Anthony Burgess: Artist of Sorts

A clockwork orange_wl (1)John Anthony Burgess Wilson (25 February 1917 – 22 November 1993) was, among other things, first and foremost a prolific writer. Novelist, composer, librettist, essayist, semanticist, translator and critic, Burgess published over 50 books in a career spanning almost four decades. He wrote tirelessly, and moved from genre to genre, with farce in Honey for the Bears, to gritty realism in The Worm and the Ring, to the Enderby series, which are renowned comedies. His 1985 is both a convincing dystopia and an original reading of Orwell. The End of the World News is a combination of apocalypse, Trotsky and Freud. Earthly Powers, shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1980, brought him closest to great critical acclaim.

His best-known work, A Clockwork Orange (1962), paints a future of bleakness and unhindered violence. It follows Alex, a teenager who associates Beethoven with violence and is a part of a gang that murders, rapes and robs without hesitation, growing under the suppression of a tyrannical, autocratic State. Initially, the novel attracted mixed reviews. While most praised the work for its linguistic stylization, they were also disturbed by the irredeemable and violent nature of the characters and the events.

Born in a humble Catholic Lancashire family, Burgess graduated from Manchester University in 1940. He joined the British Army Education Corps where he served as musical director of a special services unit, entertaining troops in Europe. In 1959, he was diagnosed with brain tumour, invalided out of the teaching job he had in Borneo, and given a year to live. This was when he adopted the pen name Anthony Burgess, and the writer was born. The diagnosis however, was erranous, and he regained his health gradually.

Burgess identified himself as a musician first and a novelist second, and he wished others would do the same. He considered music to be a purer form of art, with no direct connection to human events.

In an interview with The Paris Review, Burgess showed great surprise at the accusations of being too prolific or allusive a writer. He never equated quality with quantity; writing a lot didn’t mean a writer is a great one, but it also doesn’t mean he cannot be a great one. Quantity, for Burgess, is neither addictive nor reductive, and he claims that he has “always written with great care and even some slowness.” But Burgess’ art was not quite the fountainhead of satisfaction that a masterpiece is traditionally thought to be for the artist. He was constantly editing and reediting his works, and sometimes he would get irritated with his creation and shelve it. He agreed with Georges Simenon, who said, “Writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness. I don’t think an artist can ever be happy”, and explained his beliefs:

“Yes, Simenon’s right. My eight-year-old son said the other day: “Dad, why don’t you write for fun?” Even he divined that the process as I practice it is prone to irritability and despair… The anxiety involved is intolerable…I think, if I had enough money, I’d give up writing tomorrow.”

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