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Unearthly Powers
Anthony Burgess, Disinterred

Big Wilson and Little God: Burgess and son Andrea (who died in London in 2002)

It’s a shame that so many great writers die twice: first the flesh, then the books. Who reads the eminently readable Anthony Burgess anymore, barely ten years after his death? He wrote so prolifically during the second half of the last century that he was his own literary solstices. He started writing, he loved to say, when he was nearing forty in 1959 and been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, as he tells the story Lynn is his first wife, drinking and adultery buddy:

“Inoperable? Tumor? I feel all right. The sea air is doing me good. You too.
“They said that feeling all right has nothing to do with it. They give you at the most a year to live.”
“Nonsense”
“That’s what they say. They seem to know all about it.”
“I don’t believe it, I can’t.”
“That’s what they say.”
“Nothing in writing?”
“Nothing. But they spoke out loud and clear. Well, no. They muymbled, rather.”
“So you have to prepare for a widow’s existence.”
“It looks like it.”
“You’ll need money.” I did not really believe this prognosis. Death, like the quintessence of otherness, is for others. But if the prognosis was valid, then I had been granted something I had never had before: a whole year to live. I would not be run over by a bus tomorrow, nor knifed on the Brighton racetrack. I would not choke on a bone. If I fell in the wintry sea I would not drown. I had a whole year, a long time. In that year I had to earn for my prospective widow. No one would give me a job (‘How long do you propose staying with us?’ — ‘A year. You see, I’m going to die at the end of it.’ — ‘No future in it, old boy’). I would have to turn myself into a professional writer. Work for the night is coming, the night in which God and little Wilson, now Burgess, would confront each other, if either existence sighed and put paper in the typewriter. ‘I’d better start,’ I said.
And I did.

Those, incidentally, are the final lines of “Little Wilson and Big God: Being the First Part of the Autobiography” of Burgess. Needless to say, he never died. At least not yet. He produced three novels in that last year of his, then kept producing, his opus adding up to somewhere around fifty volumes, screenplays, television series (including, amazingly, “Jesus of Nazareth,” the Franco Zefirelli extravaganza, a sort of Catholic “Cassandra Crossing”). Along the way he wrote that “Clockwork Orange,” for which he is now exclusively, if ever, known. I made a point to leave that book of his last on my list. I’ve yet to read it. But I’ve read many others. I love the man for lines like this (these taken from “You’ve Had Your Time,” the second part of the autobiography, and ridiculously out of print):

  • “The lirterary innovators have always been bourgeois with a tendency to fascism.”
  • “The Italians are visually troped; Music to them is only the tenor voice and its sexual thrust.” (which, come to think of it, is like calling all of Italian womankind nappy-headed hos: Burgess had his mean Imus streak in spades.)
  • “ France, the land that invented chauvinism.”
  • “There is nothing basically wrong with cannibalism.”
  • “The New Yorker, that rather boring and very provincial magazine.”
  • “… Hemingway, the author of two good novels but a bad man.” (In “99 Novels: The Best in English Since 1939,” Burgess gave Hemingway two spots, for “For Whom the Bell Tolls” in 1940 and “The Old Man and the Sea” in 1952).
  • “Give up womanizing and concentrate on work.”
  • And this from “Little Wilson and Big God”: “The novel, the only literary genmre for failed symphonists." Burgess had always wanted to be a composer, not a writer.
  • “Coitus interruptus, which every young man thinks he can manage, leads to gin and hot baths and nail-biting waiting for the salvatory flag.”

The greatest pleasure in burgess is his use of the language, richer than most English or American writers working today with the exception of Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie, and his dare to the readers. When I first read the autobiography in 1986 and 1990 I made a list of a few words I didn’t then, nor now, understand, knowing that in April 2007 I’d be disinterring them in this homage. The note cards are in front of me, and bear the scribble of someone else’s handwriting of attempted definitions, obviously someone trying to impress with what he, or more likely she, knew; not many: “urbifaction” (although he gives it his own definition: “The true art of Italy was urbifaction: they knew how to build towns”), “nesciently,” “apotropaic,” “sphingine,” “doxy” (that one the mysterious scribbler did know: “morally loose female” is written next to the word, which leads me to believe that I got along fine with the scribbler). I could go on.

There’s nothing rational about this spasm of Burgessiana. But it was necessary.

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