Thursday, April 27, 2006

Queer as a clockwork orange

I've just finished Andrew Biswell's excellent The Real Life of Anthony Burgess, and the only bad thing about the experience is the painfulness with which my teenage self is called to mind. From age twelve or thirteen to seventeen or so, I was truly obsessed with Burgess, I read almost everything he'd published and really had a fixation of unmatched intensity. In retrospect, it makes tons of sense, Burgess is exactly the man of letters I still aspire to be, even his obsession with Augustinian versus Pelagian accounts of human nature maps very closely onto my ongoing interesting in the nature-nurture-perfectibility stuff; all the linguistic playfulness and intellectual polymathness was exactly what would have appealed to me at an age where you really only have limited access to such things by virtue of the unfortunate handicap (I'm borrowing this phrase from my novel) of a chronological age in the low double digits.

I am planning a massive Burgess reread at some not-long-from-now opportunity (if I was in my real apartment I would be reading A Clockwork Orange right now instead of blogging, having plucked it off my own actual bookshelf, and in fact I may go and buy another copy tomorrow, I have a sudden desire to incorporate it into the nature-nurture talk I have to give on Tuesday). For now, though, I at least have the satisfaction that this was one of those library books I'm so determined to consume. And it also leaves me with the puzzle of what to choose next out of two associatively related library-obtained volumes: Jonathan Coe's B. S. Johnson biography Like a Fiery Elephant, on the one hand; on the other (the association here is more remote, but Davidson--no relation--is one of the dedicatees of Biswell's biography, and it reminded me of the book's allure for me when I first heard about it) Peter Davidson's The Idea of North. Hmmm... tantalizing choice... anyone who has read one or both is encouraged to express an opinion in the comments.

One of the things Biswell deals with particularly gracefully is the extent of Burgess's own confabulation--call it lying--about his own biography, so the facts below may be taken with a large grain of salt. But here are ten particularly entrancing details garnered from Biswell's pages:

1. Burgess recorded passages from A Clockwork Orange (issued on vinyl, Caedmon, 1973) in a strongish Manchester accent, though he had otherwise modified his speaking voice to something more like RP (Biswell observes that "his speaking voice altered in the other direction when regional accents came into fashion later on in the 1960s, with the rise of the Beatles and the Mersey Beat poets").

2. In a piece for the Sunday Times Magazine in October 1977, Burgess declared his "Seven Wonders of the World" to be Tiger Balm massage oil, the chameleon, the pre-decimal British monetary system, Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado, the Petrarchan sonnet form, champagne and Fritz Lang's Metropolis.

3. In an interview for the magazine of the school at which he taught in 1952, Burgess answered the question "What do you think is the greatest menace at the present time?" thus: "Neo-Pelagianism (refusal to believe in Original Sin) which produced Russia, America, youth organizations and holiday camps."

4. Stanley Kubrick asked Burgess to adapt Schnitzler's Traumnovelle for the screen long before Frederic Raphael wrote the script that became Eyes Wide Shut.

5. After his return to England in the early 1950s, Burgess was so broke that his wife cut his hair using kitchen scissors and a pudding basin ("a mean economy, as the photographs of Burgess from this time testify," Biswell comments); he later also claimed to have paid the chemistry master at the school to make tonic water (at the cost of a penny per gallon) to save the expense of buying it in shops.

6. The junior neurologist who saw Burgess when he arrived at the Neurological Institute with a suspected brain tumor was Roger Bannister, the first person in recorded history to run a mile in less than four minutes (however--despite Burgess's later claims--Bannister did not "trepan the Burgess cranium").

7. Burgess in an unpublished letter written during the composition of A Clockwork Orange: "I've just completed Part I - which is just sheer crime. Now comes punishment. The whole thing's making me rather sick. My horrible juvenile delinquent hero is emerging as too sympathetic a character - almost Christ-like, set upon by the scourging police. You see what I mean by moral deterioration."

8. Burgess often wrote eight hours a day, seven days a week; when his concentration failed him, he took three dexedrine tablets and a pint of gin and tonic and returned to work.

9. The vocabulary of the Shakespeare bio-novel Nothing Like the Sun only includes words that Shakespeare could have known, with one exception, the word "spurgeoning," a deliberate anachronism to honor the literary critic Caroline Spurgeon ("He kicked in youth's peevishness at the turves of the Avon's left bank, marking with storing-up spaniel's eye the spurgeoning of the black-eddy under the Clopton Bridge").

10. Shirley Conran was his neighbor in (tax-havenish) Monaco, and he read her novel Lace in typescript, which led various people to speculate that he was her ghost-writer: "When she asked for his permission to name him in the acknowledgements," Biswell adds in a note, Burgess politely declined: "I don't think it's in order to express this putative help or encouragement publicly [. . .] I think it might even be considered indiscreet to mention help. So please don't bring me into it."


  1. Like a Fiery Elephant is worth picking up: touching and engaging and properly shaped, which means it may be faster to get through than some biographies, and self-aware enough to work as a discussion of B.S. Johnson. Haven't read The Idea of North, though.

  2. Yes, now that I've slept on it I think the Johnson biography is the way to go....

  3. Hi Jenny - Maxine Clarke brought this post to my attention, and I'm glad she did. Thanks for an entertaining read.

    I stupidly didn't buy the Biswell biography at a book sale recently as I was still busy reading Roger Lewis's effort. I posted something about this reading experience on my own blog and thought you might be interested in it.

    I will look out for Andrew Biswell's book.

  4. Yes, do look out for Biswell; somehow I missed Lewis, I don't even remember it coming out (must have been in a very busy part of the school year?), and I think that Biswell is much more the book that the novelist's admirers will want to read.