Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Burgess Revisited

One wonders why the literary world should tire of such a luminous figure. Is the neglect because Burgess left behind too many books? Or that his particular brand of ugliness is not worth dwelling upon? We're willing to forgive Evelyn Waugh for his racism and sexism, in part because Waugh's talent was more readily apparent. Burgess, by contrast, was a man who made up dialects to fuel his narratives, merged Levi-Strauss's structuralist theory with Joycean experimentalism with M/F, and made no secret of his love of popular fiction. Perhaps such idiosyncrasy in books and in writing are far worse than an author's personal peccadilloes. But these reasons are not sufficient enough to discount a writer who toiled over writing that was original and unusual and different, and who deserves due reconsideration.
Edward Champion's post about the need to reconsider the work of Anthony Burgess on the Guardian blog is a sharp dig in the ribs for me because I have had scribblings waiting in my notebook about this very issue since Rob Spence's lecture at Universiti Malaya last month. Datuk Shan who was also there infallibly reminds me every time we meet that I promised to blog this! And I still owe thanks to Professor Lim Chee Seng who made the whole thing possible.

Rob (right) is the kind of academic I appreciate - fascinating, accessible, and very well-researched, and what follows is an extremely potted and pale version of his talk, sketched only in broadest outline and lacking all those examples and details that brought it to life that day at UM.

He talked about the neglect of Burgess in Britain, which is something I hadn't really realised (having been much more concerned about the neglect of Burgess in Malaysia!) noting that the author hasn't been awarded the kind of attention that British authors of a similar stature (e.g. example Graham Greene and Kingsley Amis) have received. And he never received a knighthood or award of the state in Britain, while the critics generally ignored him or were dismissive. Rob notes that there was always a body of opinion which was anti-Burgess.

Until his death, that is. Rob notes the instant revival of interest in Burgess when he passed away in 1993, with the obituary columns unanimous in their praise for him. Apparently the English papers rolled out their major writers including Malcolm Bradbury, A.S. Byatt.

Elsewhere it was a very different story. In Europe he was seen as an intellectual and he was honoured by the French, Italian and Monaco governments. (His most highly regarded work in Europe is Napoleon Symphony: A Novel in Four Movements.) In the US he was a distinguished visiting professor, someone able to stand shoulder to shoulder with the giants of American literature.

What were the reasons for this neglect in Britain?

First of all, he was perceived as an outsider. He had only lived 16 years in the UK after he left the army, mainly because of British tax laws. He also deliberately excluded himself from literary circles which was probably a contributory factor to the pejorative tone with which his works were met in the press.

Then there is the question of the size of his output. Burgess' sheer productivity (he wrote over 30 novels alone!), seemed to annoy many people, and as Rob says, this suggests differences in literary culture. There is the feeling that if you produce that much stuff it can't be all that good.

Rob describes Burgess as very much a "writer for hire" (churning out not only fiction but also film scripts, reviews, criticism, translation, even at one point a company brochure) but says that he feels that Burgess' fictional output was of a consistently high quality. The author had a strict routine of writing 2, 000 words a day and seldom needed to revise his work.

There is apparently still much unpublished material and we can expect some posthumous novels, as well as a revival of interest in Burgess' musical compositions which are also felt to be very important. So, it seems, we have much more to look forward to.

Let me just leave you with the only bit of video footage of Burgess talking I could find on Youtube. He's discussing pop music and modern culture, and this interview from the '60's seems quaintly outdated now, although what he's actually saying holds every bit as true today.


Rob Spence said...

Sharon - I'm honoured! I'd forgotten you had taken those pictures at the university.
Yes, I found the Guardian piece a little odd, and rather ill-informed. They need a Burgess expert...

bibliobibuli said...

isn't it interesting though, the great renewal of interest? it makes me very happy.

Greenbottle said...

after mckk mr wilson went to teach in my home town, kota bharu. does anyone know if he described his stay there in any of his books?

it would be surprising if he did not visit GOLOK the infamous Thai malaysia border town which is just 40 km away and mention it anywhere.

according to lonely planet this little town has 38 hotels compared to my home town which does not even have ten, and these mostly catered to one thing.Sex industry! and mostly for people coming from the malaysia wilson would love this place.

...and the place is still doing roaring business despite the current problem in the muslim south and the occassional bombings ...