Death often inspires the most remarkable hyperbole. At the memorial service for Anthony Burgess in 1994, novelist William Boyd eulogized the author of A Clockwork Orange as “a genius,” “a prodigy, a daunting and awesome one,” who “would compose a string quartet in the ten minutes he allowed himself between finishing a novel and writing a monograph on James Joyce,” whose “polymorphous abilities are genuinely amazing.”
High praise indeed. Yet, Mr. Boyd wasn’t finished, Mr. Burgess, he said, was “one of our great comic novelists.” Boyd gave, by way of example, that off-used line from one of the Enderby novels. This was the line with which Burgess proved (allegedly for a bet) he could write a sentence where the word “onions” appears three times.
‘Then—instead of expensive mouthwash—he had breathed on Enderby—bafflingly—(for no banquet would serve, because of the redolence of onions, onions) onions.’
Hardly a knee-slapper, rather the kind of literary snobbishness that epitomizes Burgess, and by association Mr. Boyd.
Burgess was low comedy. He was for the cheap fart jokes, like Dudley Moore when competing against the loquacious comic invention of Peter Cook on Derek and Clive, or like the trademark raspberry (“Bronx Cheer”) used by Goon Harry Secombe when confronted with the manic genius of Spike Milligan.
Burgess’s idea of comedy was to have a dog called the n-word (The Doctor is Sick), or a “hero” poet (Enderby) writing his verse (blast) on the toilet; or where Shakespeare is cuckolded by his brother and catches the clap from his “Dark Lady” (Nothing Like the Sun)
Though I like Burgess, I would hardly call his work comic. Too often his books present an author more interested in flashing his learnedness to an audience, rather than his imagination—which is why his books lack emotional resonance, and his characters rarely have an interior life.
Burgess always wanted to be seen as smarter than everyone—when readers pointed out to the master the mistakes in his magnum opus Earthly Powers, Burgess claimed he had deliberately included these errors to see who would discover them, which is like ye olde Thelwell cartoon of the riding instructor who when thrown by his horse, asked his pupils, “Which one of you spotted my deliberate mistake?”
Perhaps aware of this lack, Burgess was usually quick to take offense—watch any interview and he types himself as the victim, the Catholic in a oppressive-Protestant society, a northerner in a London-centric world, a student from a red-brick university rather than the hallowed groves of Cambridge or Oxford. Burgess is Jimmy Porter, full of petty grievances against the world. Which all makes for an interesting character, and author, but not a great one.
Burgess’s best known novel is A Clockwork Orange, which became an international success once it had been filmed by Stanley Kubrick. Burgess came to hate it and told Playboy in 1971, of all his books it was the one he liked least. But without A Clockwork Orange would anyone have taken an interest in Burgess?
The secret code contained in Burgess’s ‘A Clockwork Orange’, after the jump…