Alastair Morgan

Alastair Morgan talks to Anthony Burgess


Anthony Burgess was interviewed in a suite in Claridges at the end of a year in which his publications reaffirmed his involvement with music, showed him engaged with beds, and found him turning to Freud, Trotsky, and science fiction for his novel The End of the World News (Hutchinson £8.95).

The interview takes for its point of departure Mr Burgess’s interest in language and linguistics. It arrives at another of his major concerns, money.

You have written that the study of language is ‘as tough a science as nuclear biology or astrophysics’, and that ‘to study language is no longer a legitimate spare-time activity of those who use language’. Where does this leave the non-specialist who wishes, nevertheless, to concern himself with language?

Yes, this is a problem. I studied language at Manchester, but only in its Germanic aspect. One studied Germanic philology, I suppose. It struck me even then that it had to break away from its almost sub-literary status. But at Manchester we did learn phonetics, and this was obviously a shock to some of the students who had never expected to have to approach language in a scientific manner, with purely auditory studies of sound. I found the study of phonetics more useful later, when the war started, because I was suddenly forced to start teaching people languages – it was a job that was imposed upon me. At one point I had to teach people Spanish, and at another Russian, and I found that I had some basic knowledge of how to do it. But, of course, linguistics was not really started then, it’s a very new science. Oh, we knew terms like phoneme and allophone and so forth, but Saussure was hardly spoken of, and, of course, Chomsky was hardly born. I became aware of this terrible division when, in about the 1950’s, I was abroad in Malaya concerned with the teaching of English as a second language, and saw that I was very ill-equipped to cope with teaching Chinese students. It was only the Americans, at Ann Arbor especially, who knew what the problems were. The problem of teaching English to a people who speak a tonal language is having to show that a catalogue tone has no semantic significance. In other words, one had to know more. When I was compelled to leave the colonial service, when, indeed, the colonial empire broke down, I found myself still interested in language, but not in any way able to pursue it. It’s not an extracurricular activity anymore, I don’t think.

Do you think there was any value in the old activity of ‘pre-linguistics’ as a kind of sub-literary study? What relationship do you think there is between linguistics and literature?

I don’t think there’s any relationship between linguistics and literature, but there is a relationship with this old view, a magical view of philology and literature. I think that both Joyce and Nabokov couldn’t have learnt very much from modem linguistics, but could learn something from a conception of language as something that functioned apart from literature. To a man like Nabokov there was obviously a certain magic in the way a sound continuum could be set down as a spatial continuum. A magic, I suppose, not a scientific thing at all. Interest in language as a phenomenon which seemed to fight sometimes against literature, though this is more semantic than structural.

I think that certain schools of linguistics, like the Firth school, have a lot to teach the literary critic or the student of literature. I think the notion of the prosodic aspect of linguistics has got very powerful literary connotations, which, of course, most of the students of Firth have been quick to exploit. One of his students, for example, wrote a very interesting study of ‘Swift’s little language’, which made a great deal of sense when you did it from a Firthian angle. This is, of course, a very British school, it hasn’t had much impact in America. I don’t think the Chomskyan approach has had much significance for writers, at least not so far.

You make a distinction in Joysprick between two types of novelist: the class 1 novelist whose aim is fulfilled when narrated action is transformed into represented action, and the class 2 novelist who exploits and delights in ambiguities and the opacity of language. . .

Yes, language gets in the way, and is meant to get in the way. You’re meant to observe the structure, as well as the message the structure is trying to convey. This is, of course, analogous to music where there is no distinction between structure and content. Indeed, it is possible to regard literature of the class 2 nature, chiefly poetry, as an attempt to recall a non-existent golden age in which language was totally iconic. Of course it never was. We like to believe it was, and when Tennyson writes one of his onomatopoeic lines on the murmuring of innumerable bees and all that sort of stuff, it is an attempt to restore a golden age in which language gave you the referent as much as it possibly could.

Yet the foreword to your latest novel, The End of the World News, tells of ‘the elimination from narrative composition of what may be termed “poetic values”’. . .

Yes, it’s what I tried to do in that story.

Would you expand on poetic values?

