Thursday, 11 December 2008

Anthony Burgess

Burgess, eh? Used to love him. Now I'm not so sure. Can't say why. Something lacking, underneath the artifice and the word play. A sense of him taking it seriously, perhaps? Also, he wrote too damn much, too quickly. Most of his novels are just throwaways - a half, or quarter, decent idea flung down in 160 pages or or so, the essential weakness covered up by a lot of clever verbal antics, and rudeness. Neither of which would be a bad thing if there was a sense that Burgess wrote the novel for any reason other than maintaining his quota of books for the year.

It is hard not to be drawn towards Burgess the man. There is so much about him that is endearing and bizzare. Most famously there is story of how he came to be a full-time, professional writer - diagnoised with an in operable brain tumour, he cast about for different ways that he might provide for his wife and (as then unborn, and tragically never born) child. As he'd had a couple of books published by this time, he decided to try to write a book a month in the months remaining to him. He failed, but he did manage to crank out three or four, and - more importantly - he also failed to die. Infact, he kept on failing to die until 1993. This, and other legends, make it easy to like the man and forgive the problems with the books.

Only it has been suggested that most of the legends are just that - legends, invented by a man with an urge to create stories and myths about himself. His brain tumour and medical death sentence appear to be one of these little fibs Burgess told over the year (1). Which just leaves us with the boooks, which are a mixed bunch, always very clever and written with great brio, but usually seeming a little bit hastily put together, lacking in a developed plot and the sense that the author was really interested in them as anything more than an excuse to show off his vocabulary.

There are exceptions. The Malayan Trilogy (Time for a Tiger, The Enemy in the Blanket, Beds in the East) are vey good and there is a real sense that Burgess connects with his characters situations - probably because he is writing at least semi-autobiography. While I haven't read Man of Nazereth describing the life of Jesus, the sequel, Kingdom of the Wicked, is also very good. Here Burgess is addressing big stories and huge characters, and he seems to respond to the task.

While I have little time for Enderby the flatulent poet whom everyone else seems to regard as a masterful creation, the third (or was it fourth?) in the trilogy (or was it quartet?), Enderby's Dark Lady is worth reading, though it isn't strictly necessary to read the earlier books in the sequence as various irreversible things happen to Enderby in books one and two, and then are mysteriously reversed in book three (or was it four?). His book about Shakespeare, Nothing Like the Sun is excellent, perhaps his best. Again, he is engaged, the intellect and the word play being used to describe one of the few people he seemed to admire almost as much as Anthony Burgess. A Dead Man in Debtford, describing the life of Marlowe, is also very, very good, for the same reason.

His great big not-quite-Booker-winning book, Earthly Powers, I am not sure about. The first time I read it I was sixteen and did so to annoy my mother - because the book's main character is homosexual and this had convinced her that Burgess must be "of that ilk" (I can still remember her saying that) and this might corrupt and taint me. At the time I thought it was brilliant. Re-reading it a few years ago, I'm no longe sure. Thee is a lot about it that is excellent, but a lot of it is just the typical Burgessian froth and frot, spread over several hundred pages instead of a hundred. It deals with big important themes like love and faith and art and blah blah blah blah but doesn't really have very much to say about them. The climactic revelation about the fate of the Toomey children shocked an sickened me the first time around. The second time, the scene seemed badly mishandled and written like a bad comedy.

So yeah, Anthony Burgess, I don't know if he's good or bad or not.
1 - From the wikipedia biography of Burgess, viewed on the 10th of December, 2008. It should be noted the claims are not verified, however. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthony_Burgess#Borneo)

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