Anthony Burgess


1. A Possible Life

Have you enjoyed your life ?
“Well, er, yes,” Anthony Burgess considers shrewdly. “You can’t avoid enjoying it.”

Absolutely ! You feel we should be trying ?
“Well, yes, but there are certain sensations – the sensations of drink, tobacco, sex, the sea wind in your face, these sorts of banal things. The sensuous life is delightful, nobody can deny that, but the mental life is a bit difficult.”

Writing your autobiography, what did you make of the life you’ve lived ?
“There’s terrible regret, you always regret the life you’ve lived. That goes with terrible shame – you’ve done the wrong things. There’s a strong sense of time wasted, I think we all feel that. We do waste a lot of time… Whether we should or not, I don’t know.”
He ponders the possibility.

What was the happiest time of your life ?
“The happiest time of my life,” Burgess says excitedly, “was the first year we were married.”
“We were free,” chips in his wife, equally excited.
“We bought a Bedford Dormobile which cost about a thousand quid in those days.”
“Sixteen hundred,” she says.
“Like an ambulance… I was happier then, healthier, working, writing. It had a library, radio, two large beds,” he says with awe. “I stopped drinking heavily because of it, started sleeping sensibly, eating sensibly.”

You could still do it, I suggest.
“You can’t ! Try and park the damned thing ! Everything has to be lower than six foot. You can’t do it… We were free then…” He pauses, suddenly startled. “I was going to write a book about that…” he says to no-one in particular. ‘Feel Free To Be Free’. Rather a corny title, I’m afraid. That was a possible life though, I think.”

2. Who is Anthony Burgess ?

His hair is swept forward, the body erect, the jaw juts out. His grey-blue eyes are bright and misty, blinking fussily in screwed-up shrewdness and arch scrutiny. His mottled fingers, stained with the love of cheap cigars, are constantly clasped. They say we have the face we deserve at 50. Anthony Burgess, at 70, still has the sort of alarming energy, boyish enthusiasm, stubborn health and fierce intelligence that, in this country, condemns him as ‘eccentric’. He is dressed in greys and greens as a gentleman should be, not in the double-breasted Italian suit he wears on television. “I have only the one suit. With the life I lead, that’s all I need.”

Burgess is brusque, gallant and effusive, still tirelessly plugging Joyce and Lawrence rather than his own books, and always categoric, with more humility, humour and honesty, and less real conceit than I expected. Often irritable, slightly bitter, the great discovery of our conversation, slipped beneath the wild erudition and snobbishness of his prose, is a terrific comic timing and the subtlest self-mockery. He seems to save his sharpest wit for the French.
“There is something terribly wrong with a language that changes ‘aqua’ into ‘eau’,” he writes. “To speak French well, one has to convert oneself into a temporary Frenchman. And this I refuse to do.”

Later he says to me, “It’s true. They do think more highly of me in France… which is a bit of a blow, because I’m not terribly fond of the French.”

The smile, when it comes, is sudden and amazed and changes him totally, as if he’s shocked by the relief of shedding the fussy seriousness of being ‘Author and Academic Anthony Burgess’. He asks more questions than any other person I’ve interviewed. I have no idea what he gets out of the interview. (He must plan to write a book about that, I think later). Hugely entertaining, interviewing Anthony Burgess is the most fun I’ve had in an interview in a long while.

3. “Your Readers Watch TV Don’t They ?”

It is three o’clock on a wet winter afternoon and Anthony Burgess and his formidable, friendly Italian wife Liana, a translator, meet me in a plush suite at Durrants Hotel for a one-hour conversation and a swiftly emptied decanter of Napoleon Brandy that Burgess produces when I offer him some cheap rubbish from my flask.
“This isn’t bad,” confirms Burgess. “Not bad at all”.

Somehow, I find myself talking to this widely-travelled, impossibly well-read man of some 70 years and more than 50 books, this man who was told he had only one year to live twenty-eight years ago; a modern Nabokov, a millionaire who speaks eight languages, wo has invented two languages and who conversed with Borges in Anglo-Saxon; this critic, journalist and composer who has re-defined the word ‘prolific’ and who is currently completing: an opera about Freud, a novel about Welsh nationalists, and a musical version of A Clockwork Orange; who has libretti, teaching guides, linguistic manuals, and film-scripts (Jesus of Nazareth, Quest For Fire) to his credit, as well as a musical version of Joyce’s Ulysses for Irish television, 30-odd novels and the occasional symphony… I talk to Anthony Burgess about heroin and Myra Hindley, his wonderful impression of the Pope, why men cannot smile with the ease of women, Terry Wogan, and in particular whether there is sherbet in heaven.
“Oh there must be !” he declares.

