I. Anthony Burgess and the psychopath’s guide to biographical writing

Burgess1In the past year I’ve read a few literary biographies, the strangest of which was Roger Lewis’ attempt to dissect the monstrosity of Anthony Burgess. Over the course of twenty years of researching and writing his book, Lewis grew to hate Burgess. He recounts how he first discovered Burgess in a bookshop while he was on his honeymoon on the island of Gozo, there apparently being little else to do on Gozo, and became an idolator, explaining how he consumed as many of Burgess’ books he could find in second-hand shops with religious fervour. He even began a PhD on Burgess. However, some time later, apparently coinciding with middle age, the break came, and Lewis decided that Burgess’ grandstanding prose was something ‘pathetic’, and that with all his apparent learnedness, the ‘grand old man of letters’ reputation Burgess had was all construction and facade.

Thus begins what is basically a 400 page break-up letter. And at this point I’ll include an observation that continues my (apparent) mission to not write a post that doesn’t mention either Francois Truffaut or Jean-Luc Godard – the break was a bitter one, and the caustic recrimination built up over the previous friendship, in Lewis’ case that between reader and writer, has an echo of the bitter 20 page letter Truffaut penned to Godard at the break of their friendship. The comparison is true in two ways; in the same way that Truffaut accused Godard of becoming a radical-chic hypocrite, Lewis’ book is one long accusation of Burgess being the grand old man of intellectual-chic, and for his lack of sincerity as a writer, and apparently, as a human being. The second reason is that both of these accusations against Godard and Burgess are probably valid in one way or another, and Lewis explores this on the level of an attack that takes ‘getting personal’ to an entirely new level.

Burgess was undoubtedly a literary showman, and possibly a literary conman. Recounting their first meeting in the late 80s in the first chapter, the reader really comes away with an impression of Burgess that is as negative as Lewis’. He is completely self-absorbed and uninterested in anybody but himself, and just sits around rattling off obscure literary references and reciting poetry completely out of any context. At first I wasn’t sure if the style of Lewis’ writing is meant to be a parody of Burgess. Each page is filled with diversions and a multitude of literary and cultural references that often verges on name-dropping for the sake of it, much like Burgess himself, and often a single footnote will take up half the page. Not having read anything else by him, I don’t know.

As a biography, it is a complete mess. For anybody looking for a complete biographical picture of Burgess’ life, this is the last place to come. Every now and then we get a reference point, either Burgess is in Gibraltar, Burgess is in Malaya, Burgess is writing A Clockwork Orange or a book about Shakespeare suffering syphilis and penning his best work because of it, but this quick biographical note soon becomes yet another rant over Burgess’ lack of sincerity/faux-intellectual status/treatment of his wife/treatment of co-workers/treatment of family members/general disagreeable nature. At least two-thirds of the book is taken up with this kind of vitriol, often repeating itself and covering the same ground. It could have lost at least a hundred pages in editing.

Lewis’ book has a couple of plus points, firstly for exposing Anthony Burgess as the showman and consummate bullshitter that he was. The habit he had for mythologising his own life, especially that of his early life growing up in Manchester, and his reputation of being something resembling a polymath, which of course he wasn’t. But all this, as with Eric Blair’s transformation into George Orwell, lies within the usual dynamic of the construction of the infallible literary alter-ego. At one point Lewis discusses Burgess’ claims to be able to speak fluent Malay, and then recalls a BBC documentary from the 80s which followed Burgess as he returned to Malaysia, and his being unable to order a drink in a restaurant.

However, by the end of the book you feel as if you’re being beaten round the head with Burgess’ deficiencies, and along with it oddly savage criticism for anybody who apparently ever met Burgess, among others, his second wife, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Amis, and Clive James, who are, in turn – ‘an obscure translator’, ‘piss-poor’, ‘a writer with nothing to say’, and, ‘a prat’. The criticism of his first wife, Lynne, an alcoholic and very troubled woman, is the strangest, and every time she is mentioned she is abused in some way, something usually along the lines of, ‘that nymphomaniacal alcoholic’. And along with Burgess being everything that Lewis hates about him, he is variously accused of racism and xenophobia, homophobia, as well as harbouring paedophilic and incestuous thoughts, at one point Lewis practically tells us that Burgess would have pounced on his daughters, had he had any. He then calls him a ‘complete fucking fool’.

For somebody who was so enamoured with his subject matter, Lewis’s hatred, and it is hatred, for Burgess seems by the end of the book just very strange, and very exhausting. Did Burgess refuse him an autograph? Anthony Burgess was published in 2002, and came in for a pretty savage time in the review columns. The Guardian did an interview with Lewis earlier this year to promote his new book, and at one point he says of Anthony Burgess, ‘I think we sold seven copies last year worldwide’. I can believe it; I picked it up in a discount book shop opposite the British Library for £2.

When Lewis first met Burgess, he was with Richard Ellman, writer of definitive biographies of Oscar Wilde, WB Yeats, and James Joyce. I wanted to read a biography of Joyce, but not quite ready to commit to Ellman’s, which stands at 887 pages, I chose instead to read Edna O’Brien’s James Joyce. And as self-absorbed, weird, and pathological as Roger Lewis’ book may be, it can be quietly applauded for the fact that it is a biography by a writer who is critical of his subject (although, to a mental degree), which Edna O’Brien completely fails to be, and her discussion of James Joyce often verges on the sycophantic. Both Lewis and O’Brien are literary stalkers, but while Lewis would have been sending Anthony Burgess bullets in the post, O’Brien would have been breaking into Joyce’s house and stealing his toothbrush. As a demonstration of two very different attitudes to writing biography, the differences between the two is an interesting one, and I’ll write something about James Joyce soon.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “I. Anthony Burgess and the psychopath’s guide to biographical writing

  1. James Alexander

    The story about Anthony Burgess not knowing Malay is completely untrue. Lewis is referring to the 1981 BBC documentary “A Kind of Failure: Anthony Burgess in Malaysia”, directed by David Wallace. According to Mr Wallace (who wrote a letter to the editor of the Independent newspaper, complaining about Lewis’s distortion of the facts), he filmed Burgess ordering a meal in a Chinese restaurant in Kuala Lumpur. Burgess, who spoke Malay to degree standard, was not understood by the Chinese waitresses. He then said (on camera): “Do you speak Malay? Do you speak the language of this country?” The film makes it very clear that the Malaysian Chinese waitresses had declined to learn Malay for political reasons. They preferred to speak English. Burgess, who knew what he was talking about, was making a perfectly good point about language and nationalism. In the same film Burgess is shown teaching at the Malay College, speaking Malay to the students, and writing fluently on the blackboard in Jawi, which is the Arabic form of Malay.

  2. James Alexander

    One other correction: Roger Lewis left Oxford without taking a degree. He boasts in his Burgess book that he never wrote a single word of his thesis.

    Richard Ellmann’s daughter has pointed out that the section of Lewis’s book dealing with her father is full of inaccuracies. She has also written a novel, Doctors and Nurses, which (by coincidence) features an impotent villain called Roger Lewis.

  3. Thank you for the comments, I must have missed the part about Lewis not actually completing his thesis. His distortions regarding Burgess’ ability to speak Malay are very interesting, and deciding to falsely quote the BBC documentary in particular, for which he could so easily be exposed for bending the truth of, is as bizarre as the rest of his book.

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