I suppose the best way of expanding on it is to look at Sir William Empson’s seventh type of ambiguity, which is the most blatant example of the way in which language can draw attention to itself. When a word can start meaning its opposite, or when a word can start drawing attention to itself as opposed to its meaning. I always quote the word violence, because the word violence is the most unviolent word in the world, because it contains violin, viol, violets. It is probably the job of the poet to effect the reconciliation of the overtones of the word with its dictionary meaning. Of course, all poetry belongs to class 2 literature by its very nature, though some poets try to get away from that whole view of poetry and turn it into a class 1 structure. But when the language starts functioning as a character in fiction, when it is there drawing attention to itself, then you’re right in the heart of the class 2 genre, and, of course Finnegans Wake is the ultimate example, when the language virtually becomes the characters, and the characters the language. It’s not a thing you can take too far unless you want to cease to function as a commercial writer. This is one of the problems. If you write for a living, you have to regard this kind of writing as virtually a hobby. It’s not anything that anybody really takes seriously.

So you treat it as a hobby, rather than forego a future as a commercial writer?

Well, some people have been lucky. I think Nabokov was lucky enough to write a best-seller in Lolita, which, in fact, was not of the best-seller genre at all. It was essentially a linguistic fantasia in which the much vaunted ‘love affair with the English language’ was, in fact, what the thing was about. But there are very great dangers, as you know, and certain writers, like my Argentine namesake – thank God he hasn’t done this on a large-scale – such writers as Borges do contribute to the death of the novel, the death of fiction, because they draw attention to something they shouldn’t. Namely, that a fiction, of its very nature, can countenance discontinuity – that what you say in one sentence can be contradicted in the next. By this means you can set up a character in one sentence who is no longer there in the second sentence, or who has changed his character in the third sentence.

It’s like playing with film, in which discontinuity becomes a virtue instead of a vice. This is dangerous. Fiction does depend on a kind of covenant. ‘I’m going to play fair with you. This man has a moustache, he will always have a moustache. He is thirty-seven at the beginning, next year he will be thirty-eight not twenty-four.’ Although there is nothing to prevent my saying ‘this man, Tom Jenkins, was thirty-four years old. Next year he will be twenty-seven.’ You can say that. The sentences are well formed on the Chomskyan model, but the discontinuity is evident, and you’re into a surrealistic world where you’re not playing fair.

So you value fair play between writer and reader?

I think you have to have it, yes. Americans, even Americans deeply embedded in the class 1 tradition, don’t play fair in that there is a great deal of American literature that is discontinuous, especially with respect to violence. A couple of people are sitting at the breakfast table, husband and wife, talking to each other nicely, lovingly, and suddenly the husband takes an axe and kills the wife, or vice versa. This happens. It happens in the fiction of John Irving. Discontinuity, it’s a very American thing. People are suddenly violent, without adequate motivation.

There is, of course, a tradition of discontinuity in the novel, of transgressing the contract with the reader.

Yes, it’s there in William Blake’s An Island in the Moon where a character called Inflammable Gas puts his head in the fire and runs round the room, then Blake says ‘no he didn’t, I was merely having you on’. It’s there most notoriously in Tristram Shandy. There’s the passage about the death of the Frenchman Lefèvre, which is described by Uncle Toby. ‘Lefèvre closed his eyes. He opened them again. He closed them again. He opened them again. Shall I go on? No. He closed them.’ In other words, the author is manipulating. This is a danger. You are so totally in control that you can impose discontinuity if you wish. That is not playing the game, that is breaking the covenant with the reader.

But The End of the World News is itself full of disjunctions in that it consists of a narrative in three parts – or even of three narratives. Your foreword suggests, of course, that this idea was had fnnn a photo of the Carters watching three TV screens simultaneously, but also that it has musical analogies. True?

In the contrapuntal sense, yes. You have to try and carry in your head three narratives of equal value, possibly of equal importance. Three rather different from each other formally and structurally. This is something that literature should always have envied in music, and it has only occasionally been tried out. Aldous Huxley tried it in Point Counter Point. Solzhenitzyn pretended to have invented it, polyphony he called it. But in a sense it has always been there, only people haven’t always been aware of the musical implications. It’s there in Dickens. I’m rereading Bleak House at the moment, and it is very evident that a contrapuntal element is part of the book’s conception. You have two narrations for a start. You know about one narrator, but the other narrator is who? We don’t know. It must be the author, but the author somehow places himself on the same level as a character, so you’ve got a very interesting question of who is telling the story. One story is counter-poised against the other. The technique in Dickens is very interesting. If you re-read Nicholas Nickleby, to take one example, you’ll find that Dickens’s job is to force a relationship between different narrative strands in which there is no relationship. I mean, Mr Mantolini, OK, a very interesting character, a kind of Music Hall turn. He has to be forced into the structure; he can only be forced into the structure by being the husband of the woman who is employing Kate Nickleby. Right, well Kate Nickleby leaves this employment, what do you do with the Mantolinis then? You’ve still got to use them. You can’t just throw them away, anymore than you can throw a theme in music away, so he has to keep bringing them in, relating them to Ralph Nickleby – a useful key, a tonic almost, for drawing everyone who owes money towards the same centre. But notice towards the very end, when Nicholas is going up North to see Mr Squeers’s place again, by chance he sees Mr Mantolini, who has dropped as low as he can, mangling clothes in a basement, speaking the way he has always spoken. But it’s purely artificial, you’re well aware of that.