“The autobiography is a substitute for a novel that cannot be written… Not of great interest to your readers perhaps – they’re young, like yourself… I don’t know how interested they are in the old, or indeed the past… Of course, they’ll get old. That’s part of living,” he says dogmatically, as if it were in doubt. He pauses. “Your readers watch TV, don’t they ?” he tells me with distaste. I confirm, ashamedly, that they probably do.

4. Who was Anthony Burgess ?

After books about Hemingway, Shakespeare, Joyce and Lawrence and novels about Jesus and Napoleon, Anthony Burgess has at last written Little Wilson & Big God, a 448-page autobiography about the first 42 years of his life.

He was born John Burgess Wilson in Carisbrook Street, Harpurhey in Manchester, on February 25, 1917.
“My birth,” he writes, “thus coincided with the modern age – American hegemony and the dissolution of Christendom.”

Confirmed in the name of Anthony, he pulled the cracker of his full name and out fell the paper hat of ‘Anthony Burgess.’

His father Joe was a cashier at Swift’s Beef Market and a piano-player at the Golden Eagle – hence Burgess’ childhood nickname, Jackie Eagle. His mother, Elizabeth Burgess, was a dancer and singer, “pleonastically named ‘The Beautiful Belle Burgess’.” He never knew her. When he was 18 months old, as he slept in his cot, and the horror of the First World War drew to a close, his mother and sister died of influenza – “God’s brilliant afterpiece to four years of unprecedented suffering and devastation.”

Deprived of the comfort, or conflict, of a mother, he writes: “I regret the emotional coldness that was established then and which, apart from other faults, has marred my work.”

It is perhaps the most piercing, honest and important line in the book, although he does not go on to say which effect he regrets most.
“I think not having a mother was the pivotal episode of my life, yes. That’s very astute of you… It’s something you don’t get over. You have a tendency not to be willing to express emotion. The mother teaches you about love, about emotion. When I was with a girl, this perpetual shyness… it was as if I were approaching a creature of a kind I’d never met before.”

Though he maintains that anyone born Catholic remains a Catholic and states with certainty that “everything else has failed totally – Communism, Socialism, Conservatism,” not surprisingly Burgess’ faith in that “charming and harmless fiction” suffered as a result.

His father married the landlady of the local pub three years after he was widowed but his son detested his stepmother and never grew close to his father.
“My father was naturally resentful that I should go on living and his wife should not. I was prepared to be friendly – I went drinking with him – but he died when I was 20.” Burgess had no relatives left.

Left largely to himself as a child, the young John Anthony had educated and amused himself with books (Dickens and Rider Haggard’s She were favourites), comics, drawing and films. He described seeing Fritz Lang’s Metropolis at the age of 10 as “one of the artistic experiences of my life.”

At Xaverian College, Manchester, he won seven School Certificates but his failure at Physics ruled out studying Music and the career as a composer he dreamed of. He taught himself the piano and Greek, had a symphony blown up in a pub bombed by the Luftwaffe and sat the Customs & Excise Exam but “totally failed English Literature.”

When you were young, did you have a strong idea what you wanted from life ?
“I knew I would never be an engineer or a footballer. It was a matter of knowing I had to be an artist but not knowing what kind, and spending a lot of time finding out. I was going to be a painter or cartoonist, then a great composer. I still wonder if that isn’t what I should have become.”

5. Little Wilson & Big God

Even the story of his life is somewhat cold, stringently factual, recalling children’s chants, schoolteachers’ comments, early poems, almost every one of his sexual endeavours, even refectory gaffs (‘Fried God in batter’).
“The total recall leaves at about 40,” he explains. “Biologically, it’s of no value, though – remembering a song that was popular in the 1920s… Yes We Have No Bananas… No virtue in that at all,” he mutters soberly.

He says ‘Little Wilson’ “records the tired cynicism of my generation,” and that is how it feels.

