Anthony Burgess’s boundless curiosity

Burgess saw journalism as a way writers could augment their income, publish to a large readership between books, and escape “the daily damnation of the typewriter’’ that a novel demanded.

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A jack-of-all-trades, and a master of most, Anthony Burgess, the son of a Manchester shopkeeper, made a living as a novelist, composer, playwright, translator, poet, linguist and critic. Burgess did not view these as mutually exclusive, however, and his oeuvre of more than 60 books testifies to his boundless creative and intellectual curiosity.

Always keen to stress that writing is a trade, Burgess saw journalism as a way writers could augment their income, publish to a large readership between books, and escape “the daily damnation of the typewriter’’ that a novel demanded. Though a frequently tenured critic at the TLS, the Listener and what he called “my paper’’, the Observer, Burgess could also be relied upon to file fascinating copy on any topic of the day.

The Ink Trade comprises a selection of Burgess’s previously ungathered book reviews and critical musings stretching from 1961, the year the 44-year-old author wrote his best-known novel A Clockwork Orange, to 1993, the year of his death.

As an author who’d started out as a critic (like Graham Greene and George Bernard Shaw, both of whom he writes about here with great insight), Burgess knew all too well that “Writing a book is damned difficult work, and you ought to praise any book if you can.’’ There are hard-won accolades for Malcolm Lowry (“one of the great major novelists”), Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman (“frightening in its originality”), and Nabokov (“He did us all honour by electing to use, and transform, our language”).

Always approaching a text from uncommon angles, Burgess drew upon his formidable knowledge of the novel, and a far from self-effacing wit. He was a willing provocateur who loved to temper his erudition by being skittish, controversial and tongue-in-cheek for the cheque.

Which means a Burgess compliment could come with a slap. On Alan Sillitoe’s Key to the Door (1961): “He needs more than talent now: he needs to grow up.’’ On Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (which Burgess liked very much): “Read this book and you will never again have to wonder how an Italian monastery functioned in the 14th century.’’ And, infamously, in 1963 in the Yorkshire Post, he described his own novel, Inside Mr Enderby, as “a laughing stock’’.

Burgess took particular delight in deriding those ubiquitous bestsellers of the 1980s: Jackie Collins, Jeffrey Archer, and John le Carré: “Mr le Carré’s talents cry out to be employed in the creation of a real novel,” he noted. Occasionally, the japes could turn nasty or libellous. About Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, the reviewer hisses, “Its unintelligibility – as well as the physical condition of its author – is certainly a factor in its high sales record.”

With his spiky intellect allied to memorable phrase-making, and that frequent urge to unseat his subject as well as the reader, Burgess returns with critical passion to his favourites, Shakespeare and Gerard Manley Hopkins, as well as to his peers and literary ancestors, Kingsley Amis, Ford Madox Ford, Somerset Maugham and TS Eliot. There is also room for his old drinking partner, William Burroughs.

Burgess’s view of women’s writing does not begin well. In “This Book is Not for Reading (1966), he demurs at fiction “that lacks a strong male thrust’’. He would claim this is playfully dismissive, perhaps, rather than vindictive – of its time, yes, but not
of ours.

That said, as Burgess grew up, his regard for good writing appeared to overcome the boys’ club prejudice. There is praise for Anita Loos (“one of the minor shapers of the modern sensibility’’), Doris Lessing, Olivia Manning (her short stories are described as “among the finest of our time’’), AS Byatt, and a wonderfully mischievous review of Erica Jong’s Fanny in 1980 ending with, “Jong was the right hermaphrodite to write or indite [this book]. I am delighted to belong to her sex.’’

In spite of a disturbing number of typos there is much to relish among these 60 pieces, several of which are previously unpublished. Burgess on slang is captivating, as you’d expect from a linguist who in-vented Nadsat for his Clockwork Orange droogs. He was also an indefatigable collector and disseminator of odd words – gulosity, borborygmous, callipygous, ambages – and why say pun when you can say “paranomasia”? In “Here Parla Man Marcommunish(1966), the polyglot conceives another continental dialect in the hope that joining “the common market will give us an opportunity to start a new wave of Europeanising English’’.

Two years later, he left the UK for good, for Malta, Italy, Switzerland and Monaco.

Repeatedly, Burgess returns to the Irishman who inspired him to become a writer. A fellow “failed musician’’ with a “Northern Catholic” upbringing, Burgess remained deeply influenced by James Joyce’s linguistic inventiveness, likewise carried along by the melody of a phrase, the rhythm of a sentence, the symphony of the whole. Of the section which “deals with eternal damnation” in “Portrait of the Artist, the trembling acolyte confesses, “I have read no other book which so aroused fear that I had to burn my copy.’’

Burgess’s late defence of A Clockwork Orange in the slightly rambling, “Can Art be Immoral?(1991) and in the more succinct “Stop the Clock on Violence (1993), not long before his death, are similarly enthralling. “I’d done my best to avoid the pornography of violence through the employment of verbal tricks… But in the film [ten years later] there was total explicitness, and for this I was blamed.”

Offering the wisdom, sense of discovery and thrill of a dozen fine novels, The Ink Trade can be read as a practical handbook of reading, writing and reviewing, as a compendium of shrewd maxims and epigrammatic wit, and as a defence of the business of writing alongside a gently ironic lament to a writer’s plight in the age of mass media and marketing. For those with a deeper interest in Burgess’s bountiful output, it is also a vital source for his theories of literature and language, and how these animate his work.

After all, as the author of more than 20 novels surmised, “nothing is as important as the box of organised knowledge which is acronymised into B.O.O.K”. 

James Hopkin is the author of “Winter Under Water” (Picador)

The Ink Trade: Selected Journalism 1961-1993
Anthony Burgess
Carcanet, 274pp, £19.99

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The return of fascism