Comynycacyon betwyxt Burgess, and our sauyour Jhesu

Little Wilson and Big God

The autobiography of someone so prolific and polymathic as Burgess inevitably carries with it heavy baggage, a retinue of expectations and assumptions and questions that must be answered. From his very first disclaimer, though, Burgess both shifts the ground away from his ego and towards his experiences and history, and at the same time assures us that this will be no whitewash. If this is to be a redrafting at the hands of Memory---inevitable, and announced as such, following the destruction of most of his papers at the hands of Malaysian termites---then there will be no clear intent to sanctify the author.

Every wart on Anthony Burgess' head has been counted. Most of them by the man himself, and some fifty percent of those in the first half of his autobiography, Little Wilson and Big God. Generous with the reader and cynical of his own literati excesses, Burgess is loveable from the first flash of his wicked humour. He's a self-acknowledged fudger, if not exactly an outright fraud, but he can both acknowledge it and get over his Catholic guilt at the fact. The master skimmer, faker in part, wins in the end because of the knowledge, wit and research---let's refrain from using the word "genius"---that he needn't fake: his intellectual laziness and intellectual robustness together making him so exciting and infuriating.

We follow Burgess through his troubled paternal relationship, terminated in his childhood, and his experiences at the hands of his step-family. He makes it to university, but is hardly the model pupil. Arguably his extracurricular interests save him as a human being and, spurred on by the alternatives---a teacher in the army and at a school, and various jobs in the colonies---and the sudden appearance of serious illness, his hubris, life history and willingness to just sit and write set him on the career path we now know him to have chosen.

All the time we are conscious of Burgess analysing himself, prising open old wounds for us to see, ashamed but not faltering in the task of the biographer who, even if the subject is himself, and for all his desire to paint for posterity, respects the audience he expects for his book just enough to be honest. Even if you allow for the shameless polyamory of his marital life (on both sides), he treated his wife shabbily, neglect which he clearly believed led to her eventual descent into alcoholism and death from a liver complaint. Here is no saint, no god, no perfect writing machine.

You can argue, as Roger Lewis does in his recent biography of Burgess, that such disingenuousness is bluff and counterbluff ad nauseam. That is not the point. Nor is it the point that Lewis' work is mean-spirited, poorly researched or simply untrue, although it is. The plain fact is that Burgess writes well: he engages, he mocks, his turns of phrase are not so elegant as to be stylized, nor so clumsy as to be gauche. Such writing sits on solid foundations of artistry, skill, knowledge and learning. Lewis might want to stop crying naked! at the knowingly unclothed emperor and learn a thing or---maybe, just maybe, if he concentrates very hard---even two.