In many ways it’s rather a sad book, and he claims he only wrote it “to get in first – to tell the best lies first”, and because Heinemann asked him to and because he refuses no reasonable offers of work (“and only some unreasonable ones”). The second volume will be written later this year. “Nearer to death, I suppose,” he reflects.

“I had said I would stop writing then, yes, but I don’t think I can. New ideas for novels appear. Complexes. You know Ford Maddox Ford ? I think he was the greatest British novelist of this century, although he’s totally ignored now. He died as a writer should – in harness, with a three-novel contract on his desk and the text of a new novel ready to hand over… The people who found him noted that. I think that’s good. That’s noble. That’s heroic.”

Although written with perhaps surprising simplicity, Burgess’ autobiography naturally includes, amongst others, words like” oleaginousness, exophthalmic, monophthongal, passacaglia and stichomythia. It tells you the “abundant” Malayan terms for ‘orgasm’ and Lancastrian slang like ‘meat injections’. It mixes anecdote and linguistics in the manner in which, of all our great writers, he excels.
“I gave Almad my secondhand guitar. He wept. I wept. We all wept. ‘Tangisi’, to weep. ‘Memangis’, a more telling form of the verb. Note the Welsh-type mutation.”

In lighter moments, we learn that Zeffirelli calls him Tony – which he “resents” – and that Lord Grade calls him ‘Tone Boy’ – “which is too fantastic to resent.” He tells how in Minneapolis, he met people surprised to find him still living and how his first novel was rejected by Heinemann as a good second novel; that his poems were returned by T.S.Eliot at Faber; and that Robert Graves once accused him of being illiterate and analphabetic. He has the propensity for spoiling his effect – for instance by referring to Don Quixote as “the book Auden said nobody ever read all the way through”, then adding that he himself had – “four times, the second time in Spanish.”

There’s a lot of shame in the book, I suggest. Shame and regret.
“What I’ve tried to do with this book is to show what it was like to be young in the North before the war and what it was like losing 10 years of life in the war, then starting life at the age of 30 as if we were 20. There’s not been enough time, you see. We had to become adults as soon as possible. The ‘teenager’ is a very contemporary concept. There was nowhere you could take a girl – the park or cinema maybe, but everything was furtive. A strong sense of sin everywhere. Sin, sin, sin, sin… You find the smell of the past comes back as you write. You’re not sure whether you’re writing a novel or not, about somebody you don’t know anymore, somebody in the past, in a film, almost grainy… There’s no unity in the character. I don’t think the person I’m writing about is very much like me now, no.”

What sort of person were you then ?
“I thought I was a very ordinary lower-middle-class Catholic youth – a bit weedy, short-sighted, worried about sex, worried about God, wondering what the future held… Of course the future was taken care of…” he mumbles despondently.

6. To Hell With Literature !

Burgess entered the war at 22, a young man, working in the Entertainment Division and later the Ministry of Education, and left middle-aged. In 1942 he married a Welsh student, Lewela Jones, but wartime separation saw her resorting to drink, depression, anorexia and adultery, with Burgess subsequently even posing as his wife’s brother-in-law to protect her reputation.

“After the war it was madness, a ghastly kind of moral upheaval, with soldiers killing their wives who had spent the war being seduced by the free French, the free Poles, the Americans. ‘Know Your Enemy,’ they said. We knew who our bloody enemy was – the free French, the free Poles and the Yanks… It was a long war, then the problem of trying to make a life afterwards. The Government said, ‘We won’t forget you, lads’, but by God they did ! There was this poster all over London: ‘Your Courage, Your Fortitude, Your Example Will Bring Us Victory ! !’”

Burgess is still appalled.
“Incredible, isn’t it ?! It’s never really stopped, there’s no rapprochement between government and the people here. THIS is my big cry. To hell with books ! To hell with literature. ! THIS is my big cry from the heart.”

7. One Year To Live

In 1959, aged 42, with dyspepsia, a fraught marriage and liver and libel worries, Burgess was flown home from Malaya, where he was working for the Colonial Service, and was told that he had an incurable brain tumour and had one year to live.

