Sunday, March 18, 2007

Munching his words to a mumble, or Burgess redux

Sholto Byrnes on the Malaysian transformation of John Wilson to Anthony Burgess.

Last year when I read Andrew Biswell's Burgess biography I had a list-like redaction of the book's ten most enchanting details; I will paste it in again here in honor of one of my favorite writers of all time (and I heartily recommend the Biswell book, it's a mesmerizingly good read).

Here goes:

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. Oddly, I'm not particularly fond of biography, but this post may have changed my mind. (I do appreciate Burgess, however, though I haven't read him in years.)

  2. Another author one cannot trust with biographical details is Hemingway. My God that man lied about his life to the point where no one knew what was true or made up.