Anthony Burgess (1917-1993): Not Just a Clockwork Orange


Dr Rob Spence, Associate Head of Department, History and English, Edge Hill University, Ormskirk, Lancashire

9 December 2013


The prolific author Anthony Burgess was the subject of this well-informed and entertaining talk by Dr Rob Spence, who at the time was completing a study of the author due eventually from Manchester University Press.  Burgess (1917-93) was a Mancunian, born John Burgess Wilson.  He was a multi-gifted man, a learned linguist and a witty biographer, as well as a novelist, and he was also a serious deeply informed musician. Burgess is, of course, most famous for a single short novel he wrote in 1962, A Clockwork Orange, which links physical violence and youthful criminality with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, in what many felt at the time to be a very perverse way.  Nevertheless, the novel was turned into a film, directed by Stanley Kubrick, and starring the young Malcolm MacDowell as the unregenerate psychopath Alex. Burgess did not like the film, and Kubrick himself later issued a ban on public performances of it. However this notorious movie is once more available, and has become a cult object with some.

The American edition of A Clockwork Orange omitted Burgess’ final chapter, of the 21 he wrote. Up to Chapter 20, there is no sign of the ‘growing up’ process which overtakes Alex in Chapter 21, in such a way that the young man does turn his back on a life of evil, and approaches normality.  His American editors did not like this idea, and wanted what Burgess himself called a ‘fable’ or ‘allegory’. Burgess’ American editor told him that they (the Americans) could face up to reality, as they would soon be facing up to it in Vietnam.  ‘My book’, said Burgess in his Preface to the American edition, ‘was Kennedyan, and accepted the notion of moral progress. What was really needed was a Nixonian book with no shred of optimism in it. Let us have evil prancing on the page, and, up to the very last line, sneering in the face of all inherited beliefs, Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Holy Roller, about people being able to make themselves better.  Such a book would be sensational, and so it is. But I do not think it is a fair picture of human life.’

The expatriate Burgess who taught in Singapore (like his near contemporary the poet and critic D.J. Enright) and wrote a sequence of five novels known as ‘The Malayan Trilogy’ must have despaired many times that A Clockwork Orange reached such a wide popular audience, which his other works, including the wonderfully funny Enderby novels, failed to do, at least to some extent. Burgess’s longest novels, Earthly Powers, appeared in 1980, and were shortlisted for the Booker Prize that year. As a linguist, he published Language Made Plain in ****. The title page of this relatively short work, typically of Burgess, alters the spelling of ‘Made’ to ‘Maid’, and ‘Plain’ to ‘Plane’, as a literary joke.  Near the end of his life he published another substantial book on linguistics under the title A Mouthful of Air (1992).  As a James Joyce authority, Burgess produced A Shorter Finnegan’s Wake, consisting of selections with a linking commentary by himself, aimed at persuading readers to tackle Joyce’s late masterpiece, a work which has always been unreadable, even impenetrable to many.  This was a daunting task for any writer. Two further Joyce-related works were Here Comes Everybody (a reference to Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, the central figure in Finnegans Wake) and Joysprick : An Introduction to the Language of James Joyce. He once said of Joyce that the Irish writer had to get away from Dublin, the subject of all his writings, simply in order to write about it; in Dublin, little writing ever gets done, said Burgess, as there is too much talk, and whole books are simply garrulously talked away into the air, instead of being written down.

Burgess also wrote a life of Shakespeare (Nothing Like the Sun, 1964) of Ernest Hemingway, and of D.H.Lawrence  (Flame into Being, 1985). His study of Christopher Marlowe (A Dead Man in Deptford, 1993) revealed his remarkable credentials as a literary critic and biographer is one of last and best works. Burgess’s novel Napoleon Symphony; A Novel in Four Movements (1974) carefully follows the structure of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. The Piano Players (1986 is a tribute to his musician father, while Mozart and the Wolf Gang (1991) echoes Mozart’s style, in particular the 1788 G minor Symphony (No. 40, K.550). These works reveal in literary form his passion for music, and his sheer inventive skill. It comes as no surprise to learn that he was also a composer throughout his life.

Anthony Burgess’ autobiography appeared in two volumes in 1987 and 1990. Volume One is mysteriously entitled Little Wilson and Big God, a reference to himself as a boy and his maverick, itinerant father, who brought him up alone after the mother’s early death. The second volume, You’ve Had Your Time, suggests that Burgess realised that his heavy drinking and smoking over many years would catch up with him eventually. Some, at least of the stories he tells are if not entirely made up, bordering on fiction. He would not be the first to stretch the facts when writing his own life-story.  But Burgess did live to the age of 76, writing at his typewriter furiously to the end, as though determined to hold off the inevitable for as long as possible. He was a multimillionaire, since he and his Italian second wife had built up a property portfolio of house and apartments in Britain and across Europe. A tax exile in Monaco, he actually died in hospital in St John’s Wood on London. Burgess has been accused of writing too much, showing off his virtuosity, and many of his books are out of print. He stands apart from the mainstream of modern British novelists, and does not really fit in with any ‘normal’ sets of criteria.  An evident polymath, his writing reflects his vast array of interests, far wider than the norm among authors.  Yet in the longer run, his stature as a literary figure has still not been absorbed or fully recognised. Anthony Burgess’s time will surely come.

Dr Robert Blackburn, former Principal Lecturer in Music, School of Music and Performing Arts, Bath Spa University