Typically, there is no mention in the book as to how he felt about this. There and then, having had his first book published a few years earlier, Burgess determined to turn himself into a professional writer, purely in order to leave his wife some sort of pension, despite the fact that, in the book at least, there is no evidence that he even liked her.
“Love is a very strange thing,” he says sadly now. “Honour comes into it, yes, and duty. Old-fashioned words, I know. You can have a ghastly relationship with someone, but you’ve known that person a long time. That ghastly relationship is part of your life.”

He wrote five books in that first year, earning a total of £800 (nowadays the American advance for a book the size of the 250,000 word Earthly Powers is roughly a dollar a word). When his wife died in 1968, of cirrhosis, he married Liana Marcellari, an Italian contessa, a translator and the mother of his then four-year-old son, Andreas. His first wife was never told about Liana or the son, who now finds the story “romantic.”

8. The Contention Of Devils And The Ghost Of Malcolm Muggeridge

Burgess has, of course, been writing ever since. In fact he’s done little else, pursuing what he calls “that hopeless hope that the intractable enemy, language, will yield to the struggle to control it.”
He works and writes seven days a week, nine to five, re-writing every page until it is corrected and typed ready for the publisher before he begins the next page.
“It’s a method formed by writing music. You had to get each bar right… You try to write well, but you can never be satisfied. Next time will be different, you say. This man Malcolm Muggeridge haunts me. He said, ‘I thank God I have attained total mastery over the English language’. Terrible thing to say, terrible.”

Although he still has homes in London, Malta and Rome which he left after kidnap threats following his refusal to ghost a Mafioso’s memoirs, he now lives, without great luxury, in Monte Carlo, because, he has said, it’s a tax haven, it’s safe and because it’s close to Italy, “the only country in the world.”

At five o’clock each day he shops, then cooks the family meal, watches French or Italian TV, both of which he thinks are rubbish, and goes to bed at ten and reads until one.
“Not a very exciting life,” he mutters. “What do I write about ? Yes, it was Waugh who said a writer writes about one thing. I think I’ve been moderately good at showing that certain Catholic doctrines are probably correct – that we do have the power of choice between good and evil, and that that is what being human is all about; and that we are born into a state of original sin. There are several personalities inside us, ‘The contention of devils’. We all have a tendency to become Myra Hindley. Compassion is important and a sense of humour. That’s important ! So many humourless bastards around,” he muses, adding, with perfect timing: “Especially in politics…”

9. Regrets ? I’ve Had A Few…

What regrets do you have ?
“The lack of rapport with Britain is a terrible disappointment to a British author. It’s horrible to find you’re getting over much better to Polish readers. Or German, Swedish, Italian, French.”

Although he is read, revered and respected throughout the world and his output and range of books represent a unique achievement for a British author, Anthony Burgess has never won an award or prize in England.

“I do get hurt when people say, ‘The important thing about Burgess is that he writes so much.’ It’s not relevant. I don’t write a lot by traditional standards, I try to do a job the best I can. I try to tell the truth. Honesty is the important thing.”
A little later, he contemplates morosely, “If I’d written fewer books they might have found more virtue in them.”

“It may be we’re ceasing to be a literary nation. It’s the British themselves and the lead they’re given by the British establishment – by Mrs Thatcher and her husband and the Royal Family. There’s no sense that literature is important. In England it’s a great joke. In France it’s different. Books and music are the most important things there are. Books are an incredible invention – you can put them in your pocket, you don’t have to plug them in ! At least in America they write. Do your readers write ?” he asks me.

Not really, I tell him. But when they do, it’s…
“Illiterate, yes.”

No, not illiterate. I was going to say it’s great when they write.
“Oh it’s not illiterate ! That’s good ! People should write. In America they try to convert you to God. ‘Your books display the fact that you have lost your way’, that sort of thing.” He doesn’t smile. “You know, I believe the word processor will ruin prose in time.”

Why did you get one ?
“My wife bought me one,” he explains.
“He asked me to,” she mentions casually.
“Well ! Naturally you’re curious about the damned thing,” he bats back, with the air of a boy caught lying to his mother.

And what of Greatness ? I suspect Burgess is fated to be remembered as a great critic, a wonderful character and an incredible intellect more interested in examining form than feeling. Not as a writer. As Dali said of himself, Burgess is perhaps too clever to be an artist. Certainly, he dislikes and resents his most popular novel, A Clockwork Orange, which he “knocked off in three weeks” some time after his first wife was attacked and their first and only child was aborted. He says he is writing the musical solely because others have constantly threatened to do so themselves.

