Anthony Burgess

I came to Anthony Burgess only recently.

Wait, that’s not true.

Back in high school I read A Clockwork Orange, of course, but it is Kubrick’s film that I recall now. Somehow a copy of The End of the World News was also in my hands. A line from that book has stuck with me all the years even as the story has faded away: “It is not an art, it is not a science, it is a way of life.”

What is? I can’t remember. I only remember the formulation.

Fast-forward a couple of decades and I’ve moved to Southeast Asia and am slowly absorbing all the books—history, biography, fiction—about the place that I can.

It was then that I truly discovered Burgess. The Long Day Wanes is his dazzling trilogy of post-war (soon to be post-empire) Malaya, in which he covers pretty much every aspect of the place—the culture, the peoples, the British presence, Communists in the jungle, hot love affairs in steamy, seedy Kuala Lumpur. I doubt Occidental people can ever fully grasp Oriental people, their religions and customs and ideas of “cleverness” that seem to us more like cheating than smartness, but we can observe and make notes then write narratives that incorporate the symbols and totems of the landscape and culture…and their wonderful names…and their incomparable food and sex.

The books are Burgess’ first published fiction; the tone is of casual indifference, the haughty disinterest, of the precocious young novelist. He does not inhabit the minds of characters except the male British ones (those he can most relate to), but his felicity with words—both English and the occasional Chinese and Malay that get tossed in—bring the characters to life. The descriptions are vibrant and for those who experienced the place, even at 60 years remove, the frisson of recognition was palpable. The Malaya that Burgess described was still there in the Singapore and Malaysia that I was experiencing, albeit sometimes hidden in nooks, cocooned behind the veneer of glass skin buildings and rhetoric of progress (not everywhere: to walk into Burgess’s world, visit the Coliseum Café in KL, unchanged since his own days in the city).

To test my own experience between text and reality, I taught the second book in the trilogy, “The Enemy in the Blanket,” in a lit class in Singapore.  Would my students also see the present reflected in the half-century-old book as I did?

Yes, so much so that they found it dull. They’d rather read about glass skin buildings and progress.

In fact the reading relationship ran opposite to my own (I should have anticipated this): they were reading the book to learn what Occidentals thought about them—the microscope was reversed.

The question that was asked in a seminar that stays with me: ‘why are white people in the tropics so obsessed with sex?’

‘It’s the heat’, I explained, lamely and only partly truthfully.

If the arcana of 1950s Malaya, no matter how vividly described, is not your cup of tea, and if you read only one Burgess novel, make it Earthly Powers. Published in 1980, it is his Gesamtkunstwerk, encompassing all his proclivities and preoccupations and abilities as a writer. Why this book rarely if ever appears on those obnoxious “top 100 novels of 20th century” type lists is a mystery to me.

The novel’s opening line is famous: “It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.” If you need to drop some Burgess knowledge at a cocktail party, hit ‘em with that.

It is accepted that the book is largely a parody of Somerset Maugham, who was homosexual. If you’re a clever undergraduate studying British novelists then you probably could trace some sort of anxiety of influence, son-overtaking-the-father Freudian type thing as the energizing mechanism of Burgess’s finest work.

You would also miss the point.

A sweeping panorama of the twentieth century that takes in everything from Modern European artists to Tamil black magic to the Jim Jones massacre, Earthly Powers nails the reader to the cross of recent history by exposing the fragility of it all. As with all great novels, this one bursts the bubbles of myth and hyperbole with which the modern world likes to shroud events of the recent past.

Here the youthful voice, the disinterested narrator, is rendered comic by being embodied by a gay novelist of limited ability. Burgess was himself not only hetro but something of a ladies man if not an outright male pig; that he can sympathetically create the voice and enter the psyche of someone so different to himself is a testament to his powers as a mature writer. That he then mocks both that voice and his ability to embody it in the very novel you are reading allows him to run rings around the far more precious “post-modern” writers who were approaching their zenith in the late 1970s.

If you want to learn facts about his life, the Wikipedia page on Burgess is pretty good. If you want to experience what a lifetime of travel and study can do to a man born to write novels, read Earthly Powers before you die.

 

 

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