…in this case Andrew Biswell, Burgess biographer and director of the International Anthony Burgess Foundation, and novelist Sean Gregory, author of the fictionalized Burgess biography Three Graves. Thanks fellas!
Why do you love Burgess?
ANDREW BISWELL: For several reasons. I’ve always liked his style, and the personality of the writer which stands behind the word. There’s a tone of voice which is appealing: ironic, tolerant, fundamentally comic. I admire his versatility: he’s a translator, poet, playwright, musician. The music is also much better than you think it’s going to be, especially the songs and piano pieces. It’s a remarkable achievement for a self-taught composer.
SEAN GREGORY: I spent so much time reading him, researching his life, and then writing about him that it’s not as simple as ‘loving’ him, but he’s a fascinating character. I do greatly respect his work and the sheer amount of material he put into the world. It’s staggering to see how much he was able to do, considering he wasn’t published until he was forty.
Was he not just a hack?
AB: A hack, if you like, but only in the sense that Thackeray and Dostoyevsky and Hemingway were hacks. Burgess wrote hard, often to deadlines, but the writing is always careful and well crafted, even in ephemeral work such as journalism and letters.
SG: Burgess kicked against the idea that good art had to arrive via some kind of muse or that great writers write little. He thought you had to put the work in and I’m with him on that. He certainly produced a lot of reviews and journalism for money, but he’s far too esoteric and experimental to be described as a hack.
Is he not a poor cousin to the likes of Graham Greene?
AB: Burgess and Greene are completely different in their approach to writing. Greene settled into a familiar style around 1935, after which he went on writing the same novel with minor variations. Burgess, who owed more to Joyce than anyone else, invented a fresh narrative technique for each book. You could never predict what he was going to do next.
SG: If you’re talking upbringing, yes. Greene was born into an upper-middle class family, in Hertfordshire, while Burgess was born to music hall performers in Harpurhey. While there might be similar themes and interests, Burgess is a very different writer and more experimental, I think.
Is A Clockwork Orange a worthy classic or just a gimmick?
AB: It is neither of these things, and both. Like Dr Frankenstein, I don’t think Burgess understood what he had created.
SG: It depends if you think writing a novel in an invented dialect is a gimmick or if it’s more creatively interesting; I think it still stands up. The film overshadows the novel, and maybe the film now seems gimmicky.
Isn’t it the case that he neither remained in nor wrote very much about Manchester at all, and that to claim him as a Manchester author is stretching a point?
AB: Manchester and the north-west of England are central to many of his late works, especially The Pianoplayers, Any Old Iron, Flame Into Being and Little Wilson and Big God. In his seventies, Burgess visited Manchester once or twice every year to launch new books and to meet readers. He was proud to be a Mancunian and was always a great advocate for the city when he lived in other places. He left in 1940, like many others before and since: Dodie Smith, Marghanita Laski, Howard Jacobson, Steve Coogan. Burgess’s cultural formation was entirely Mancunian. He left the place but it never left him.
SG: Two of Burgess’ later novels, The Pianoplayers and Any Old Iron, are set in Manchester, but his novels don’t need to be set in the city for him to be regarded as a Manchester author. It’s less what he says about the city and more about how the city informed him as a writer. Samuel Beckett has a bridge named after him in Dublin and how much of what he wrote is specifically set there?
What are his best five books?
AB: I recommend the first 2 volumes of Enderby, Nothing Like the Sun, Little Wilson and Big God, Earthly Powers.
SG: Time for A Tiger, Earthly Powers, The End of the World News, the memoirs, Enderby.
Which is his most overlooked?
AB: Most of his books are overlooked. Among the neglected works, I’m fond of A Dead Man in Deptford, The Worm and the Ring, and Napoleon Symphony.
SG: I’m surprised Any Old Iron doesn’t get more love. It starts in a restaurant in Deansgate and covers the sinking of the Titanic, King Arthur and the sword in the stone, Welsh independence, the Second World War, and the birth of Israel. It also includes some of Burgess’s better female characters.
Are his musical works really any good?
AB: Yes. Blooms of Dublin, his musical adaptation of Jame Joyce’s Ulysses, is one of the best. The 24 Preludes and Fugues for piano are rightly admired by serious musicians. We’re still finding out about Burgess’s music, some of which has never been performed.
SG: I won’t pretend to be an expert, but his music shares a similarly idiosyncratic approach he brings to his writing. It’s easy to dismiss, in the same way it’s easy to dismiss Tom Hanks’ short stories, but Burgess was very serious about music and put the work in.
What aspect of his world is under-explored?
AB: Probably the extent to which his work is informed by a wide knowledge of contemporary philosophy and politics.
SG: He’s painted as this verbose, grand staging polemicist, but so much of his writing is an attempt to converse with other writers and creatives – Nothing Like the Sun is about Shakespeare and takes ideas from James Joyce, 1985 is a response to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. I read Burgess more as a writer wanting to share the stage rather than hog it.
What is your favourite story about him?
AB: Burgess was very short-sighted but, for reasons of vanity, refused to wear his glasses outside the house. He once went into a bank in Stratford-upon-Avon, marched up to the counter and demanded a pint of beer. An easy mistake to make in Stratford, of course.
SG: The one I put at the centre of my book sees him arriving at the Midland Hotel, on a book tour, where he is given a letter that reads: ‘We’ve reserved Three Graves for you, Mr Burgess. One for your body, one for your books, and one for your ego.’
Tickets are available now for this year’s Burgess Lecture on October 12, with Robert Crawford marking publication of the second volume of his biography of TS Eliot. Details here [CLICK THE LINK]