Which of his books, then, would he leave ? Where does he feel there is brilliance ?
“Difficult question. Of course I don’t like to say. An attempt at brilliance, but it’s not really worked… this Enderby thing; the big book, Earthly Powers; and MF, which nobody understood at the time. I’m not prepared to use that word about anyone writing now. Let’s settle down a bit, until after death. ‘The Greatness of Iris Murdoch’ ? I don’t know… I don’t think William Golding is as good as they say. I don’t know.”

10. Never Had No-One Ever

Do you have many friends now ? There’s no sense in the book of a single close friend, of any warmth.
“That’s perfectly true. That’s the most difficult thing in the world to find. I don’t know why, I think the kind of friends I should have had would have been inside the Catholic fold, which I was trying to escape from. I was lonely, yes, very lonely. Friendship… I’ve never really known it. Not anybody you’d unburden your mind to. Writing does that, yes. Do you have friends ?” he asks me. “That’s good !” he says urgently. “You have friends, don’t you,” he accuses his wife. “I don’t. You don’t worry. I don’t regret that.”

11. Sweet Youth, Sour Grapes – Burn The Aged

Is life hard ? Graham Greene said that life gets easier as you get older.
“Life doesn’t get easier, no. Life is hard, but not because we make it hard. It’s the state ! I’ve always believed the state is a damned nuisance. The state,” he says with grumpy emphasis, “is always giving you forms to give in ! They don’t leave you alone do they ?! They’ll put you in jail if you haven’t got a bloody dipstick in the car. This state treats writers very badly. If you live abroad they assume you’re wealthy. It’s unjust.”

I don’t remind him that he is, apparently, a millionaire.
How do you feel about getting old ?
“I get rather disgusted by the OLD people, sitting in pubs with their corny phrases. ‘You’re looking well today Mrs Robinson…’ OH GOD ! The old do nothing. They don’t read or study. They play BINGO, for God’s sake ! This is horrible. Bingo. Fill in time, wait for death. In America, what is horrible is that they have to pretend they’re young. You see these fat slobs with their hearing aids, going to Miami ! In China, the old are automatically wise, but not here. There’s no culture for the old.”

Burgess is fairly drunk by now, the brandy fairly empty.
“The younger generation today don’t think EXISTENTIALLY. They think ESSENTIALLY. Taking drugs reinforces this – it gets rid of time altogether, gives you eternal present. That’s what they want… They won’t get it. They can’t stop themselves growing up, growing bald, getting fat, becoming parents… Even the Rolling Stones…” he mutters to himself. “Kill the future by killing yourself. That’s why they’re taking heroin.”

12. In Heaven Everything Is Fine: Wine, Women and Sherbet
Do you believe in Heaven ?
“I wish to God I did,” he says brusquely and without irony. “I believe in hell. I believe God exists. I believe God is a bastard,” he says bluntly. “God must exist because that’s the only way to explain the Nazi holocaust. That’s what the Jews say. I think the Jews are right.”

And Heaven ?
“I don’t think I myself will go to Heaven, no, not with this tie on, into the next world. In that Powell/Pressburger film A Matter of Life & Death, they had this world in colour and the next world in black and white. I believe the next world’s in black and white, and God is Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony ! (He seems quite drunk now). Ford Maddox Ford’s ‘Heaven’ was a vision of heaven like Toulon – French wine, French cuisine, the sea air. I don’t suppose we’re allowed that, but that’d be good enough for me.”

Who would you like to get drunk with in Heaven, I ask him. I thought he’d say Joyce but straight away he said: “Rabelais. Francois Rabelais. And William Shakespeare. There may well be drink in Heaven. Whores, too. The Muslims believe that – everything. Sherbet… It’s a nice idea. I think it’s true.” He is smiling broadly.

And what about Death ? How do you feel about dying ?
“I was asked that on French television last week… The French are very keen on it… I said: ‘in bed, in a hotel of great luxury, drunk and with a lovely woman in my arms.’ It didn’t go down too well with the French… But you don’t think ‘Right, I’m dying. I’m old. I’m dying.’ I think, ‘I must write a book about that…”