Book Review

Anthony Burgess: A Life

Roger Lewis.
Faber & Faber, 2002.
434 Pages.
ISBN 0571204929; Hardcover £20.00 [
Browse/Purchase UK]

Review by Tim Conley

To anyone who has read, say, three or more of the many books of Anthony Burgess, the author’s faults are obvious. Burgess can be pedantic, especially when it comes to language (nearly any language); his characters tend to be Menippean ciphers struggling against a world of ignorance and violence, not always above making creaky liberal statements; his debts to the novelists and poets he most admires, particularly Joyce, are considerable and at times more than he can afford. And no one, even those who only recognize the title A Clockwork Orange, should be surprised to hear that, given this writer’s overwhelming output of written pages, some works are conspicuously inferior to others.
Roger Lewis has assembled a book that makes these same obvious points at far greater length, much more vindictively, with plenty of repetition, and without any charm. Frequently he tells us that it does not take “a Viennese witch doctor” and “you don’t have to be Melanie Klein” to understand his subject: “a psychologist would explain him in a jiffy.” Lewis takes rather longer than that to tell us how rotten a writer, how lousy a musician, and how absolutely and irredeemably awful a person Burgess was. Burgess is variously “ridiculous,” “a lazy sod,” and “a complete fucking fool” (italics in the original). If there is a concise word (Burgess would know it) for the opposite of hagiography, it might apply to this carping, cavilling, snide exercise. I remember thinking that James Atlas’s life of Saul Bellow was an embarrassing Oedipal farce, but Lewis at work here is like nothing so much as an adolescent publicly masturbating on the exhumed corpse of his father, and thinking this performance the acme of wit.
The book opens with two memorial service notices from The Times set side by side, one service for Philip Larkin in 1986, the other for Burgess in 1994. The first includes “Mr and Mrs A Burgess” among the attendants, though according to Lewis, “wherever [Burgess] was that day, he was not in Westminster Abbey.” Why is this important? Lewis compares – in the least rigorous sense of that verb – this textual illusion to the scene in Earthly Powers in which a youthful Kenneth Toomey is seduced by the poet George Russell at the very date and time at which, in Ulysses, Russell is said to be in Dublin’s National Library. (Lewis does not make the connection, logical to a devoted reader of Joyce, between these phenomena and the errors in the newspaper accounts of the funeral attendants later in Ulysses, but I’ll get to Lewis’s familiarity with Joyce shortly.) “By a neat coincidence, almost too good to be true,” twitters Lewis, “though I myself was listed in The Times as having been present at Burgess’s own memorial service... I, too, was actually elsewhere.”
We thus glean two instructive points about Lewis’s enterprise from its beginning, and I’d like to examine them at length, as the two flanks of this review. One is that the biographer, while everywhere disparaging Burgess for distorting life in fiction, himself maintains only the flimsiest of distinctions between the two. That Burgess was specifically somewhere else at the time of the Larkin memorial, a detail that ought to be dear to a biographer worthy of the name, is incidental to the literary resonances and, more importantly, the chance to imply, however slightly, that Burgess is scurrilous, untrustworthy, and vile. What Lewis does not know (like “wherever” Burgess may have been on this day) is not worth knowing, or even checking, because in all likelihood he was probably up to some despicable thing: perhaps, like the fictional Russell, molesting a minor, or else composing one of his “dreadful” symphonies. These, for Lewis, are equivalent offenses: Burgess’s work is crummy because he was a crummy person, and (pardon the pun) vice versa. This principle is the vicious circle that serves as the book’s tautological argument.
Boasting less than five pages of other sources, Lewis relies mostly on Burgess’s own novels. For him, the novels are all autobiographical and the opinions of the principal characters may be taken as those of the author. As intriguing avenues of research appear, Lewis either dangles a rhetorical question, usually quite stupid (“did he ever kiss a girl?”), resigns after little or no effort (if he did kiss girls, they would have been “all prostitutes, all impossible to trace”), or is inexplicably oblivious to them: when in 1981 Burgess recalls his father’s days as a piano-player in a pub called the Golden Eagle and says “I don’t know whether the pub is still there,” Lewis attaches a half-page footnote about the pub presented in The Pianoplayers but does not take up the unresolved point about its real existence.
A substantial amount of Lewis’s book is given to refuting the two volumes of “confessions,” Little Wilson and Big God and You’ve Had Your Time, by singling out errors and discrepancies. This is done with the least grace possible. While at it, the biographer injects several howlers of his own. “I think [Burgess] hated being a human being,” Lewis writes,

and he was only to be happy inside his head. ‘Books are heavenly,’ wrote Marlowe. ‘Lines, circles, letters, and characters: Ay, these are those that Faustus most desires’ – Burgess too. When Enderby is told that literature is about the emotions, he retorts, ‘Oh very much no. Oh very very very much no and no again. Poetry is made out of words.’ Of course it isn’t – poetry and art are manufactured from what Macbeth calls ‘the current strong, obscure and deep, / The central stream of what we feel indeed’ – which is what language is called upon to represent; but this is an interesting indication of how Burgess saw his job, and why his work often sounds like a translation – not quite alive.

