Anthony Burgess, best known for his novels, particularly A Clockwork Orange, is also remembered as a composer, a biographer and critic, and occasional TV personality. The novels were products of later life; five being written in the space of twelve months when he was diagnosed as terminally ill with a brain tumour. He lived on, however, for another thirty three years – filled with a passionate intensity – and continued to produce works at almost the same rate. He wrote scripts for radio and television and the cinema as well as a number of musical compositions.
Before he finally settled on the pen name Anthony Burgess he also wrote under his full name John Burgess Wilson as well as the pseudonym Joseph Kell – the name which appears on the original Mr Enderby book Inside Mr. Enderby (1963). His novel The Wanting Seed (1962) gained him attention and it was quickly followed by his most famous and controversial book, the novella A Clockwork Orange (1962) which was to be filmed in 1971 by Stanley Kubrick. Both book and film were widely condemned for their violence and sexual content: to the extent that Kubrick withdrew the film from circulation. Burgess said he loathed the film anyway.
The years 1962/1963 were something of a watershed in British social history and Burgess hit the mood of the time. There was a backdrop of incipient violence during the Cold War. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 threatened nuclear war between the USA and the USSR. President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 by a man who had lived in the Soviet Union and was married to a Russian. (Lee Harvey Oswald had lived and worked in Minsk, capital city of present day Byelorus). In London, John Profumo, Minister of Defence, was found to be sharing a mistress with the Soviet Naval Attaché. Sex was in the air after the Penguin Books court case over Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence (written 1927 and published in the UK only in 1960).
Burgess had a long-standing interest in Russian language and literature and he visited Saint Petersburg in 1961 (known as Leningrad 1924-1990). One account states that he observed a street gang of stilyagi (style boys) which gave him the idea for A Clockwork Orange. Burgess claimed that he and his wife were violently assaulted by a street gang in Gibraltar, which caused his wife to miscarry.
Shortly after his visit to Petersburg, the heavyweight Soviet literary journal Noviy Mir published an extraordinary novella by an unknown writer called Alexandr Solzhenitsyn (Nobel Prize for Literature 1970). One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is set in a prison camp and is written largely in Russian slang. Its subject matter and language were as shocking to conservative Russians as Lady Chatterley was to conservative Brits.
A Clockwork Orange makes use of Russian slang – an invented language nadsat (na desyat’) or teen. Burgess anticipated the 60s youth revolution. The main character Alex (perhaps named after Solzhenitsyn?) is a juvenile delinquent who describes scenes of violence such as a blinding in casual street-wise argot.
Alex is imprisoned and undergoes a form of aversion therapy called Ludovico’s Technique to cure him of violence. When he is released he is no longer able to defend himself and becomes a victim of violence. The plot is circular and reflects the historical theory of Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) that Joyce had drawn on for Finnegan’s Wake – a book in which the last word is the first.
Burgess went on to explain these ideas in his Here Comes Everybody: Introduction to James Joyce for the Ordinary Reader (1965). The title is a reference to H. C. Earwicker, from Finnegan’s Wake, and family who dream The Wake in three stages corresponding to Vico’s Age of Gods, Age of Heroes, and Age of Men.
A Clockwork Orange is set at the turn of the cycle when the Age of Men has become decadent and is reverting to bestiality. Religion has been lost. Money is the only good. Technology has produced a new form of slavery and men live huddled in cities where they insulate themselves from one another out of fear.
Earthly Powers (1980) opens in Malta with a highly memorable sentence: ‘It was the afternoon of my eighty first birthday and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced the archbishop had come to see me.’ The reader is treated to cameos of twentieth century writers, none of whom are flattered.
His last work was a return to his first piece of extended writing. At Manchester University he had written a thesis on Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) which he revived for A Dead Man in Deptford (1993). The author of Dr Faustus and The Jew of Malta was killed in what may have been a pub brawl over a drinks bill or possibly murder.
Burgess was a heavy smoker who died of lung cancer at the age of 76. He continued to smoke on the grounds that the medical profession had pronounced him a dead man in 1960.
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