Do you think your version of counter-point is likely to be considered successful, when, as you have written, even Joyce’s imitations lack a satisfying exactness?

He only achieves it in Finnegans Wake, and more or less showed how it was to be done, and how dangerous it was. But of course it is totally suitable for the dream, in which disparate images tend to merge. I always think the most beautiful example of counter-point in Joyce is a single word, the word cropse, but the paradox is that you can’t hear the counter-point, you can only see it.

Of course, that’s different from counter-point on a structural level.

Quite different, that isn’t counter-point, that’s a chord.

How important is this sort of device in your own work?

Well, you see, I think the major artistic achievement of the West is to have been able to produce polyphony. It happened a long way back. It is implicit in the notion of people singing together, and in that sense it’s natural. But to be able to present a number of strands, each of which is independently quite satisfying as a single whole, a single unity, is an astonishing achievement. It is something, for instance, that neither the Arabs nor the Chinese have got hold of. Arab music is monodic, as is Indian for the most part, and Chinese. The West has decided that it is possible to play about fifteen tunes at the same time, and make sense as a whole. This is quite remarkable, and at our peril we ignore that achievement in other art forms, particularly literature, which is very close to music in that it is a temporal form based on duration.

Writers have, of course, for a long time considered ways of achieving spatial effects in a temporal medium.

Of course the novel is spatial, in the sense that you are able to wander through it. I don’t think anyone is ever satisfied with hearing a recording of a narrator. In Dublin this year, on June 16th, they did the whole of Ulysses. It took about thirty-five hours. It was beautiful, a marvellous experience, but of course it’s not satisfying. You could not see it. You could not take in the whole page. You could not anticipate what was going to happen. You could not go back, or go forward. You do need that capacity to travel spatially in the novel. With a piece of music you have only what comes before and what comes after, but to be chained to that is somehow diminishing. You’ve got to be able to wander through it, conquer time – and the only way you can conquer time is to turn it into space.

So the reader helps the writer to conquer time?

Really that’s true. And indeed the typographer and the bookbinder. I don’t think we ought to get rid of that, despite what McCluhan said.

Do you establish a satisfactory relationship, as you see it, between the three narratives in The End of the World News?

Of course there’s a jokey element in that – as far as I remember – I ease the reader’s way into the story about the end of the world by an introduction in which we get Sigmund Freud, his daughter and wife out of Vienna in 1938. And then, at the end of this section Anna opens a book, a cheap novel. End of that section, and the start of a section that the reader may regard as the opening of a cheap novel. But later on you’re not sure if the myth about the end of the world is contained in the Freud narrative, or even contained in the Trotsky narrative. Finally, you discover that both the Freud and the Trotsky stories are recorded on video and have found their way on to the spaceship, the only two specimens of twentieth century culture they have, and are promptly destroyed because they are of no value – or rather, go down into some archive where they become the source of myth. That was one way of bringing them together, but the way in which they come together is a little more profound. It’s dangerous to say what it is, because it depends so much on the reader’s reaction.

In my own mind, on re-reading it, it is slightly tempting to see the end of the world and the building of the space ship as in itself a kind of Freudian allegory. It might be a Freudian dream whose real meaning was quite different from the surface meaning. But this again is just part of a total approach, a total mode of appreciation which has nothing to do with the taking-in of a straight story. It’s a question of adjusting one attitude to another. I wish I could clarify this in my own mind, all I can do is write the book.

Some of the New York scenes in the story about the end of the world have a great deal in common with others in The Clockwork Testamentperhaps the novel in which you are most philosophical about the nature of good and evil. You finish the end of the world fable with a space-ship culture based on geometry, chance, and the laws of probability. What place have good and evil there?