Neither of these quotations is correct: the word “schemes” is missing from Faustus’s speech, and unless Matthew Arnold (who wrote about “the noiseless current”) was known to his friends as Macbeth, the above may be taken as “an interesting indication” in its own right. Lewis stoops to correct Burgess on a Blake allusion where correction does not seem necessary, but on the very next page, when he explains how Burgess “seems to know none of” the salient facts about Molly Bloom, he gets her son’s name wrong.
Quotations get thrown around altogether too casually, and when Lewis isn’t simply competing with Burgess for erudition, there are many instances of words attributed to Burgess himself that he may not have spoken or written at all. Lewis likes to ridicule, parrot, and distort His Master’s Voice. Take his account of Burgess’s racism. “Burgess wasn’t much of a one for brotherly love,” writes Lewis, because he “never had any time or respect for the concept of black or ethnic studies.” In case such a glaring non-sequitur seems insufficiently ad hominem, Lewis quickly follows it up with imputations that could be included as elementary examples in a student’s textbook entry on libel. Burgess “just didn’t get it” when he had an argument with a black timpanist who, Lewis says, “you know Burgess is longing to call an uppity nigger.” The racism that is in evidence in Burgess’s account of this argument (“like many blacks, he insisted he had a natural sense of rhythm”) is upstaged by an invention, an italicized phrase that is repeated for good measure. Even Lewis’s own “titting about” with the question of whether his book is biography or critical study can neither exempt him from the need to address what he finds or justify the mudslinging fabrications. This is very ugly and immature stuff.
Let me go back to the two memorial service absences to evince the second key element to this book, though it may already be plain enough by now. Roger Lewis’s Anthony Burgess is first and foremost about Roger Lewis. The book’s anecdotal prologue tells of Lewis waiting with Richard Ellmann, his dissertation supervisor, for the arrival of Burgess at Oxford railway station. (Lewis admits that he “wrote not one word” of the dissertation, though he insinuates that this was Ellmann’s fault.) Lewis thereby situates himself as a character worth comparing with the prolific Burgess, on the one hand, and the author of what Burgess and many others consider the supreme literary biography of the twentieth century (James Joyce) on the other. In his campaign to trump Ellmann and to vilify – again, this is too weak and genteel a word – Burgess, Lewis keeps the echoes reverberating as desperately as he can, winding up his hateful narrative with a juvenile parody of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy (“‘Yes, John,’ I said. ‘Yes!’”) and capping everything with a Joycean sign-off: “Gozo, 1982 – Herefordshire, 2002.”
That’s twenty years, longer than it took Joyce to write either Ulysses or Finnegans Wake, and indicative of a working schedule that is the complete opposite of Burgess’s. Twenty years of sour grapes and stewed prunes, twenty years of disappointment and bile, twenty years of disorganized accumulation. Lewis spews malevolent opinions, many of which begin “My problem with...” Lewis thus has a lot of problems, one of which is the sad truth that he is trapped in a world filled with people who are not nearly as funny as he is (“My problem with Stanley Kubrick is that he had no sense of humour”). Lewis fumes about Burgess – note the use of the present tense here – “Who does he think he is?” The only palpable answers we get to such a question concern the biographer.
Highly irritating digressions abound in Anthony Burgess, a great many of them of questionable relevance. A digression about John Bayley (“my tutor at Oxford, taking over when Ellmann pegged out from motor neurone [sic] disease”), one of the few people in the world Lewis does not despise, prompts a lengthy footnote on his late wife, Iris Murdoch, and how bad the film Iris was. Here is part of a completely other footnote, the ostensible subject of which may be pseudonyms, but it’s hard to be sure:

Other pressing issues: why am I bored by Ruth Rendell yet think Barbara Vine the equal of Dame Iris? Dame Iris, by the way, hated being officially gazetted as Dame Iris Bayley. ‘Murdoch is my name,’ she said to me fiercely. Burgess kept calling le Carré (born John Cornwell) John the Square, as if there was a Masonic association. I don’t regard the Martin Amis/John Self games in Money as being of any significance – sub-Nabokovian pseudo-conundrums by a writer with nothing to say. There used to be a man, by the way, who went around London pretending to be Stanley Kubrick...

There’s more, of course, but that’s surely enough. The licence of “by the way” is liberally taken to sneer at writers like Amis, Clive James, and Paul Theroux (among others), at academics generally, at movies Lewis doesn’t like, and, wherever possible, at Burgess. At one point Lewis notes that he’s never understood the Aristotelian concept of catharsis in tragedy, that he’s never felt “purged” by the sight of so many bodies fallen upon a stage. This for me is the saddest thing about this wretched book: Lewis cuts down every quality in Burgess he deplores with more severe variants of the same (under the heading “personality” for the “Burgess, Anthony” entry in his book’s index, the subheadings include the following: affectation, anger, apparent wide knowledge, boastfulness, callousness, curious views, egotism, emotional neediness, humourless, liar, megalomania, misanthropy, obstinacy, pretentiousness, and vanity), but he does not feel “purged.” Bad enough the wholly emetic exercise he calls Anthony Burgess is this long; it is also futile.
Burgess, in his work and personality, represents a unique and energetic conflict between the artist and the hack. His industriousness and erudition make for a puzzling combination, the incredulous responses to which are admiring or derisive – sometimes both. This double identity is not easily accommodated by readers who prefer one, and Roger Lewis, the spiteful hack who has previously published biographies of Peter Sellers and Laurence Olivier (pity them) but no novels of his own, makes a dismal spectacle. If there is anything to be said for his book, it is that it makes the anticipation of Andrew Biswell’s forthcoming biography of Burgess that much stronger.

--Tim Conley
8 January 2003

Additional Information

Anthony Burgess Page -- The Libyrinth's page on Anthony Burgess. Penned by Tim Conley, it is available at the Scriptorium.


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