Little Wilson and Big God, the first part of Anthony Burgess’s autobiography, is published this month on the author’s 70th birthday. It begins with a birth, and ends with one: in 1917 little Jackie Wilson, or John Burgess Wilson, was born in Manchester into a mixed English and Irish Catholic family, ‘more of a Celt than an Anglo-Saxon.’ Forty years later a colonial officer, returned from Brunei with a mysterious tropical ailment, a pending libel suit, an alcoholic wife and no prospect of employment, learnt that he had only a year to live. When his wife told him the news, his response – a generous one under the circumstances – was ‘You’ll need money’, and Anthony Burgess, full-time writer, was born.
In fact, Anthony Burgess had struggled into being over the previous few years, with the publication of the three fine novels of the Malayan Trilogy, as well as Devil of a State and The Right to an Answer. The pseudonym had been necessary because at the time the colonial authorities though it ‘improper’ to publish fiction under one’s own name. Anthony was John Wilson’s baptismal name, and Burgess the maiden name of the mother he does not remember. (Early in 1919, Wilson pere came home to find his wife lying dead of influenza, their daughter also dead on the bed beside her, while little Jack burbled happily in his cot in a corner of the same room.)
Meeting Anthony Burgess today reveals few, if any, traces of Jack Wilson. He is spry for his 70 years, and somehow much neater around the edges than pictures of him suggest; the pleasantly modulated voice retains only occasional faint echoes of Lancashire. Living in Monaco with his Italian wife, a bi-lingual household with a trilingual son, his work winning greater acclaim in France, Germany and Italy than in Britain, a speaker of Welsh, Russian and Malay as well as more accessible languages, he is polyglot to a rare degree; polygraphic, too, for the list of his published works of non-fiction, novels, translations, children’s books and editions runs to some 54 titles – and this of course takes no account of his extensive journalism and his musical compositions.
Music was an early love, but not quite his first. Very young he showed unusual talent for drawing, but his hopes of painting were blighted by the discovery that he is colour blind. The ‘tonal palette’ provided sensual compensation, and in the long spaces of a solitary childhood he taught himself to read music, fathoming the method by poring over scores after his father had struck a single note on the piano, informed him that it was Middle C, and left the room. Elsewhere, though, the book suggests that the musical influence was a little more sophisticated: at a family wedding his father whispered to him as the Mendelssohn Wedding March began: ‘Hear that? That’s the only bit of music I know that doesn’t begin on a common chord.’
Burgess lost heart with writing music, he says, because he couldn’t make a living at it, in a ‘bad period’ before young composers could rely on grants, theme music or films for income. The ‘failed musician’ became a novelist through financial circumstance, for his early literary ambitions were in poetry, his heroes those of the English tradition of combining poetry and music, as varied as Thomas Campion and lvor Gurney. It is clear that he still considers music the superior art: ‘The writing of a 300-page musical work is more laborious than the merely literary person is able to appreciate … ‘ (He may not easily be forgiven for that ‘merely’.) And, when he started writing novels: ‘The ease with which dialogue could be written seemed grossly unfair. This was not art as I had known it.’ The comparison with music gives clues to his prose style: ‘My notion of giving the reader his money’s worth was to throw difficult words and neologisms at him, to make the syntax involuted. Anything, in fact, to give the impression of a musicalisation of prose … clotting words into chords, presenting several stories simultaneously in an effect of counterpoint.’ Rather belatedly, he realised the similarity between novel form and symphony form – his Malayan Trilogy is loosely symphonic, with a second movement scherzo, a third largo – ‘but I don’t want to take that too far,’ he said guardedly, ‘because it sounds pretentious.’ Once, to his astonishment, he found himself quoted in ‘Pseud’s Corner’, for a precise but arcane reference: ‘In England, if you start talking like that, you’re always criticised. They’re scared of knowledge. Genuine learning is taken to be pseudery.’
There is a strong sense that Burgess is at odds with the mores of British letters, as this incident shows. Interested in ideas, unabashed by serious cultural discussion, spurning the art of raising modesty to a high form, he is a Continental-style intellectual – a creature traditionally regarded with suspicion by the British. He writes about himself in a way that is just Not Done: on reading Joyce as a schoolboy, for example, he says, ‘The modernism did not deter me … I, who had read the score of Le Sacre du Printemps, was not likely to be put off by literary experiment.’ His prolificity, too, causes friction: ‘People say I write ‘too much’. The current ideal is Anita Brookner – small, finely wrought books, a life’s work no thicker than this.’ He holds a finger and thumb an inch apart. He defends his rate of output – a novel a year for some time, and often a work of non-fiction too – by comparison with Hardy, Conrad, and H G Wells.
Perhaps there are other similarities with Wells. Burgess recounted with some feeling that although Wells had made a fortune for one of his publishers, Macmillan, he had never been invited to dinner, and beneath the dignity with which Burgess admits he feels unjustly treated by British critics one can’t miss the note of resentment and hurt. He is accused of prolixity; the major prizes have so far eluded him; the establishment has never really invited him to dinner. Britain, especially England, has always made him feel an outsider, as the book makes clear; Little Wilson and Big God is the story of a life lived at a tangent to the mainstream.
It began in the cradle. Being Catholic working class, a Northerner – the particular sense of apartness each of those brought is a rich theme – to this day he feels the gulf between North-West and South-East England. Early in his life there was emotional exclusion, too, as a crude stepmother gave the lonely little boy physical care but offered no tenderness. This painful childhood is powerfully conveyed, lavish with the detail Burgess ‘s almost superhuman memory provides. Next came the schooldays at Manchester’s Xavierian College, where, perhaps in compensation for the lovelessness of his home, he began to display extraordinary precocity, gulping down knowledge and discovering his two great and abiding influences, Joyce and Hopkins – both Catholics, both musicians, both steeped in Celtic traditions. (Indeed, Burgess believes that the English are temperamentally unsuited to modernism, that only Celts can absorb and practise its lessons. Of the novelists he has read recently he was most impressed by Alasdair Gray – a Scot.) At school Burgess was already hard at work on music and poems. He says he has no wish to publish his collected poems, but so many are included in this book that it is almost a selected poems in disguise. Often they come complete with critical comment: ‘This is overscornful and over-serious. I was invoking Schopenhauer and Spengler to describe fumblings in cold beet fields.’ Now Burgess claims only to practise the craft of verse, for example in his recent translation of Carmen. He can’t, he says, write poems in propria persona, but needs to do so through a fictional character such as Enderby.
Manchester University followed the Xavierian College, and six years of army service followed that. Although this middle section of the book is over-long, at times his picture of wartime institutional life recalls the grim farce of his early novels like The Doctor is Sick. By this time he was married to Lynn – outspoken, harddrinking, Welsh and promiscuous – and the rest of the story, particularly his account of their years in Malaya and Brunei, is suffused with the heady atmosphere of this extraordinary marriage. The last part of the book carries the highly spiced, rumbustious texture of Burgess’s best writing, often a rich brew of hilarity, self-destructiveness and ironic detachment. ‘At three in the morning, opposed groups armed with empty bottles and knives confronted each other outside the contiguous front doors. Harsh words like chelaka, puteh burlumor, vafnculo, pommy bastard and my fuckin fader rang in the Brunei night. Lynn … approached a stunted but powerful roadworker, whose Land Dyak brown was burnt to black, with an empty gin bottle … the charge of riot was eventually heard in a court with an attap roof but no walls …’ And this was just a small part of the party to celebrate Anthony Burgess’s third novel.