In a sense you’ve got rid of them. This is the ultimate secret of the book. Both International Socialism and psychoanalysis attempted to rid the world of original sin. This spaceship goes off with no theological premises at all. At one point a religious hero appears briefly, and disappears, but the whole thing is based on such a new concept of man that you can’t imagine original sin as being of any interest.

Although the concerns of the book may be good and evil, the nature of man or whatever, the science fiction mode is obviously getting a fair way away from the ordinary and into the journalistic extraordinary.

Yes, indeed it is.

A market demand?

Not really, there’s no market for science fiction. It’s a very ill-paid job. It’s rather like jazz, isn’t it? Nobody wants jazz either.

Do you want science fiction?

No, not really. I’ve read a fair amount of it in my time. I’ve just come from Pennsylvania State University where they have vast science fiction courses. I was asked to contribute. I had never realised I’d been accepted as a science fiction writer, but I had apparently, on the strength of two or three novels. I was expected to lecture on the subject. I don’t think it’s a subject at all. I think every writer, at one time or another in his life, uses a bit of science fiction, because his imagination wants to go a bit beyond the everyday. E M Forster wrote The Machine Stops; Joseph Conrad, with Ford Madox Ford, wrote a very fine book called The Inheritors. A brilliant book about the future; nobody reads it, nobody can find it. Everybody meddles with it, but 1 don’t think it’s a form which you can spend your career working in.

So you’ll have left science fiction before your next book?

Oh yes, yes. The next idea, the next thing is very different, very very different. At least I hope it will be when it’s finished.

Are you prepared to talk about things before they are finished?

Well, I’m getting older. I keep having to emphasise this. I’m getting older now, and you never know how much time you have. I’ve been on a big magazine conference in Puerto Rico. I had to address the audience there, and being Americans they had to begin every morning with a jog. Two people died of heart failure on this jog who were younger than I. They tried to persuade me to go along on this jog. But in the tropics? In the tropics, even at 6.30 am? Oh no. A couple of people collapsed and apparently died, at least they disappeared. Whether they’re being artificially supported somewhere I don’t know.

And if you were prepared to talk about the future?

I think I could spend the next twenty years writing fiction with great ease, in that there is no shortage of themes, no shortage indeed of techniques. I believe in the novel. People always say the poor old novel is dead. I don’t think it’s dead at all, all we lack is an audience for it. But in a curious way, perhaps we are getting the audience through television. Television is keeping the desire for some kind of narrative form alive. Even a thing like Dallas. This is a kind of Dickensian tradition. Dallas goes on a long time, it’s a kind of family saga, it has got a wicked man in it. J R Ewing is rather like Ralph Nickleby. This at least keeps alive the interest in narrative. It’s a terribly important form.

One advantage that Dickens had (that we’ve lost totally) was that it was possible then to unite a long novel as the accumulation of your fortnightly parts. The book was coming out in parts. You had immediate feed-back from your readers. You can see how the feed-back operates in all the novels. In Bleak House you’re aware that the book is getting a bit dull for the readers, so, right, we must start introducing new characters. All this happened; you can see the point at which the feed-back is operating. The length of the novel itself is not primarily conceived in terms of structure, it’s conceived in terms of the necessity of filling in time. I have to produce a novel in fortnightly parts, and this novel has to go on for a couple of years. The result is like that. This doesn’t happen anymore. This is a terrible thing. We are not encouraged to write long novels because we don’t have serialisation. I’ve got a very long novel in mind. I’ve already written a long novel, which was condemned for its length by many people. It’s more appropriate to a serial than a single volume.

What about other forms of fiction?

The form I am against is the short story. I know there are great short story writers, but by the time you’ve invented characters, and invented a location, then you merely dispose of them all in twenty pages – I think you’re cheating. I don’t think it’s fair to the characters; you should give them a chance to expose themselves.

The novella?

Well, of course, we’re up against pure publishing difficulties there. I would not like to put out a novella and charge £8.95 for it. Yet what can you charge for it? I like to give the reader value for his money if I can.

Might it not be possible to get value for money even at a high rate of pence per word, with Beckett novellas for instance?

Yes, you have to buy them in paperback. These are problems. We have to charge £8.95 for this novel. It’s a lot of money. On the other hand if you go out for a meal, you have a T-bone steak which costs you £13 before you start – and that’s gone. The first novel I produced in 1956 was at 13/6. Then the next was at 15/-, then it cost 20/-, then it cost 30/-, then it started going up all the way along. As I’m still pretty well set in the past, as anyone my age must be, I can’t help thinking that a pound should still be a fairly hefty piece of money. Of course it’s not. No, these considerations are quite legitimate. You’re trying to give literature to the people, and it shouldn’t cost too much. Of course they get books from libraries. You have now a library lending act which doesn’t apply to authors living abroad. This seems to me very unjust.

The life of the novelist is a very hard life. It is really a hard life. We are always hearing this, although it is genuine. I’ve had a very difficult life in fiction, and as I get older it’s easing a little, it’s easing just a bit, but not too much. There’s no prospect of going into retirement; you can’t do it, you’re not allowed to do it, you go on and on and on. But I feel not only authors have been cheated, but also readers have been cheated to some extent. Books are too expensive, although publishers say they are not expensive enough.

How has your hard life in fiction affected what you’ve written?

I’ve written a lot, chiefly because I had to. In 1959 I came back from the Far East, and I was told that I had a cerebral tumour which was inoperable, and they gave me a year to live. I had a wife then, who is now dead, ironically, and I spent this final year in writing, pretty vigorously, in order to provide her with some posthumous royalties, and of course to keep myself alive. You have to live. If you’ve got twelve months left you might as well live them. It’s no good living on crusts and cups of water. So I wrote six novels in that final year, and discovered it was possible. It was a trade like any other trade, and all this nonsense about waiting for inspiration, it didn’t really work. You start writing and you hope something will occur, and the mere act of writing generates the written. After that I didn’t write quite so much, but I was still writing more than the average English critic wants the English author to produce. The gentlemanly ideal that began with Bloomsbury, with people like E M Forster, still continues here – as with William Golding, a writer whom I detest, personally. I think he’s a bad writer; I think he’s a pretentious writer. I find his playing around with good and evil fundamentally rather frivolous. It’s not backed up ontologically on his part. But because he writes little, people say, he must be good.

What happens in America is that a writer like Ralph Ellison, who wrote Invisible Man in the 1950’s, has not written anything since, and desperately wants to write something else. This is a very extreme case, but also very American. He got fame. He was then given a large job, with a large salary, and obviously there’s something in his unconscious mind telling him there’s no necessity to write, there’s no need to write. I think you have to have this sense of need. I met him fairly recently. A charming man. His wife is a charming woman. Charming people. A most erudite man. He has a United Nations professorship which gives him about $l25,000 a year. Well, you don’t have to write with that.

You’ve talked of the importance of strong narrative, but also of necessary consciousness of the complex structure of words. Do you see yourself primarily as stylist, or as storyteller?

I don’t know. I don’t know. I think having been brought up as a musician I tend to be interested in what the thing looks like, in what the thing sounds like. I can’t see writing as a purely transparent form, as, say, our dear friend Harold Robbins can, but I know that people want totally transparent writing. They want the novel to look like television, they want the language not to reverberate in their minds, but merely the appearances which are germinated by the language. I think that the greater part of best-selling fiction today is yearning to be freed from words, and to find its real fulfilment on the screen, either big or small. The writing is inadequate, so you feel the thing could only be fulfilled by getting a good actress to play this part, a good actor. Fulfilment on the screen – but this is not the novel.

And the state of the novel?

Despite failures on the part of the Booker committee to judge what a novel is, I think on the whole we are doing rather well. Certainly we’re doing better in Britain than they are in, say, France, which has always prided itself on being the great literary centre of Europe. The French produce nothing. The exuberant men are dead, but there never existed so much desire to please, and so much ability to please. I think that’s true. Nothing to be ashamed of. If only people would read books, if only books weren’t so dear, and so on.

So a humane future is still conceivable?

I’ve just come back from the States. I was in a town, can you believe it, a town called State College, with its own airport. A town called State College where the college is the industry. I had to meet a group of young people who were called Special Scholars. They were graduates working on theses and so on. A lot of them were very despondent because they were perpetually being put down by the technologists. I said, you must remember that they are only concerned with techniques, you are concerned with the essence. You’re concerned with humanity, with what human beings are really about, and what human life is about. They are only concerned with pure abstractions. They need this kind of reassurance, and this is the reassurance I give to people who feel despondent about their own inability to prevail upon the world with purely humanistic ideas. We had this under Socialism very badly. We had it with Harold Wilson. Terrible, terrible man. He said to me: ‘Give it up, you’re working in a minority sub-culture’. He was wrong, of course.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter